Angels are delivered to us every day. Sometimes we know...and sometimes we don't. We were fortunate to receive help from EXTRA HANDS FOR ALS, founded by ALS patient Jack Orchard and his wife. Matt Nevitt and Julia Miller were the students who came every Monday for about 6 months to be with Bill and me, to help out and be our "extra hands". I will always be grateful to, and hold a special place in my heart, for both of these sefless young adults. Today, I share the essay that Julia wrote about her experience. Enjoy!
When I first signed up for Extra Hands for ALS, I thought it would be a nice way to spend free time, volunteering with real people and trying to make the world just a little better. I had no idea that the day I walked into 1847 Linwood Drive would forever change me. Extra Hands for ALS is a program through which patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (“ALS”) are connected with volunteers who help them accomplish things they no longer have the ability to do on their own. ALS (commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) is a heartbreaking and debilitating disease that slowly deteriorates a person’s motor functions yet leaves the brain untouched, in effect holding them prisoner in their degenerating body until they die. ALS is a terrible disease, both for those who have it and for those who must watch their loved one slowly die in front of them. Yet to die from ALS is relatively easy compared to living with it. It requires an amazing strength and bravery, and an acceptance that our time alive on Earth is not guaranteed. Although he knew that this disease was terrible in every way, my patient Bill Lichtig lived with it with an uncanny dignity and was able to indirectly use the disease to teach me amazing life lessons. And he has changed me forever.
The day I met him, Bill wore glasses, had a cane resting against his knee and two golden retrievers lying at his feet. He stood up to shake my hand in greeting although I could see it pained him to do so. This was my first glimpse of what I learned was his steadfast resolve to live despite his disease, an amazing bravery I hope to one day see in myself. Bill has left me, but he leaves me with resonating lessons about three things: love, life and laughter.
Bill was a lover, of people, of life, and of laughter. You cannot just teach someone about love, but you can show them. Bill showed me that you must let people love you, even when you do not want to. Bill’s wife, Kathie, was his primary caregiver. This meant that she was in charge of feeding him, among other things. Seeing Kathie fearlessly feed Bill through his feeding tube truly showed me love. She chatted with him about unimportant things while she did it, I guess in an attempt to show him it was not a big deal to her. Yet through that action I could feel the outpouring of true, deep love they felt for each other. Kathie could have had a nurse take care of Bill, but she did not; Bill could have told her he wanted a nurse so as to not inconvenience her, but he did not. Bill allowed Kathie to care for him because he loved her, and Kathie never stopped nursing Bill because she loves him. There is a song by a band I like, Death Cab for Cutie, who sings a song with the lyric: “Love is watching someone die.” When I first heard those words I instantly thought of Bill and Kathie, who have taught me more about love than I may ever learn the rest of my life.
Besides love, Bill also taught me about life. One day, before he could no longer comfortably chew them, Bill was enjoying his daily snack of Oreo cookies and he said to me: “Cookies fix anything.” While unfortunately cookies could not physically cure Bill, they symbolized a deeper meaning. Cookies were all the small things Bill did to enrich the last part of his life. Sitting outside in the sun, petting the dogs, even sniffing the air in the kitchen as I attempted yet another meal under his instruction. Bill showed me that focusing on small, positive things can help you ignore large negative ones—or at least keep them from ruining your day.
One day Bill, who liked to speed in his motorized chair, was enjoying wine through his feeding tube. He told me if a cop pulled him over he was fine because he could truthfully say: “Officer, no alcohol has touched my lips.” I know his mischievous humor kept him alive when he no longer had the physical strength. This alone proved to me the importance of laughter, and he made me laugh constantly. Once he could no longer speak himself, he used a computerized voice, although typing was tedious and frustrating for him. He maintained his dignity, even when others were not so understanding. For example, he was sometimes mistaken for a prank caller when using the telephone, but his strength to even recount these stories to me displayed an undaunted will to fight his disease. A coward would be embarrassed by such an event, but not Bill—by reliving the experience he was showing everyone he was still here, and still strong.
The most important lesson I learned from Bill came when he told me: “Yes, this isn’t an easy disease to live with. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I can either spend my days crying or laughing—and I choose to laugh.” This statement concisely sums up what I learned from Bill. I learned not to let small things, like forgetting an item on our grocery list or messing up our projects, ruin my day. I learned to see a small mistake as just that: a small bump in the road rather than the end of the world, as I used to do before I met Bill. He taught me that so much of life is mistakes. Who we are is based on how we deal with those mistakes and how we react in the life’s obstacles. We can cry or we can laugh, and it is always better to laugh.
Bill also taught me how to die. August 10, 2005.