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A Walk Beneath the Great Trees

“…it is clear that the runway no longer reaches a far horizon.”

February 8, 2017   I love trees. “Together we will walk beneath the great trees” is tattooed on my left arm. It is from our wedding vows. The marriage is great. The arm is failing. The bad arm is also part of this story. But back to trees. It is February 2017 and I am in Big Basin Redwood Park to see some giants. I am new to the park and discover that some  groves are deep within. They are found on an 11-mile circuit. This is a fair hike for someone who has a dysfunctional left leg.

Bad arm, bad leg, bad hand, bad balance. The neurologists are still reserved in their assessment. Until symptoms emerge more clearly they are calling this mess Motor Neuron Disease. ALS is “possible”. Other neuro-muscular ailments are also considered. It is likely a condition that is untreatable and incurable. One Neurologist kindly suggested that I avoid the web pages. No finite answers but good counsel.

The decline is as steady as my old Timex. I don’t see change through days, weeks, or even months. But when I roll back a year the decline is clear as day. A year ago, I would be down that trail. But today, I have a decision. Do I take the eleven-mile trek? The disquieting sense of constraint is fed by physical fallibility. The liberating freedom to plunge forward, burning the fuel of strength, resolve, and skill is fading into a gray apprehension. Now I am on the slippery slope. Optimism always overshadowed fear. But now, optimism has to be tempered with judgement. Where is the sweet spot?

I take the hike. I feel great and it should have been easy. Instead, the weather created an epic, unforeseen maze of challenges. It was the winter of drought-breaking rain. The trail, hugging steep hillsides,  was washed away in places. Many a naked traverse crossed a 60-degree slope of loose stone and soil. Small plants and tufts of grass provide tenuous handholds. It’s a long way down. The saturated ground caused a number of trees to fall. (A fallen redwood is no small obstacle.) A bridge was askew. Each obstacle was a test. I was mud-covered and afraid. After seven miles I turned back, opting to deal with known problems. Ultimately, it was a challenging fourteen-mile hike. Taking stock, I feel strong but recognize a growing set of limitations. And fear lingered as though atomized behind my eyes.

For the first time, it is clear that the runway no longer reaches a far horizon. A simple walk might be a blessing in a year.  A transition plan is needed. This plan could be a collection of journeys. Taken together, they will enable a great letting go, a sense that I’ve done what can be done. It is the journey to a realm of no regrets.

The context to this journey is deeply personal. It is a new consciousness nurtured by physical reduction.  Mindfulness takes center stage. Guiding values are clarified: independence, compassion, doggedness, optimism, reverence. These values will sustain me. But they also have to grow for the journey beyond this journey.

I have a comfort in ignoring advice, refuting medicine, and testing limits. I am pretty adept at assessing risk, predicting problems, devising workarounds and enduring some hardship. But I do this through my own filters, experiences and values. I anticipate the reservations of others. Ultimately, I form a response, “Why the hell not?”

My last “good year” beckons. I consider my physical loves: mountain-biking, hiking, paddling, and camping. These interests interweave into mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands, lakes. There will be a series of trips. Each will be an exploration, a contemplation, and a physical stretch. Most of all, these journeys will feed the medicine of memories.

 

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Dreaming

My dream catcher is an erratic gatherer of small notations, marginal acquaintances, and surreal oddities. It aggregates these things and restages them in settings of long ago. Somehow, interesting stories emerge.  There is an unruly cohesiveness.

Dream experts would say that I’m not good at finishing things. Many dreams involve musical instruments that I can’t play or being underdressed in front of large crowds. It is true. I put things off until the pressure becomes unrelenting. And then I put it off further.  This story is being written while I am supposed to be producing content for a program under construction and behind schedule.

Another oddity is a longish news cycle. My dreams don’t include events of the day. Content is more likely to be mined from previous days. It is akin to eating leftovers.  It takes extra days for the flavors to blossom. I run behind in life and in dreams.

