I always used to wonder how Lou Gehrig could say in his famous July 4, 1939 farewell speech to the New York Yankees, after having been diagnosed with ALS, a cruel disease that came to be named after him, that "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/lougehrigfarewelltobaseball.htm
How could any man facing such a near and difficult death consider himself lucky?
But now, having myself been diagnosed, not with Lou Gehrig's disease, but with some similar neuro-muscular condition, I do think I understand, and agree.
I'm still not completely sure what I have. It falls (as do I, frequently) under the general heading of a "movement disorder." My symptoms don't exactly fit the classic definition of any of the possible diagnoses. My doctors tell me what I don't have. I had every test the doctors could imagine, and none of them showed anything. I don't have ALS, or MS, or Parkinsons, or Alzheimers, or Muscular Dystrophy. I don't have a brain tumor or cancer. One doctor thought it might be Ataxia, but the other disagrees. They all say I don't have Hydrocephalus. They all say it's not brain damage from my cycling concussion.
Tentatively, maybe it might be something you've likely never heard of called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) though my symptoms differ in several ways from how MSA is usually described. There's a whole list of vaguely similar neurological conditions that you've likely also never heard of, but I probably don't have those either. It's some kind of deterioration of the cerebellum (not the cerebrum). Whatever it is, my brain seems to be slowly losing control over my body. And, whatever it is, there is at present no real treatment. In fact, the diagnosis doesn't really much matter as there is no real treatment for any of the likely possibilities. There's also not much in the way of prediction or prognosis. As my doctor says, we know that it progresses, but otherwise we can't really predict much. Lou Gehrig lived two years after his ALS diagnosis. Stephan Hawking has lived over 50 years since his ALS diagnosis, married twice, fathered 3 children, wrote books, did physics, and still gets bit parts on the American TV sit-com "Big Bang Theory." So, these diseases are not very predictable.
But, here's the point: I, like Lou Gehrig, can't help considering myself lucky. I guess I could get into a "why me" or "woe is me" attitude, but that would be fake. I just don't feel that way about it. It would be a totally wrong summary of my life and my circumstances. Lou Gehrig died at the young age of 37. I am now 68, and will most likely make it in some fashion to the Psalmist's proverbial allotment of "threescore and ten" (that's 70, for those of you who don't know the score). So, in quantity of life, I really have nothing to complain about. Sure, I always imagined that I would follow my parents in living into my early 90's, but life is not about quantity but about quality, and I have had a GREAT life. I would not trade these 70ish years for 100 of some other life.
I can only hit a few of the highlights here that have contributed to this great life I have lived.
I was born to wonderful parents and great family in a wonderful community. I was blessed that my ancestors immigrated to America, and to California. Although merely middle class by the standards of this country, we were, and are, rich by the standards of the world as a whole. If we aren't in the global top 1%, we are close to it. As they say, if you have to be a cripple, it's better to be a rich one, and I consider myself rich.
Certainly by the standards of any previous generation in human history we have comfort, leisure, ability to travel, and houses and driveways full of magical things that do the drudge work, entertain us, transport us, connect us, feed us, to a standard undreamt of by kings in any previous century. Yes, I said houses, plural. Most people wish they could own one house (The "American dream.") We have two really great houses, both of which in different ways we were blessed to be able to share with many others. And now we are selling those and building one great big one by the shore of Lake Michigan to share with our daughter and family.
My parents gave me more than I could ever deserve, in every way, material, spiritual, educational. I have a brother who has always been my best friend.
I have the greatest marriage ever to my soul mate. The best wife I could ever have wished for, who, 46 years and counting, is still standing by me and supporting me to my last step.
I have wonderful in-laws, who are still with us and who have been like second parents to me. Lou Gehrig mentioned that his mother in law took his side, and mine does too.
I have two great children and five amazing grandchildren. And, get this: my children actually want to help take care of me, even to the extent of amazingly inviting me to move in with them! How's that for lucky!
We were so blessed to spend summers in the high Sierras. seeing them as few are able to do. I was able to realize a dream and hike most of the length of the John Muir Trail.
I have a faith that sustains me, guides me, gives me hope, gives purpose and meaning to my life, directs my life, and promises something even better to look forward to. And, I have a worldwide family, brotherhood, community of faith that is the most amazingly close and loving group of people in the world. We were blessed to be able to serve that family of faith in many ways. We continue to be blessed with not just one, but two local congregations that love us and care for us, and brothers and sisters all over the world.
I had a great career in my chosen field of engineering. I was fortunate that my parents sent me to USC to Engineering school. Sometime I'll tell you about how I became a "swiss army knife" of three engineers in one. I was privileged to work for some truly great organizations at the peak of their productivity, doing exciting projects. I worked for some inspiring leaders - some truly great men, and was privileged to lead some amazing people. Although at the time it was often stressful, and there were times when I indeed hated it, it was never dull, and I was able to accomplish and achieve some fabulous things. I worked with amazing people, sometimes on the cutting edge of technologies. And it paid pretty well, too.
I was able to run for years, and loved doing it. I got to ride bicycles, to commute by bike for some years. Not quite as much as I wished, but a lot. And I can still trike!
I live in a time and place where disabilities such as mine can be handled with comfort - luxury even. I get the best medical treatment available. That it so far offers no cure is unfortunate, but still, I get the best there is.
You know those outrageous overly generous public pensions the politicians complain about? I've got two of those. With medical insurance, too.
And now, my family is raised. My children self supporting and with great families of their own. My career is done and I can look back on it with a feeling of accomplishment. Do I wish I could still hike and bike and camp and run? Of course I do. But I look forward with excitement and anticipation to the next chapter in my life.
The point is that I have had a wonderful life. I hope it continues, because it is still going great, but were I told it would end today, I would not feel in any way cheated or deprived. Lou Gehrig said he felt he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth, and I feel even luckier.