He looked like Santa Claus. That’s what I thought the first time I met him. Even Matthew said his blue eyes were twinkling and his cheeks were a little bit rosy. Ironically, he had no children of his own. I bet he has little children following him where ever he goes, wondering if he is the real thing.
That was over six months ago now.
He walked into our home, with his wife following slowly behind.
She was tiny, small-boned and looked as if a strong gust of wind would blow her over at any time. Her clothes were hanging loosely off her frame.
They seemed like one of those couples who were mismatched in every way. She walked slowly in, keeping her head down. Her shoulder length hair dull, and her face looked gaunt. “She looks angry,” I thought to myself. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think it was her idea to come over. He seemed to take up the entire entryway with his broad shoulders and loud voice booming down the hallway. I invite them to sit down for coffee.
They had that deer-in-the-headlight kind of look.
She had been diagnosed with Bulbar-Onset ALS.
That means she was losing her ability to speak. Although she looked perfectly fine, the disease was affecting her facial region. That means, she could walk her massive dogs around the block, and garden all day long if she wanted to. She could still care for herself, brush her own teeth, dress herself or cook a meal, but she was losing the ability to talk. The ability to chew, or swallow foods and liquids. The ability to have facial expressions.
The few times she tried talking to us, her words slurred to an almost incomprehensible moan. The effort to make her mouth form each word was drawn out…so slow… it was obviously irritating to her.
I remember Santa kept leaning in. His eyebrows drawn together, intently focused. He was trying to watch my mouth as I spoke. He was legally deaf. I tried not to groan in despair as he said this to us, a bit louder than normal, which makes sense, since he was reading my lips.
This was an awful combination and would become the biggest challenge for them.
Our ability to communicate was difficult, but we muddled through, and I took down some notes for them to remember for later. Advice about foundations and agencies to contact sooner, rather than later.
They left our home, and I don’t think we were able to lift their spirits or help them feel any better about the situation. Normally, I like to think that either Matthew or I can help one or the other feel a bit less scared. Or at least a bit less alone.
This couple…I don’t think that we helped them at all.
The man with the twinkling eyes has stayed in contact with me, though now it is only through email.
He often writes about his wife, her care and thoughts about future needs. I offer suggestions or contact information for people I think may be willing to help. I don’t think he has bothered with any of it. Hospice is involved now. She has given up. He seems lost.
I am sure she gave up as soon as she was diagnosed with ALS.
Only, he hadn’t recognized it right away.
Her anger and bitterness at the thought of dying this way has left him exhausted. It now makes me wonder if his cheery smile was all a façade. A safe place for her to lay her burdens down.
I know it must be draining him.
I meet many couples who are on the same path as Matthew and I. The diagnosis is the same, but the journey itself poses different obstacles for each person.
I find comfort in knowledge.
When I knew Matthew had ALS, I immediately researched anything and everything I could. I read every case study, medical journal and book I could find. I asked questions, sometimes repeatedly. I wanted to be prepared.
Nothing prepared me for the reality. But understanding some of it has been how I have managed to cope as the reality of ALS for us has been more gradually than for others.
Matthew was the opposite of me.
He waited to learn. He did not search for the answers until it was time to know. He was proactive in ordering every device and item needed to make my care for him easier, but he asked nothing about what he would be facing until it was time to face it.
I assume, as with any disease, one must navigate the path that they feel is right for them.
I try hard to respect those decisions.
After all, who am I to judge?
Yet, how can I stand back and witness the decisions people are making, knowing it is going to make their life more stressful. Often, waiting too long can mean the difference in how the patient will respond to every day ups and downs, and it can lead to depression and anger for everyone involved.
Instead of their last months filled with family and memories of being able to say what needs to be said, it turns into a nightmare of one bad decision followed by another, which in turn means one emergency followed by another. It is my worst fear and one that I will do everything to avoid. I can’t make others think this way so instead I try to gently point out better options if I see them struggling.
“Please submit a grant request for a ramp or a bathroom remodel.”
“Have you considered a support group?”
“Please reach out to as many people as possible for help.”
I guess I am trying to help ease a part of their burden, but what do you do when they will not take your advice?
What do you do when you see that they are losing faith, and the will to fight?
They have refused help.
They have refused support.
They have refused the doctor’s advice.
I am angry at the helplessness of how I feel right now….
It is just one more constant reminder of how little control I have in any of this. I am forced to not only be buckled into this ride for the duration, but also to watch helplessly as other victims crash along the way.
I can’t reach the wheel they are steering to move them out of harms way, and I am stuck to sit back in a ride that I can only vaguely remember jumping on.
And all I can do is wonder, “What is the point of all of this?”