My dream catcher is kindly. It chooses not to recognize a life with ALS. I run, swim, and bike. There may be some weird distortions. But I am out there moving about even if I am occasionally bare-assed in front of a crowd.

Some guy with a Leadville 100 T-shirt boarded a flight that I was on. Dream catcher took note.  In that subsequent dream, I was a race leader. Not the wheelchair division, either. On my bike, riding with the swiftness that could only have been a dream.

There is never a disappointment when I awaken to a different reality.  I lived the life of strong and accomplished movement. It is all relative and I still have a few moves. On a good day, I get out of bed without awakening Allison and asking for a nudge. My dream catcher observes. Exiting the bed with a bit of grace will be in my dreams someday. It will a pleasant memory.

A New Set of Wheels

Within the archives of male mythology there lives a notion that men spend most waking hours thinking only about two or three topics. One topic is cars. Not long ago, my master plan included a Dodge Pro-Master high-top work van. It would be diesel powered and have a very functional camper configuration. Most importantly, it would be stealthy and enable a bit of sleep almost anywhere. Time not spent in the Pro-Master would be in a Volkswagen Golf R. The R is an inconspicuous hatchback coupe with a 300 hp motor. Even the insurance company wouldn’t know the difference.

A fellow can dream, can’t he?

Attention density is a stubborn characteristic. Even with an accelerating understanding of ALS, I nurtured these car dreams. Multiple falls and the surrender of small dignities eventually built a case for new strategies. I do now have a van. Instead of a clever camper configuration it has a wheelchair lift.  But it is stealthy.  My need for speed is appeased by a power wheelchair having a top speed of 7 mph. It is simply a different contemplation of fast lane. I will probably affix an inconspicuous “R” name badge. Irony is the root of humor. I can still have some fun.

The need for mobility is resounding.  Perhaps it started with the Sunday drives of my childhood. Each week the family shared some ritualized windshield time. My father’s good intentions waning as three boys squabbled in the backseat. Mom lit up a Kent while imploring Dad to relax. And the next Sunday we all piled back into the Chevy wagon. Perhaps this was the precursor to screen time. Passive viewing of the mid-century landscape evolved into passive viewing of some crazy ass-hole in a YouTube video.  But Dad was better than YouTube. He would swear at lesser drivers, slow down to moo at small herds of cows, and allow us to throw small bits of litter out the window.  It was even fun when he would threaten to beat his restless backseat tribe.   His humor always returned when a dairy bar arose on the horizon.

I am thrilled when Allison is setting out for errands and invites me to come along. Loading and unloading is chore and Allison does it with grace and generosity. I have become the faithful dog, encoded with an entitlement to forever ride along.  I keep my head inside the car for the most part. And I’ve noticed that strangers are loathe to scratch my ears and comment on my good behavior while awaiting Allison’s return.

And then we drive away, and I gulp in the scenery like it is water and I am stranded in a desert. It is definitely about the journey and not the destination. After all, I have the ending figured out. Until then, it is all about wheels in motion. I can even re-imagine my ten-year old self rolling through the Pennsylvania country-side. An aggrieved voice from the front seat asking, “do you kids want me to pull this car over?” I imagine my forever reply, “No, Dad. Let’s keep rolling”.

Tool Time

 June 28, 2019  I was always all-in on tool acquisition, supported by a belief that good tools meant good work. The restoration and mastery of obscure hand tools reshaped my identity. Slicks, froes, and augers. Mallets made from tree trunks. Restoring a corner chisel with a blade as jagged as a cave man’s teeth. It was an endless cycle of search, acquire, and restore. Hours were spent crafting keen edges. More hours spent turning ash handles.

Fine tools fostered a deep, and at times, misplaced independence. They also provided a comfortable solitude.  Alone time became an easy habit. Old steel was quietly guided by kinesthetic wisdom. Visions born in quiet obsession guided resolute hands.

Last year this collection ended up in a box, sold to an earnest young fellow for modest dollars. His battered truck and the assurances of a good home sealed a sweet deal. Now I hire people.

