Having played football, basketball, baseball, as well as having run cross-country and track in high school, Don retained that youthful enthusiasm for competition throughout his adult life. He liked to win, but more importantly he liked the excitement and challenge of competing. He was a true lover of sports in every sense of the word.
As I’ve already stated, my brother Don was one of the healthiest men I have ever known. That is why it came as such a shock when he called me one night in the spring of 2011 to tell me that he thought he had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, is a neurological disease that eventually completely paralyzes its victims. Those who suffer from this horrible disease lose their ability to use their arms and legs. Over time they also lose their ability to speak, swallow, and breathe. And there is no cure.
How could my healthy, strong, athletic brother have such a crippling disease? Since he had not been officially diagnosed, I thought he must be mistaken. Even though he exhibited symptoms of the illness, there were still many other illnesses that evoked the same or similar symptoms. He would go to his doctor and find out that there was some other reason that he was losing strength in his right hand, was having difficulty throwing and hitting a softball, and falling occasionally for no apparent reason. That night that he called, and for many nights to come, I prayed that indeed what he did have, would not be ALS.
The next few weeks were difficult for all of our family. After many tests, an unnecessary surgery, visits to specialists for second opinions, and a great deal of anxiety, my brother Don was diagnosed with ALS on May 26, 2011. He was told that all cases of ALS are different, but that life expectancy is usually 2 to 5 years. So just a little over a month before his 54th birthday, my brother Don found out that he had five years or less to live. There would be no more softball, and the days spent in nature hunting and fishing were suddenly at a premium. How many remained he had no way of knowing. What he did know was that he would die from ALS.
So what does one do when he finds out he has little time to live? But then again, none of us really knows how many days we have left on this earth. Each day is a gift, and that is how I will view every day that I spend on the Appalachian Trail. I will be grateful for my brother’s life and the relationship we shared. I’ll remember the few days we shared in his bass boat when he was kind enough to take a non-fisherman out to enjoy what he enjoyed most.
I may even occasionally think back on much earlier days when two boys of 12 and 6 walked through the woods with their grandfather. Two boys who would stop by a spring for a drink or run to a nearby tree with limbs low enough to climb. And I’ll hike on. To some, I’ll just be one of those old men on the trail; to others I’ll represent hope for future endeavors, when perhaps they too are old. This hike really isn’t about one thing in particular. It’s about a lot of things. Most of all, it will be one man doing something for two, which the one believes the other would appreciate as well. After all, we are all mere transients on this planet. Our time is brief, but what time we have we must utilize fully. And what better way to use your time wisely than to go for a walk on the Appalachian Trail.