Small rivulets rolled down my windshield as I eased out of the grocery store parking lot. My mind is everywhere. Do I have enough food? Would there be enough to drink? What if he had to go the hospital? Today? Not today. I push the gas pedal, gun across the four-lane highway and fishtail. My heart races; no oncoming traffic. I have to calm down.
I check the clock. Two pm. My parents would come in an hour. But when would my college roommate arrive? Had it really been eleven years? Nervous, yes. Euphoric, yes.
Thirty-five people confirmed but there is rumored to be fifty people, maybe seventy-five. Regardless, thirty-five is a good number for a surprise party.
Turning forty is a milestone. A time to make light of the climb from youth to mid-life. A time to celebrate with memories of childhood stupidity and career successes. Turning forty is a rite of passage unless you’ve received a death sentence, then it’s the mountaintop.
It was two years since he had that appointment. The one to assure him everything was okay: a spinal cord injury, maybe a brain tumor, something surgery could fix. The twitches were just twitches, the weakness just a side-affect.
But surgery couldn’t fix it. Instead, he received a prison term; a live burial; the gas chamber. I remember the feeling. Suffocation. Amyotrophic. Breathe. Lateral. Breathe. Sclerosis.
Lou Gehrig’s disease is someone else’s disease; I had to look it up on the internet. A disease that strikes only five or six thousand Americans a year. Strikes people over forty. Strikes like a snake. Strikes to kill. Strikes the nerves that feed the arms, legs, lungs, and voice. It strikes swiftly, without forgiveness.
Youth is on your side, the experts said. You’re in fantastic shape, they said. But ALS is like a river that runs downhill, blazing a path that’s straight—over rocks not around them.
The doorbell rings. It’s two college classmates. Will they be repulsed? The man they once knew as a bulldozer on the lacrosse field is now a stick figure unable to walk or talk. I sigh at the thought of friends who have abandoned him, abandoned us.
I smile and open the door. The river, it rolls downhill. Forty.