With loss of tactile fluency words become the new tool set. But the forms of expression don’t have the restorable character of steel or wood.  Both writing and typing are soon slipping beyond the horizon. My voice is relatively clear but I notice slurring and I trip on certain letters.  This feels like a precursor to loss of speech. Now there is an urgency to maximize words while I can. I journal and blog.  Relationships have taken on new importance. There is a growing comfort in asking for things. (Allison has craftily noted that a sentence starting with “we” really means “you”. For example, “we need to take this garbage out.”)

I am aware that the river of words will turn rocky and then dessert dry.  The tool cycle will come full circle. Once again I will be in solitude, lost in thoughts and quiet obsessions. There is one significant difference. During the steel era, I escaped to my tools. In this new era, I will turn to the secure comfort of those around me. They will become tools by proxy. No need for keen edges. Love and understanding will do just fine.

Morning Stretch

June 5, 2019   I’m laid out on the cool floor, taking deep meditative breathes.  The river, just outback, is in early summer flow. It is just a trickle over mossy rocks. A restorative and time killing nap is a possibility. There are not a lot of options. The fall was sudden and I’m wriggling around checking for breaks and blood. An effort to rise creates a staccato beat of tremors in my left arm and leg. A moon landing is more likely than a kneeling position. I’m an industrial-sized sack of flower with a beating heart.

I hear downstairs neighbors moving about. My mobile phone rings from another room. Could they be curious about my crash? I go back to deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Slowly, very slowly, I push myself backwards, sliding along the floor.  It is really just something to do. Regardless of the endpoint, I’m not getting up. My intermediate concern is wrecking a new Syracuse University sweatshirt. These things aren’t cheap.

I have crossed an ALS divide.  For the first time, there is no workaround, no plan B.  Not a single quadrant of my body can contribute to the cause. Still, there is a mite of humor.  My underwear are relatively clean. I’ve had breakfast so not likely to starve. And the dogs demonstrate their worthlessness with a “nothing to see here” attitude. I need Lassie, not these worthless curs.

For the first time, reality replaces the hypothetical.  A cavalier attitude about handrails and medical alerts, is combined with an overall underestimation of all that can go wrong. And that list is pretty fucking long. I lie there on the floor scrolling through these considerations. The hopelessness of the situation sparks a proactive resolve. Isn’t that the normal reaction? We become encased in a predictably nasty situation before considering preventive measures.

These contemplations are interrupted by the sound of my name. Gary, my good friend and downstairs neighbor has arrived. He is a thoughtful problem solver.  Ethan, our 18-year-old also arrives on the scene. Together they get me to my feet, restore the elemental bond with my walker, and determine that all is right. With head and feet in proper alignment, I head for the refrigerator. It’s lunchtime.  All that other stuff can wait. Until next time.

Get A Grip

May 28, 2019   In the life of a boy, the age-span of 9 to 11 is the entry point to the ass-hole years. It is too early for self-reflection and too late for parental influence. The mind is developed enough to run the reward versus consequence algorithm. Threats no longer matter. Our posse understood this new calculus and applied a quiet and imaginative resolve to bad behaviors. Only our football coach could reign us in. Unlike normal suburban dad/coaches, Mr. Z was a man not to be messed with. A shift worker at Roebling Cable, he was unshaven, chain-smoking, and heavily accented. He smelled of factory air, raw-onions, and stale tobacco. We were simultaneously in awe and in terror. His coaching tool-kit included a ray-gun stare and strings of guttural threats. (It took us a while to interpret “vuchan yeshalls”.) We won most of our games.

On multiple occasions, I coached boys of this age. Words alone could assert control. Channeling Mr. Z, I developed the grip of death. A hard squeeze of a bicep or collarbone could divert a misbehavior. I was good at it, but recognize jail-time as a consequence for this practice today. More than one young adult has pointed me out to his own child recalling the legend of “the grip”.

