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Shell Shocked: Visiting an old friend

By Staff | Feb 9, 2011

I’d like to forewarn you before you start reading this column that it’s not my usual humor column. It’s about a recent experience I had that I wanted to share with you. Sometimes, when you visit old friends, you go to places you really don’t want to go to…

I boarded a plane for Caracas, Venezuela last week to visit Dave. As you know, Venezuela is ruled by iron man Hugo Chavez who happens to hate the U.S. I didn’t feel terribly comfortable as an American traveling there. But Dave was a boyhood friend and I was duty-bound to see him. I grew up with him on the sidewalks of New York City. We used to play stickball together. And touch football. And off the curb. All typical New York City street games.

We went to college together. At a fraternity party he met his wife to be, a girl from Brooklyn. They fell in love instantly. They married about a year later. I was an usher at the wedding. My friend and I were the same age, both 23 at the time.

His parents moved to Caracas many years ago to take advantage of a business opportunity. My friend and his new bride moved there shortly thereafter. It turned out that Dave had all the skills necessary to start his own business there, nurture it into a bigger one, and start a bunch of other businesses as well. Before you could look around he owned restaurants, chocolate factories, retail stores and fast food chains.

We never stopped being friends. His business brought him to the states fairly often and we’d see each other every time we had the opportunity. He and his wife visited with me and my wife in Sanibel a number of times. His son-in-law flew them to Fort Myers in his own plane. Plus my wife and I made many visits to Caracas over the years to see him and his growing family.

Dave had four children and twelve grandchildren. All the grandchildren are boys except for one. Quite a clan. Dave had more energy than any four people put together. He was charming, warm, friendly and highly successful. He was a great friend. We never got tired of each other. We grew up together and enjoyed our lives. He had everything going for him. He was going to live a long, full life and watch his grandkids grow up. And he and I were going to be friends forever.

…Until he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, as it is more widely known, about two years ago. It started harmlessly enough. He began to limp. He thought it was his knee. But when he checked it out they found nothing wrong with his knee. In fact, they found nothing wrong at all. But his limp kept getting worse. He had no pain but just couldn’t walk normally.

He went to the Mayo Clinic and they told him that they thought that he might — might — have ALS. He went to other doctors but there never seemed to be anything conclusive to go on.

And his limp kept getting worse. Finally, by the time he was having even more difficulty walking, he got the final diagnosis. He did have ALS. Of course, he was devastated. No one in his family had ever had it, so why him?

Dave went to every doctor he could find to try to find a cure. No cure. Lou Gehrig died at the age of thirty-seven from this same disease. From that point on, every time I would see Dave his condition had worsened.

ALS is a degenerative disease affecting nerve cells that control the body’s muscles. About a year ago, Dave lost the use of all muscles in his body except his right hand. And, what’s worse is that he also lost the use of his voice. So the only way he could communicate was by writing notes on a slate.

One day when Dave was still able to travel to the states, he wrote me a note on his slate. It said “Read ‘Tuesdays with Morrie.’ ” I wondered why Dave had wanted me to read that book but, when I did, I quickly realized that it was about someone who had also contracted ALS. Reading the book gave me a preview of what was in store for Dave. Yet, despite all he was going through, he still went to his office every day in Caracas to attend to his businesses …Until last March, when he could no longer even use his right hand.

When I went to Caracas last week I hadn’t seen Dave in a year. The only way he can communicate with his family now is through his blinking his eyes. Primitive, I agree, but the last vestiges of communications.

His wife had called me about a month ago to tell me that Dave wanted to see me. She didn’t know how much longer he could hang on. Hearing that, I made immediate arrangements to travel to their home in Caracas. What I saw was so shocking that I can barely bring myself to describe it. ALS is unforgiving and relentless. It exacts a toll on the body that is heartbreaking.

When I arrived at their home I waited until Dave was brought out in a wheelchair. Here was this emaciated, shriveled body that had lost all of its functions. The sad part of this dreaded disease is that the mind is still alert and functioning, a prisoner inside a useless body.

I had to catch myself from bursting into tears at the sight of him but I held on. I tried to be cheerful and simply talked to Dave about memories we shared. Every so often I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a smile but it was hard to tell. He looked deeply into my eyes and I got the sense that he was asking me how he could get out of this mess.

I in turn looked deeply into his eyes, which I knew were seeing me clearly, and I said, “Dave, I hear you, I hear you, old pal”.

I spent three days in Caracas visiting with Dave every day. I wish that he’d been spared his voice so that we could communicate with each other. But our eyes did the talking for us. I knew what he was feeling and he knew what I was feeling. Is life fair sometimes? You be the judge.