In April of 2004, I lost my hero to a tragic illness, ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Her name was Elaine, and despite being struck with a severe case of Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 16, she still went on to play field hockey, study biology at MSU, become one of the first female bacteriologists in Detroit, teach school, do homeless and prison ministry, help raise her sister's four boys, beat a nasty case of typhoid fever that left her hospitalized for an entire year, have three kids, eight grandkids, and one great-grandchild.
My grandmother was a self-described women's libber, and she met Grandpa when she tagged him out at third base on a family vacation in Canada. She didn't marry till she was in her 30's, and had her last child when she was 40.
My grandmother Elaine inspired so much in me. It probably won't surprise you to learn that it was because of her that I chose Rosie the Riveter as this blog's mascot. In my eyes, she is Rosie, fired up and ready to conquer it all.
She guessed she had ALS even before the doctors did. With her mind as sharp as a bell till the day she left us, she died a trapped prisoner in her own body at the age of 87.
When our family received the devastating news, I decided to write a tribute to her and give it to her before she died. Don't people deserve to hear how much we love them before they die instead?
Little did I know that I would have to have the most painful and excruciating surgery of all my 35 surgeries the day after she died. My only wish going into surgery was that while I was under the anesthetic, she'd be with me.
My family held off on her memorial service until the day after I'd been discharged, two weeks later. Despite having major abdominal surgery, still hooked up to tubes and devices and on major painkillers, I arrived at the memorial service in a wheelchair and a bright red dress, determined not to mourn, but to celebrate.
I gave that tribute that day at the memorial service to a packed sanctuary, hunched over in pain and anguish as I made my way to the pulpit and somehow fought back the tears as I proudly read off the memorial to a woman who I try to be like each and every day.
I'll never forget one of my last conversations with her while she still had the ability to talk. I told her she was my hero, that if I didn't have her in my life, I might not have made it through the last ten years of my life with such a debilitating case of Crohn's Disease. I knew that God put her in my life to be an example of what you can still do even with a crippling illness if you just put your mind to it. We both teared up, but nothing could have prepared me for what she said next.
You're my hero.
She said that I reminded her of the same things she reminded me of, and how important it was to die gracefully, still doing for others till the day she left this Earth.
That's precisely what she did, up until the day that she could no longer talk or move, and lay trapped in her bed, her eyes the only window to the person she was inside.
Even in her death, she did for others. She requested that her body be donated to science specifically so that scientists could study ALS and find a cure. A year or two later, we met some of the medical students at U of M who explained how important a gift this is to science and how much it means to them as doctors and researchers.
Throughout the entire journey, my family benefited greatly from the ALS of Michigan's services, from family counseling, to assistive devices that helped her breathe, or speak easier, to hospice planning, and bereavement counseling.
It is because of Elaine that my family participates in the ALS of Michigan's Walk n' Roll each year, a fundraiser to not only find a cure, but to provide assistance and support to families right here in Michigan who deal with this illness each and every day.
This year, I'm forming my own team to walk and roll in a 3 mile event right here in Lansing at Hawk Island Park on Saturday, September 29th.
It's a great event filled with friends, fun, food, good music, and of course, promoting a great cause and raising awareness and money to help those who also suffer.
Most of all, I'd be honored if you'd join my team.
Team Elaine's Legacy will continue to pass on Elaine's legacy, one of passion, dedication to others, and making the world a better place, one person at a time.
Perhaps you know someone who had ALS or is suffering with it right now. It can strike people as young as 30, and if you've read Mitch Albom's Tuesday's with Morrie, you know it can strike the elderly, like my grandmother.
You can join the team, come walk with us, bring the kids, the dog, or both, or if you can't make it but still want to help out, you can donate. We've got a team goal of $10,000, and we can't do it without your help.
You don't have to move mountains or scale large buildings to make a difference. Create your own legacy, be a hero to someone, pass it on.