Yesterday, I told you that my husband’s Aunt Cleo wrote on the Christmas card this year. She said:
I read the Christmas letter she had enclosed, and it shook me to my core. My heart went numb.
Did I mention that there is a baseball player in this story? There is. And, Aunt Cleo has a lot in common with him. He was a baseball player from the 1930s, who would still have been famous to baseball fans, just for his athletic ability (he was The Iron Horse, the pride of the Yankees), but he got a “bad break” that ended his career. It also made his name recognizable to folks who don’t give a hang about baseball. That bad break was a disease.
Though it had first been recognized back in the 1850s, I guess he was the first famous person to get it, so we generally call the disease by his name: Lou Gehrig.
It seems that Aunt Cleo has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” This neuromuscular disease causes progressive muscle weakness which results in paralysis. The disease attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing motor neurons (which control the movement of voluntary muscles) to deteriorate and eventually die. Though most sufferers of the disease can still think quite clearly, their brains don’t send messages to their muscles, which gradually weaken and deteriorate.
ALS is a quick progressing, incurable, fatal disease.
Usually the disease strikes the extremities first; a person loses control of hands and feet. This isn’t the case with Aunt Cleo. The damned disease grabbed her by the throat — literally. When I called her in January, her soft Southern drawl was slurred (although she said she could still sing). By the time we visited in July, her sounds were unintelligible (except to her daughter, Kase) and she usually ate with a feeding tube. Aunt Cleo has a difficult time swallowing.
Now, y’all, if that were me I’d be utterly useless. I’d stand on a mountaintop screaming and shaking my fist at the heavens, angry at my Fate. But, Aunt Cleo has something else in common with Lou Gehrig. In his farewell speech to the Yankees, Gehrig said two sentences that astound me:
…today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth…I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.
Aunt Cleo would say pretty much the same thing, if she could speak. She can still write, and we used up reams of paper as we chatted. I could see that, if I had met her when she could still speak, she could talk my arm right off! She still drives her car (and, she’s a good driver — if you wrench the pen out of her hand so she doesn’t try to “talk.”). Though Cleo doesn’t eat in public much anymore (it’s just too difficult to chew food), that doesn’t stop her from gulping ice cream!
Cleo is active and inquisitive, and still a barrel of fun. I’ve never heard so many giggles. She is actively engaged in living every moment. In fact, right now she is planning the craft workshop she will give next fall at the Retirement Home where she lives. She is going to teach folks how to stamp greeting cards.
Cleo is lucky to have the patient support and love of her daughter, Kase, but she also has scores of friends who keep in touch. While we visited, a friend of hers dropped by to see her. He was a young man whose wife had once taught in the same school with Cleo. He told her with relief, “I dropped by your house and saw it was empty and thought we had lost you! I’m so glad I found you!” His affection and admiration for her showed clearly on his face. I don’t have to wonder why he loves her.
And, Cleo has faith. I’m looking at her words on one of the writing pads. It says:
I try to see the idea, “God has given me this for a reason.” A lot of people do NOT believe that. They say, “You weren’t born to have this disease.” But, I do feel that there is a divine purpose behind this.
ALS is a disease that slowly steals a person’s dignity. Perhaps, Aunt Cleo”s “purpose” is to show the rest of us how to fully live our lives with dignity in the face of everything. That’s what I took away.
I promised you a baseball player, but I wish Lou Gehrig weren’t a part of Aunt Cleo’s story. However, don’t you dare go feeling sorry for Aunt Cleo! She would not consider herself a “victim”. This disease may have her by the throat, but she’s got it by the tail…and she’s gonna hang on kicking and screaming for dear life until the end of the ride. That was mixing metaphors, wasn’t it? Well, if Aunt Cleo were a baseball player, she would holler, “Play ball!”