When I learned that a family member had ALS, I knew enough about the disease to know it was a death sentence.
Years after Lou Gehrig told a baseball crowd that he was “the luckiest man alive,” there are few treatments that can slow it down, and none that can stop it.
I was surprised that Chris decided to move from his home on the water in Connecticut to South Florida, just an hour and a half from where I lived.
It was probably a combination of factors that made Miami an attractive choice – a dedicated ALS research center at the University of Miami, warm weather and, especially, Biscayne Bay.
We had not been close for some time, but he had few visitors in his new home, so I started driving down on Wednesdays.
For a while, we had lunch at a place by the water. At first, he could walk to our table and cut his own food or at least spear it with a fork. A few weeks later, he was in a wheelchair, and his caregiver was feeding him.
Soon after, our lunches were take-out delivered to his apartment. By then, a feeding tube was attached, and he could only take an occasional bite, often followed by fits of coughing.
In March 2021, I began to think about what would come next and what would come at the end. As St. Patrick’s Day approached, I looked for something green to share with Chris for our Wednesday visit.
I found a couple of stretchy bracelets that I had picked up during my first year of divinity school. It was green on one side and displayed icons for a dozen of the major world religions.
I wore one and teased him as I gave him one, saying there had to be some religion that interested him (or “captured his attention”). He smiled his thanks, and we helped him to pull the bracelet onto his wrist.
On my next visit, he was still wearing the bracelet, and I decided it was time. I explained why I was a Christian: simply put, I had been born into it and continued to believe as an adult.
I doubted being direct or overly personal would appeal to him, so I told him that more than 2,000 years and millions of believers must mean something. He smiled.
A few weeks later, another visitor attempted to get the conversation going with a little humor. He noticed the bracelet and said, “Sure you’ve got all the bases covered?” and then, “Would you like to hear which one I’ve chosen?”
That brought a smile. But when the visitor followed up with, “If God is someone you ever want to talk about, just let me know,” there was no response.
Finally, I realized that what we needed was a fellow mariner, a man of faith who talked like a regular guy. Fortunately, I knew just the right person.
He was a deacon, a high school history teacher who loved everything about the sea and had started a ministry for sailors who worked on ships that stopped at the Port of Palm Beach.
Their first visit went as hoped.
The deacon talked about his ocean adventures and told funny stories about the port ministry. My favorite was the one about the Russian captain who was unenthusiastic, to say the least, about having a member of the clergy interact with his crew.
The conversation continued, and when asked where he looked for help in stormy weather, the captain finally smiled and pointed upwards. Chris seemed to listen, although he kept an eye on his phone.
By fall, he could no longer text or make any sounds to communicate.
I brought weekly messages of encouragement from my 100-year-old mother who lived nearby. His caregiver and I sang our favorite hymns, “Blessed Assurance,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Amazing Grace.” We skipped “Abide with Me”; I wasn’t ready to think about Eventide.
By Thanksgiving, he could not move on his own, and I called the seafaring deacon again. This time he brought communion for our small group that included two other family members.
There was no wine, due to COVID-19, and the deacon touched the wafer to Chris’ mouth. Then, we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer.
When I looked up, there were tears in his eyes. Even if he had been able to speak or text, he didn’t need to.
Chris left us on Jan. 5, 2022. We believe he is with God now.
A recent graduate of the Yale Divinity School looking forward to a career in religious journalism, she was a Good Faith Media Ernest C. Hynds Jr. Intern for the spring 2022 semester.