When I told my brother Don that I wanted to raise money for ALS research in his honor, he smiled and said, “It won’t be in my honor; it will be in my memory.” I knew that Don was right when he corrected me; however, at that time I still did not want to think about his death. Even though he had already lost his ability to walk and only had limited use of his left hand, he still communicated fairly well on that early spring late afternoon. I quickly learned to treasure the conversations we had during those final few months he could speak. Speech is one of those things we so often take for granted. When it’s lost, silence can be deafening.
On the occasion that I brought up my fund raising idea, we were out on a breezeway overlooking the Chattahoochee River. He had driven out over the weathered wooden boards in his power chair to a spot that afforded a view of the old Eagle Phenix dam. Don loved the river. I’m sure there were times when he thought about other days on the river. Days when he navigated in his bass boat rather than a power chair. Days to meditate on life rather than on death.
Still he smiled and listened as I related my idea of doing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in his honor, or memory, and of attempting to raise funds for ALS research as I hiked. Don knew that I had hiked sections of the trail for several years. He knew that I had often thought about giving a thru-hike a try. Don also knew that I was not an outdoorsman. So the smile that my brother gave me on that afternoon just before sundown was seasoned with what I knew was a bit of incredulity. Don didn’t necessarily doubt my intentions; he just realistically viewed the enormity of the pursuit.
I did mention the hike to Don a couple of other times, but we never really discussed my plans in detail. At the time I wasn’t even sure when or how the project would become a reality. I just knew that I had to do something for my brother, and a hike of the Appalachian Trail seemed to be an appropriate tribute. Every day that I spend in nature on the trail will be a day that I will spend for not just myself, but for both of us. The woods will be our woods to share. I hope that I can face the challenges of the trail as bravely as my brother Don faced a debilitating disease. When things aren’t going quite as well as I would like for them to, I will try not to complain. Because despite his discomfort, his pain, and his facing death, my brother didn’t really bemoan his fate. Sure, there were times when he was downright angry at what was happening to him. Don, however, still tried to live a life of dignity even when the crippling effects of the disease were overtaking him.
So I will hike, and hopefully along the way many will learn more about my brother Don’s life. And as I hike I will be grateful for having had a strong, courageous, kind, and loving brother to share my life with while he was alive and even now after he is gone. A hike needs to be accomplished, but more importantly, a disease must be cured.