One Father's Extraordinary Journal of Living Longer with ALS
Black Knights, SerenAides, and Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Life and the media are filled with examples of people who have beaten the odds and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles through the sheer force of will. One of the more dramatic images that come to my mind is actually a fictional and quite humorous one with which I often identify. I am referring to a scene from the 1975 comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which many of you are probably too young to remember. In this scene, the Black Knight is defeated by King Arthur while trying to prevent Arthur from crossing the bridge that the knight has sworn to guard. Each time Arthur relieves the knight of one of his appendages, the knight dismisses Arthur’s success with some belittling comment. At one point during the fight, with blood gushing in comic exaggeration from his armless shoulder, like water from a fire hydrant, the knight shouts, “Ah, it’s only a flesh wound!” Finally, reduced to an armless and legless torso, the defiant knight screams after the departing Arthur, “Come back here, you lily-livered coward! I’ll bite your knee caps off!” Despite the goriness of the scene, it is hard not to chuckle at the absurdity. Yet I always find myself admiring the knight’s tenacity in handling adversity. Each time I have lost a little bit more of my mobility, I have found myself reflecting on the knight and finding inspiration in his refusal to quit.

Last September, a more aggressive acupuncture treatment resulted in the loss of most of my remaining arm and hand strength. Operating my wheelchair and my computer mouse, the two remaining activities in my life that provide any physical independence, had become nearly impossible. For a short while, I felt crushed and defeated. I had arrived at another major choice point. Giving in to the depressing emotions would surely have led to more physical and emotional degeneration. That choice was unacceptable. Instead I chose to remain focused in the moment and not project my set back into a continuing pattern. I kept telling myself the weakness is now but, not necessarily tomorrow.

But I needed inspiration to regain my internal strength. Among the sources from which it emerged, there are two that stand out in my memory. One was the Black Knight. While it is difficult to bite the kneecaps off of a disease, remembering his tenacity helped to pull me through. The other source was SerenAide. For six years now, the people who participate in this wonderful evening of music have been an amazing source of emotional, physical and financial support to me and my family, and in the fight to defeat Lou Gehrig’s disease. I couldn’t bear the thought of letting them down. So I chose to fight my way back.

As a result, I have regained about 90% of the strength that I had lost. Last month I observed my 10th anniversary of living with ALS, an achievement marked by fewer than 5% of those diagnosed with this disease. It is difficult to find the words to adequately express my degree of gratitude to the people of SerenAide and to the Black Knight for the choices they help me to make.

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In 2005, I was beginning my fifth year of living with ALS, and despite several trips to Germany for alternative medical treatment, nothing seemed to be working to deter the slow but unrelenting progress of the disease. Among the most difficult things I had to deal with that year was to watch the toll that my physical deterioration was taking on my wife. Diane is the kind of person who is always available to listen to and console others about their problems, but rarely talks about her own. The depth of her consideration for others is one of many rare qualities that have caused her choir students to develop a deep respect, love and attachment year after year after year.

By the spring of 2005, the students had become painfully aware that something was wrong, but they weren’t quite sure how to reach out. One student took the initiative to express in writing what many of the choir members were feeling. In Diane’s own words, when describing it to others, “I received the most wonderful letter from a student who expressed concern, and said even though it was written by this one person, ‘ I am just another face in the choir, just another one of your many children.’ The letter went on to say, ‘You have been the object of strength to us this far, now let us return the favor. Let us help you…. Let us heal you.’” The letter continued with a quote from a song that Diane had been teaching that year, entitled, ”On the Morrow”. It said, “After all, ‘on the morrow, when the sun is at rise… no more sorrow in thy eyes- Trust in the morrow, and it shall come’”.

A few short weeks later, the students had collaborated with support from some of the choir parents, and school administration, to produce a benefit concert on our behalf, which they entitled SerenAide. They enrolled students, teachers and others from the community to perform an entertaining and heartwarming evening of music with only 3 weeks’ preparation. Several times during the evening, my family and I were deeply moved as student performers shot adoring glances toward their beloved teacher, seemingly in pursuit of some sign of approval. When a small ensemble of choir students gathered just a few feet in front of us to perform the final number, however, we were completely overwhelmed. Their selection and heartfelt rendition of “On the Morrow” simply brought us to our knees.

That evening in April of 2005 was amazing and magical. What is even more amazing is that the students have turned SerenAide into a tradition. On May 27th, we will enjoy our sixth annual SerenAide concert to raise money for the fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease. If you happen to be in the vicinity of J. P. Stevens High School in Edison, N.J. at 7 p.m. on that evening, we would love to have you join us. It is an evening you will not soon forget!

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