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Lou Gehrig Can't Save Me Now

It’s real name is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS for short, but most people call it Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was twelve the day dad told me he had it, that night after the doctor’s appointment. He took me out onto the dock, walking with the his cane he had bought four months before, as his back had begun hurting, and he felt it difficult to walk.

“Getting old,” Mom had said, laughing and patting his stomach when he first mentioned the pain to her. I thought of that night as we stood looking out on the lake, and he held onto my shoulder. At first I thought it was to comfort me, but I realized with horror that, even with the cane, he couldn’t stand without me.

“Let’s sit,” he said, and I helped him crouch onto the dock. I swung my feet over the side, letting them sit a few inches above the water. Dad held my hand, and he recalled the first time he took me out on his small fishing boat. “You were terrified of the water,” he said, smiling like scared little three year old me was something to be proud of. “I dipped your toes right here,” he pointed downward, where my feet were now, “and you screamed like you’d been shot,” he laughed.

“Dad,” I said sternly. He looked back up at me, and waited for me to speak, but I had nothing in me. I had opened my mouth and said his name, felt it on my tongue, and now I couldn’t say anything. I just wanted him to stop, I couldn’t take him telling stories I didn’t remember, not now.

I wish I had let him continue on with his memories of me. I wish I had walked a little slower with him going back to the house that night, because it was one of the last times my dad walked with me.

Every Wednesday my English class goes to the school library, and whenever my teacher turns her back, I head over to pick up the Lou Gehrig biography. I’ve set out to learn everything I can about him. I never check it out, because I’m afraid my parents will find it, so I sit in the back and read a few pages each time. Lou Gehrig was nicknamed the ‘Iron Horse’ for his strength, and the way he kept on playing, despite injuries in his hands and feet. He was the son of Christina and Heinrich, born June 19, 1903 in New York City. He had a consecutive game streak of 2,130 games, a record broken in 1995 by Cal Ripken Jr.

I never even liked baseball, or any sport that much, but I collected these facts, taking them in greedily like they would solve all my problems.

My mother is sitting at the kitchen table when I get home from school. She’s on the phone and is flipping through the pages of her checkbook. She steps up from the table, and gets an apple from the bowl on the counter, and hands it to me without ever looking me in the eye. This is the stuff that baffles me. Even in her frazzled state, she’s keeping me in steady supply of healthy snacks.

Since my dad’s diagnosis, I’ve been watching my mom intently to see the changes it has made on her body. The gray hairs growing around her temples, the frown lines by her mouth, the steady decline of her waist each month are the only ways to shatter the illusion that my mother is an indestructible fortress of strength.

I know dad can see this too, as evidenced by the way he puts his arms around her after a particularly rough bout, as if he is supporting her, keeping her together, instead of the other way around.

Dad now sleeps in a room just down the hall from me. We brought in the hospital bed during my spring break vacation, so I could help mom move it in and set dad up to be as comfortable as possible. When I come in to see him, despite having done it a hundred times before, I always have to picture it in my head first. It’s the only way to keep the look of surprise off my face.

Dad is reading the paper. He looks up at me; today was a rough day for him. His doctor made a house call this morning, I watched his car pull up in our driveway before I headed to the bus stop. His back was stiff when he woke up, and he couldn’t move his arms above his head. He had mom help him to his wheelchair, but once he was there his legs tensed up, and he had to lie back down.

Sometimes, when mom is out or busy, I have to move him from his bed to his wheelchair. I take him in my arms and he holds onto me like a small child. His hands press into my neck and I wrap my arms around his waist, lifting with my legs, holding my breath so he doesn’t know how hard it is for me. He tells me thank you, and I just say: it’s nothing.

He smiles at me and pats the seat of the chair next to his bed, asking me to sit down. “How… was… your… day?” He asks. His breath has been short lately, and our conversations have slowed to the point that I frequently wonder if he’s finished talking or just getting his air back.

“Good,” I tell him. I’ve been training my mind to refrain from spilling out all my information on him at once. I leisurely work my way through stories of my classes and friends. I imagine I’m building his anticipation for a big finish; giving him some entertainment other than daytime soaps and crossword puzzles.

Lou Gehrig retired in 1939, after becoming too weak to play anymore. They held a Lou Gehrig appreciation day at Yankee Stadium on July 4th. He was admitted into the baseball Hall of Fame a year early. I wonder how I can make my dad feel special like that. Everyday I try to be with him like it’s his last, I want to give him a great goodbye. I want something to remember.

“You… read… the… paper?” He asks.

“Not today.” I tell him, I want to lie, but I just can’t.

“You… have… to… stay… informed.” He says, gulping at the last word. I don’t say anything at first. I want to absorb his words; I want to document and memorize everything he says to me. I want him to grant me the insights and wisdom that springs up when you’re near death.

I stay with him until he falls asleep, as he’s wont to do these days by 6:30. My mom cooks dinner, and we stare at our plates in silence.

I rented The Pride of the Yankees last week, and I’ve watched it three times already. I get it out from under my bed. It’s wrapped in old newspaper so no one finds out how fixated I really am. “It’s silly, honey. It’s not like Lou Gehrig has the answers. After all, he’s dead,” my mom told me when we first discussed him.

It’s true, I know. Lou Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, two years after retiring from baseball. He was a great player, but in the end he was taken down by ALS. Even he, my hero, couldn’t beat it.

I watch the film with the volume almost all the way down. I sit so close to my television that the pictures blur, but I hear him talking just fine. Gary Cooper says the words Lou Gehrig etched into history on that appreciation day at Yankee Stadium. The luckiest man on earth, he said.

This is the moment where, just for a second, I hate Lou Gehrig. I want to throw all my things at the television until it breaks, and I’ll never have to hear those words again. How can my dad be lucky with the cards he was dealt?

The tears are hot flowing down my face. I turn the movie off. It’s no use anymore. My dad’s dying. Lou Gehrig can’t save me now.





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