Last week, ESPN ran a show that dealt with the letters of Lou Gehrig after he left The Yankees when it was diagnosed that he had ALS. The letters were between Gehrig, Paul O’Leary, his doctor, and Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor. O’Leary had kept every single letter that Gehrig sent him and the carbons of the letters he sent Gehrig and his wife. What emerges over the course of the letters is something that is so utterly poignant and heroic that Gehrig’s stature as a human even supersedes his significant accomplishments as a baseball player, one of the games all time greats and that’s saying something.
Today marks the day that Gehrig gave his monumental, “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, seventy-years ago, where he said goodbye to baseball and Yankee fans, as his body began to rapidly betray him, shutting down cell by cell, nerve by nerve, muscle by muscle. It’s one of the great speeches in American history. Not only in his speech, but in his letters, Gehrig comes across as thoughtful, articulate and deeply spiritual in his own way. Here is an excerpt from the letters to O’Leary that shows Gehrig’s mettle and heart;
“Don’t think that I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”
These words strike me as utterly profound and timely, for our own lives during these times. They communicate a sense of something beyond hope, something that is held up by a gravitas of feeling, living and even affirming in a situation riddled with despair. It’s easy to say “yes” to life when things seem fine on the surface and we more or less customize our environment with beliefs. foods and community that conform to a particular mindset, a lifestyle that affirms a feel good and positive outlook about the present and the future, but to be faced with such daunting circumstances that Gehrig did and repeatedly see his courage and love in action in his letters is utterly inspiring.
Ironically, Eleanor Gehrig and O’Leary conspired to not give Gehrig a crushing sense of inevitability. Eleanor knew the score and she wanted Lou’s life, what remained of it to be as positive as possible.
Gehrig spoke optimistically in letters to O’Leary. He spoke of gaining weight and feeling like his legs were stronger, getting more solid beneath him. He stopped smoking and took vitamins that O’Leary prescribed for him. He even took a job with the New York board of corrections to stay active and continue to earn money. But his hope eventually faded and Gehrig was left with the prospects of his mortality staring him right in the face and getting closer with each breath, each passing day.
Here on July 4th, we recall what makes America a great place, populated by great people and Gehrig’s name and story rises to the top of the list. In the heart of Cancer, on the day that Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and Al Davis of The Raiders share a birthday, we celebrate not just independence, but the qualities of Cancer that are so deeply interwoven in the chart of The USA. We celebrate the nurturing of families, dreams, opportunities and life. We celebrate the great abundance that we have been blessed with and share with the world. We celebrate innovation and the spark of genius that runs through our culture.
If you are a semi-regular reader of this blog, you’ll know what my feelings are about certain aspects of the geo-political climate, so I am not cheerleading without a context of the current situation. I am deeply aware, like Gehrig himself of some sort of inevitability, from at the very least a cultural perspective. The America that you and I know and have known is nearly gone, over, done with. For some of you, that is a cause for celebration in it’s own right. Darkly colored and influenced by the eight years of Bushes global hegemony and the utter contempt displayed by that administration towards anyone that wanted accountability or transparency, many people are willing to experience change at any level and at any price. I understand this on an emotional and psychological level. To you, I say, “caveat emptor.” Change is not always what it appears to be.
Ironically, as these things seem to do at times, they spiral inwards towards my own life. Today, we celebrate July 4th, Gehrig’s farewell speech and his heroic bout with ALS. My son’s grandmother, on his mom’s side is a woman he will never meet in the body. She too perished far too young at the hands of ALS, known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” And, ironically, her birthday is July 3rd, just one day off of the day that Gehrig bid a nation farewell. Her passing cannot go unnoticed by me, especially since my son’s mom spent countless hours, taking care of her, nursing her through her final years and days, a titanic act of love for a young woman, fresh out of college. While we are no longer together, we do share the life of a beautiful son and to that extent, I will echo Gehrig’s sentiments and say that “I am the luckiest man alive.”
Have a wonderful 4th of July.
To witness Gehrig’s moment of courage, go here.