Like Cal, Friend with ALS Shows What's Best in Us

September 10, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

The man outplayed the hype.

Somehow, he stood above the onslaught of celebrity and circus. For 14 years, he danced beyond the spikes, survived the brawls, the slippery shower room floors and all the other freaky things that force the best of us to the bench.

Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. claimed his laurel Thursday night, appropriating the record for baseball games played consecutively: 2,131 as of that moment.

He claimed it almost apologetically from Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees first baseman whose record of 2,130 straight games ended 56 years ago with the onset of a fatal nerve disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

I couldn't think of Cal or Gehrig without thinking about another brave and talented man, Brian Dickinson, editorial columnist at the Providence Journal, an old friend and a victim of ALS.

Brian has a streak, too: His columns continue, a strong if intermittent pulse of thought and observation from a man whose mind is as keen as his body is weak.

If playing hurt is the standard, Brian has retired the trophy. He is paralyzed. He cannot speak. A machine breathes for him. Thanks to his will, to ingenious sons and to modems and computers, his work keeps showing up in the newspaper.

It would be nutty to make a virtue of merely showing up for work even in these times, but the Ripken-Gehrig saga gave us more than records. It offered a moment to see what is best in us. It gave us an athlete who signs autographs without fee, whose professionalism allowed him to hit home runs from the eye of tumult and who wanted to share his glory.

He thought the Streak might be a vehicle for the unknowns, a universal emblem of courage held up against the demands of complicated lives.

Near the end of Ripken's quest a vague concern arose that something still could happen. Part of the unease came from our apprehension about life in the '90s. Part came from those who wanted Gehrig to keep the record.

And part came from the inescapable involvement of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease -- proof, if any is needed, that destiny can change in an instant and not for the best.

It was a pleasing aspect of the Baltimore Orioles' celebration for Cal that $2 million was raised for ALS research at the Johns Hopkins University. Though its victims can be kept alive alive longer than they were in Gehrig's time, ALS remains a fatal affliction.

We are looking at the commitment of singular human beings in Ripken and Gehrig and Dickinson. They work or worked with skill and joy and power, each seeming to grow in character and in poise at moments when adulation -- or incapacity -- might have defied others.

Powered almost exclusively now by his mind, Brian sails on through higher and higher waves of consuming physical breakdown. Soon after the ALS diagnosis he began to have trouble walking. He lost control of his hands and could not type. Technology allowed him to speak his columns into a computer. But his voice weakened, becoming so distorted the computer could not convert the sounds to letters. With more jiggering of toggle switch and computer screen, he rapped out his views one letter at a time.

L A recent column tells where matters stood several weeks ago:

"It feels very good indeed to be back at work, writing again after an absence of more than three months. I wish I could report that this interlude was spent hiking in the Tetons, or lazying about among the hill towns of Tuscany, but such was not the case. Instead, the time was devoted to coping with a new medical problem and to finding new ways of getting around my paralysis. . . .

"By late last spring, I had been physically stable for several months, not deteriorating in any critical way that I could detect. My limbs and my voice had long since ceased to function, thanks to ALS, but I had more or less come to terms with these losses, painful though each had been. I had no particular reason to expect sudden new trouble.

"But over the Memorial Day weekend, trouble presented itself. As it is every year, this holiday was the occasion for setting out great numbers of young annuals in our flower garden. It had become a family ritual, and I, although unable to help dig, was glad enough to sit in my wheelchair and supervise.

"But I felt decidedly unwell. I had lost all appetite, had developed a nasty cough and was running a temperature. This was not like me. A nurse was called. She looked me over, frowned and declared that I must go to the hospital. Within minutes, the local rescue truck had pulled up. . . . "The pneumonia, I soon learned, was well advanced. After idling in the emergency room for more than 10 hours, I was wheeled into a room of dazzling brightness. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people in surgical garb who proceeded to cram a pair of tubes down my throat and into the trachea. Thankfully, I remember few details of this episode. I heard later that it had been a rough bit of business.

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