A decade ago I met a young man who, like me, was a volunteer at a weeklong church camp for kids.
The father of several youngsters was extremely courageous.
One morning he told me almost matter-of-factly that he'd recently been diagnosed with ALS. I was somewhat familiar with the disease because I'd long been a fan of the heroic story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig. Though the young man didn't say as much, I knew that his diagnosis was a death sentence.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord. It has no known cure.
The disease usually progresses rapidly, and death can occur within three to five years of diagnosis. About 20% of patients survive more than five years, and 10% live beyond eight.
For my friend, it's now been 10 years. My wife and I switched churches several years after the summer camp, and I lost track of him. I hope he's beaten the odds.
He's been on my mind lately.
When we first met, I felt deep sympathy toward him. I must also confess to having felt guilt. How tragic, I thought, for a young man — not yet 40 — with young children, to have to deal with such a hopeless diagnosis. Why was he dying while I was blessed with good health?
I've learned that many of life's questions lack easy answers.
Amazingly, he told me that he was at peace with his circumstance. Silently, I compared the depth of his faith to mine. Like Gehrig, this young man was operating in the big leagues. By contrast, I was bumbling my way about some sandlot.
Five years after our encounter, I began to suspect that I had Parkinson's. My father had the disease, and I was familiar with its symptoms.
I wasn't caught by surprise a year later when my neurologist confirmed my suspicion. I'd presumed for many months that Parkinson's lurked in the recesses of my brain.
One of my first thoughts after my diagnosis was of my brave young friend with ALS. How, I wondered, was he doing? I suddenly felt connected to him.
I wasn't bitter. Unlike my friend, I was no longer a young man. I'd been permitted to see my four children grow up and was a grandfather several times over. I had no complaints. Most importantly, I knew God hadn't abandoned me.
ALS and Parkinson's are similar, though there are significant differences. Like ALS, Parkinson's is a progressive, chronic neurodegenerative disease that has no cure. The Parkinson's patient generally has more time than the ALS sufferer, however, and time is precious. The progression of Parkinson's can take 20 years or longer.
But both diseases — in a word — are ghastly.
Over a period of years I watched my vibrant father deteriorate and suffer an undeserved series of mental and physical indignities. Now, as I walk that path, I wonder if my journey will mirror his.
A good friend of mine, Bob Barry, is a fellow Parkinson's sufferer. Bob has written a poem that speaks of the inevitability of the disease. It also offers hope. I quote a passage:
Someday my lovely wife will help me out of bed and life will be gray, but not today.
Someday my whole body will shake and I will not be able to prevent it, but not today.
Someday I will shuffle about afraid to take a step, but not today.
Someday I will look in a mirror and wonder who I have become, but not today.
Today my God has given me a reason to love life like there is no tomorrow. There will be a "someday" some day, but not today.
One can spend his or her life worrying about somedays. But today is what we've got, and we're fools if we permit it to slip through our fingers.
Bob and my friend with ALS taught me that.