The diagnosis was devastating. He was at the top of his game—a professional athlete—when he learned he had a crippling disease that would rob him of his ability to walk, to move his fingers, to breathe. And within a span measured in mere months he would find himself at the end of his life, breathless, losing everything in an agony of slow suffocation.
And yet Lou Gehrig stepped up to a microphone in front of a packed Yankee Stadium that warm Independence Day in 1939 and said, “You have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” Facing an agonizing end to everything, and declaring himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth? It made no sense to me when I first heard it on the old movie reels played in my fourth grade classroom. I figured it might make sense as I got older, but even as an adult, its message eluded my comprehension. I imagined I would instead be bitter and feel robbed and cheated.
He intoned the names of eight others in that brief farewell address, yet referred to himself only six times. His speech was full of admiration of those who inspired him and praise for his fans, his teammates, and even the groundskeepers. He was a man at the top—yet everyone around him in his life was first—and he humbly considered himself a lucky second to them. I’ve never known a more perplexing gratefulness in my life.
The scare for me came late this summer. It started as an annoying scratch on the right lens of my glasses. Then I realized the fuzziness was not my glasses but my eye. And it was more profound than I thought. Half the vision in my right eye—formerly my “good” eye—was gone. The colors were washed out and the acuity was diminished. Three ophthalmic specialists studied that eye with every piece of technology, even printing a color trace of my macula. It looked like a topographic relief map. I remember looking at it, thinking I’d love to hike in there and pitch a tent near the optic disk.
When my eye was declared fully healthy, the shadows of a more ominous prospect loomed larger. A problem deep in the boney armor of my skull was now a virtual certainty. I knew I was in trouble when my primary care doctor ordered immediate tests in search of tumors, aneurisms and lesions—MRIs, brain angiography, cardiovascular ultrasounds, cardiac echograms, all to be completed within a week before a hastily arranged appointment with a top university ophthalmic neurologist. “Should I be scared?” I asked him. His eyes fixed on mine without a blink. “We need to rule out some serious stuff very quickly,” he replied, sidestepping my question.
I’ll never forget that week. I had found a wonderful job. I was buying a new car. And it all was in my grasp—yet my hold on any of it was tenuous. The gifts I thought I had worked so hard to win were being delivered by one hand, yet another hand threatened to take it all away—including my life. It was a whirlwind week of doctors who often disagreed, tests with equivocal interpretations, mega-doses of steroids and sleeping pills to slow the rushing train they turned me into, the ensuing drug-induced hallucinations, and the nightmares every night that evaporated as I awoke just long enough for me to be functional at work.
Facing my own mortality, I thought of those words by Lou Gehrig over 73 years ago. And then it started to make sense.
I have learned to consider life as a gift, not an entitlement. I think of the joke of the little boy, dismayed at his mother, who shouted, “I didn’t ask to be born, you know!,” to which she replied, “Well if you had, the answer would have been NO!” It illustrates a fundamental truth. We are here at the whims of nature, and nature will reclaim us. Each life is like a book, with a first page and a last page. Some are long reads that say little, while others are short stories that say a lot. It’s not the thickness of the book that defines its merits—it is how it moves us in the limited words it has.
So I AM grateful. I am grateful for the life I have experienced and the life I have in front of me. I am grateful for not being lost in the envy of others who have more, knowing I could have less. I am grateful for the good doctors I have found, and for all I have learned through a difficult period. I am grateful for the vision in my left eye more than I mourn the loss of vision in my right. I am grateful that my own journey has made me a more sensitive person and a more peaceful soul. And I was grateful for all that during the worst of it all—even before I was grateful, finally, of the news that my prognosis was good.
And through it all, I am grateful to Lou Gehrig, whose words still shine like a light, illuminating my way through a life I love but have come to understand I do not own. I thank him for keeping me from bitterness and resentment through his simple example. I thank him for showing me what it truly means to be thankful—that you can be thankful not just for what you receive, but for what you lose. And as that grainy old black and white film plays on my laptop, I am grateful that after over seven decades, he still breathes for those who really listen.