Still with Us

The photo messaged to me answered more than one worrisome question.   Two men in wheelchairs sat in sunshine on a deck, one listening to the other.  The one I was interested in was my oldest brother, Gary, a handsome man with gray hair and a neat beard.  His face, intent on the man talking with him, held a familiar intensity from a rehearsed life of listening from a psychologist’s chair.
What exactly Gary gleaned from the conversation with his companion isn’t known.  You see, Gary, who has Multiple Sclerosis, suffered a series of strokes before Christmas.  He has slowly been working his way back from a fog of scrambled language and cognition.  To see him trying to understand his companion told me he was still with us and not giving into whatever he thinks has happened to him, “This disease of mine takes away my body, in pieces.”
Still with us.  
His formerly exquisite mind tries to recall details about relatives.  He wants to hear about them.  The curiosity is there, the memory not.  He wants things, but can’t remember how many times he’s asked for them.  He is grateful for his caretakers and cooperative with customary good manners, but resistant to intrusive management.  
Still with us.
Gary has always set the stage for us.  The oldest of us, he was, by virtue of birth order, the first to read, the first to go careening on his bike down neighborhood streets, the first to climb trees, the first to win an art award in school, the first to have permission to use Dad’s tools.  The rest of us followed his example even to the point of overstepping ourselves by falling out of trees and scraping our knees in bike accidents.  Gary was the first to marry, the first to have a child, the first to obtain a college degree, the first to have a profession.
And he was the first to be diagnosed with a chronic disorder: multiple sclerosis, an unforgiving immune disorder, usually progressive, that causes paralysis and fatigue.  He fought the disease tooth and nail for years, stumbling but upright with a staff to steady himself, finding employment that didn’t require standing, using his keen analytical mind to continue in his profession within his physical limitations.  
Even as a youth, Gary didn’t easily cave in.  Our dad and he would go head to head, both determined to win — excellent training for a psychologist manipulating recalcitrant clients and for a semi-paralyzed man determined to support himself, drive a car, bathe himself, cook his own meals, and wash his own clothes.
And now this: strokes, hospitalization, and residential care.  Although he has trouble sitting upright and mixes up words, he works to improve.  “Don’t go, let’s talk more,” he says when I call.  Each time he repeats himself he edits himself, in a loop of repetition, caught at “I want a phone, I want a phone” until distracted toward memories of yesteryear and his family.
Still with us.  Here in the photo is our Gary, dressed in navy slacks and a long sleeved polo shirt, his inert legs stretched out, numb feet in shoes that never get scuffed from walking, arms resting in his lap, his kind face clearly engaged with his companion’s story.
Still here leading the way, as determined as ever.

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