Now I’ve lost my grip. Glasses are dropped. Scissors veer off course. Socks droop around my ankles. Driving is a mystery due to an uncertain grip on the steering wheel. Yesterday I tried to open a bottle of seltzer. By the time I found channel lock pliers a canned beer became a better choice. Allison comes home to a debris field. I can’t bend over either.

I’ve also lost my un-grip. This I discovered disembarking from the 6 Train at Union Sq. in Manhattan.  Closer to home, this means a bad release point while tossing apple cores towards the trashcan. There is an odd dance while undressing. Clothing remains in my grip while limbs flail, trying to facilitate an exit. Letting go is a problem.

But letting go is what this new life is all about. Ruing the past, and mourning the undoable only accrues sadness and anger. And who needs that shit? Change is simply a process and there’s always a transition zone between what was and what lies ahead.  Letting go buys the ticket to the transition zone. A bit of resolve, good humor, and a solid plan gets you to the future. It is no longer independent work. This requires a fierce grip on the people you love. There is no letting go of these loyal and loving shepherds.

Headlines

May 15, 2019   I know I am not alone in producing headline-ready narrative when confronted with physical crisis. For example, Canoeist Perishes in Idaho Whitewater. Or, Incoherent Hiker Found Wandering the Grand Canyon. Among the more plausible, Local Father Electrocuted During Illegal Home Repairs. You get the point. Our inner narrative can be distracting while exploring the dark cave of “in over my head”.

Yesterday, I was making the perilous journey from the kitchen counter to the kitchen island. The distance is about 2 inches greater than my wingspan. This means that part of the trip takes place without support. I immediately saw the headline, Peterborough Man Takes Final Step.  It is headline note-worthy only to me. Another passage, among many as my physical life reverses its arc.

At a seafood restaurant in Maine we observed a newborn. The room was lit by his smiles and tiny movements. We observed the opening passage of a long physical journey. We think of this as a forward progression but forget that it can also reverse.  Slowly the motor neurons can quit lighting up. Steps aren’t taken, forks aren’t lifted, and pages aren’t turned.

But the motor neurons allow a bright inner narrative. Insights are still conjured, kindnesses still noted, and spring still returns.  At times, it will be headline worthy. And as in times past, the headlines will have an audience of one. I’m no longer in over my head. But I’m alive with a rollicking inner-story.  The headlines will tell a different tale; of a man at peace.

The Pill Rodeo

May 2, 2019   Tuesday is pill day, the vexing 20 minutes when I wrangle dozens of meds into a clever little pillbox marked with days of the week. Much of my dexterity is gone. I see fingers resembling Vienna sausages picking up small pebbles and placing them in tiny little compartments. My mantra, “what else would I be doing?”

There are a lot of pills. First there is Riluzole, a treatment for ALS. It is widely acknowledged to do very little. The retail price is $2000 a month. It is a tiny pill that I sometimes drop. Our ever-lurking Labrador Retriever quickly gobbles it up. It doesn’t do anything for her either. I also take baclofen, the spaghetti pill. It’s a muscle relaxant that prevents spasms. It also prevents walking because your muscles turn into linguine. EH 301 is an anti-aging supplement that apparently reversed ALS for some guy in Portugal. It is a FYITT, (Fuck yeah, I’ll Try That).  There is also turmeric for inflammation. Unlike all the expensive shit, I am convinced it actually works. I throw in ibuprofen for chronic back aches and to knock down the pain from the most recent broken rib. And a statin for my bad heart. (Like that matters anymore.)

My neurologist, a learned guy and noted researcher, suggests a stew of meds, supplements, and diet. Nothing specific, it’s a biology project. I am both the experiment and the control group.  In the name of science, I’ve also thrown Lifesavers into my stew. Cherry, lime, and orange. I vary the order hoping for the big breakthrough. Expectations are tempered to say the least. But I never miss a dose.  As the great Gretzky once said, “you can’t score on the shot you don’t take”.