“I’ve heard it stated that our tradition suffers not a lot from the forces of darkness, however from the forces of self-importance.”
—Kathleen D. Singh, “The Grace In Dying”
Bike experience of a lifetime: Greg O’Brien (left), Paul Berry (proper), Coast Guard Seaside, Eastham, MA.
Supply: The O’Brien Household
Paul Berry is aware of one thing in regards to the frame of mind. Nothing shallow about this man.
My shut good friend earned a grasp’s in social work from Boston College in 1978—first working with the Massachusetts Division of Psychological Well being and the Division of Social Companies, then as a working towards licensed unbiased social employee (LICSW) within the Boston space and on Cape Cod.
Paul, 71, has devoted his skilled life to serving to others discover peace—usually a splash to sunlight by way of a dense fog.
Paul himself has been an avid runner most of his life, together with two Boston Marathon appearances. His greatest time: a good three hours, 48 minutes, averaging eight-minute miles on a 26.2-mile course.
Now Paul is working for his life.
In July 2021, he was identified with bulbar onset ALS, a fast-track, sophisticated variant of this horrific illness that reaches far deeper than the somber symbolism of an ice bucket problem.
ALS, additionally known as “Lou Gehrig Illness,” can strike in two methods—limb onset and bulbar onset. Limb onset initially impacts limbs (legs and arms) and accounts for almost all of all ALS instances. With bulbar onset, signs first befall from the neck up, a far quicker demise than limb onset.
Stephen King couldn’t have designed a extra horrific plot.
After affirmation of the analysis at Mass Basic Hospital, Paul’s hopes had been dashed, however his religion persevered. But, he was devastated and was in search of a parole from this loss of life sentence. However there may be none. The belief shocked his spouse Fran Schofield and two sons, Ben, 31, a paramedic in Virginia, and Ross, 27, a union organizer for the Massachusetts Academics Affiliation.
At present, Paul has misplaced most of his speech, usually speaking by way of a laptop computer keyboard and a voice-activated gadget much like the one utilized by the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
Paul now not can swallow, nor can he devour strong meals. Docs at Mass Basic have fitted him with a gravity-fed gastric feeding tube, a tool that provides very important diet to the abdomen by way of an incision within the stomach.
He lifts his shirt to indicate me.
A brave fighter, Paul nonetheless counsels shoppers, by way of Zoom, as he can; he nonetheless has use of his limbs. Tenacity defines Paul, although he counts his future in months, not years.
On a current cloudy, misty day, Paul met me within the privateness of my studio on Outer Cape Cod to speak overtly about his analysis, his development, his religion, and his love of household. He used a wide range of methods to speak. I’ve identified him for near 30 years; the second for us was solemn, tearful—two outdated buddies, one with ALS, the opposite with identified Alzheimer’s. I felt responsible, figuring out that I might survive in my Alzheimer’s longer than his ALS: one slowly robs the thoughts; the opposite consumes the physique in fast type. Paul’s thoughts continues to be good within the swift decline of bodily capabilities.
Days earlier, Paul and I took a motorbike experience up the street to Coast Guard Seaside. In his intestine humor, he has given each of us a nickname: “Al.”
“It’s a code,” he says, “for ALS and Alzheimer’s.” I inform Paul midway by way of the bike experience that if we get misplaced, we’re each screwed. He laughs heartily.
Again within the studio, Paul tells me that he’s encouraging his spouse and sons “to stroll in acceptance of this case.”
Religion has performed a important function in Paul’s closing laps. A robust Christian, he often attends Brewster Baptist Church with me, and on some days the close by First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church. He’s additionally energetic with a Buddhist meditation group.
“My religion and understanding of God is central to my life,” he provides. “The educating of Buddhism introduced me again to my Christian religion.”
I ask Paul if he’s afraid of dying.
“Unusually, I’m not,” he says. “I’ve accepted the truth that loss of life is coming quicker than I needed. Dying is simply a part of life. It issues a lot what one does on the best way out… ALS has introduced me to a more in-depth expertise with household, buddies, and even strangers by way of love.”
Paul displays on the “Iron Horse,” New York Yankee Corridor-of- Famer Lou Gehrig, whose energy and endurance is a task mannequin in all seasons of life.
“I felt confusion as a boy listening to the phrases of Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium,” Paul says. “Regardless of having to retire sooner than anticipated resulting from his ALS, Gehrig declared himself to be ‘the luckiest man on the face of this Earth.’”
“I perceive now,” Paul provides, “in methods most individuals wouldn’t think about”
Nonetheless, his household and buddies, those to be left behind, try to completely grasp.
In a separate interview, his spouse Fran, a political and environmental activist and a Cape Cod Realtor, says: “My husband has accepted the terrible hand of bulbar onset ALS with a spirit of energy, endurance, and dignity. These have been monumental presents to our household as we work to simply accept Paul’s situation and our collective future. Christian religion and Buddhist teachings—classes Paul imparts to shoppers—have enabled this spirit. We’re grateful for his energy and braveness.”
So are Paul’s shoppers. Notes one in every of them, who has been a shopper for a number of years, “It was a simple choice for me to proceed working with Paul after his analysis. As I knew, this is able to require a major diploma of letting go—additionally that it might require me to follow accepting the best way issues are within the current second.”
Writes New York Instances best-selling novelist, Lisa Genova, Harvard-educated neuroscientist and writer of the award-winning ALS novel Each Be aware Performed, Nonetheless Alice, and others, “I’ve borne witness to the quieter heroes (like Paul) of this illness…
“If we don’t ignore, delegate, resist, or panic over our dying, if we will respect that we’re nonetheless dwelling whereas dying, we now have the chance to die with grace.”
Grace in dying comes full circle again to religion. Notes Paul’s pastor Doug Scalise at Brewster Baptist Church, “I’ve such deep respect for who Paul is as an individual and the way he has dealt with a really troublesome scenario. None of us is getting out of this world alive, however to simply accept the truth of loss of life continues to be troublesome, particularly when it approaches prior to we’d like and in such an insidious method.”
It’s now late within the afternoon; Paul is drained—a number of emotion expended at the moment. He’s prepared to move dwelling. Leaving the studio, he palms me a printout of one thing he had written for the interview: “Although God is past my thoughts’s capability for understanding, my religion supplies consolation and hope that life is significant, and that it actually issues that I—or any of us—have been right here in any respect.”
Paul pauses, then quotes from scripture, “So loss of life, the place is thy sting?”
Greg O’Brien, a profession journalist, is the writer of On Pluto: Contained in the Thoughts of Alzheimer’s and co-producer/author of the Alzheimer’s documentary Have You Heard About Greg?