A Hero for the Books

By Irene Budzynski 

His grin and twinkling eyes were the first thing I noticed. I was a "regular" at the public library and had seen librarians come and go like Heinz goes through tomatoes, but this guy was different. He talked to patrons like they were special and the most important people ever to grace the earth. It didn't take many more visits to feel like we were old friends, and trips to the library became social events. Sharing New York humor made for some belly-grabbing conversations, tears rolling down my face from Mark's deadpan quips. I never tired of leaning against the front desk to hear his latest spin on some inane happening which only he could make into a comedy routine. My book returns had been notoriously overdue, but it was so much fun to visit with Mark that it wasn't long before promptness became a habit. Over time, though, tiredness settled over Mark. He began to rub his eyes when he was in the middle of a story, and his quips weren't as frequent, but he never lost his smile and always made a point of asking about my family. We discussed books and motorcycles and religion, but suspicion was jabbing me that something was wrong in his life. I couldn't just blurt out, "What's wrong?" based solely on a gut feeling. Or, could I? It was during one of our chitchats that Mark let it slip that he had taken his wife to the doctor. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, I pursued the subject. What did he mean by sick? ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, was the reply. His answer shoved me into the proverbial brick wall. As a nurse, I had seen the destruction wrought by the disease and knew there was no cure. It was certainly not something that could be fixed by any little white pill. For once in my life I was speechless. Heartbroken for his situation, I gently pressed Mark for more details. He was willing to talk, and talk he did. The words pushed forward like water pressing against a crack in a dam, flowing until there was nothing left. He had kept his secret well hidden behind the jokes, the stories, the exchange of wit, but he couldn't mask the pain any longer. The lump in my throat prevented any reply. The tears in my eyes reflected his. Diagnosed shortly after their second child was born, Mark and his wife were sucked into the quicksand of illness in the prime of their lives. They had been fast-forwarded through a series of experiences, living out their vows "in sickness and in health." While young mothers teach their babies how to speak, their little boy had translated his mother's increasingly slurred speech. She was now at the point where one or two blinks of the eyes meant "Yes" or "No". After working all day, Mark had rushed home to oversee homework, prepare dinner, and drive the children to their activities. He survived his first shopping trip with his pre-teen daughter, and, when their son was old enough to play ball, a van was purchased so a wheelchair could be rolled onto it. As long as she had breath in her body, his wife was determined to see every game. She loved being a mother. When Mark exhausted his monologue, he poignantly added, "Did you know we both love the beach? One of our favorite things to do together was to sit on the sand at sunset. We'll never be able to do that again." Their dates were now comprised of trips to the hospital during bouts of pneumonia or wild goose chases to doctors, hoping for a new solution. The responsibilities of caring for a spouse with ALS are draining. After carrying her into the bathroom and preparing her for bed, Mark then wakes up at least once every hour to turn his wife so that she doesn't choke. The muscle activity in her body has diminished and she has to be physically lifted, rolled over, suctioned, and repositioned. He gently rubs her legs so the pain isn't so irritating, and he whispers in her ear as he wedges pillows around her. A little smile peeks up at him in gratitude and they drift off for a few minutes sleep until the routine is repeated. He is up at dawn to send the children off to school, greet the aide, and leave for work. It's been a gift to become a part of his life, to witness the incredible bond of a man's love for a woman. His commitment to her shines like a beacon in a dark world where marriage is devalued. He is testimony to what men are called to do in their lives -- to love unconditionally, selflessly, and without end. Will you, too?


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