By Fr. Don Braukmann/Retired Priest of the Diocese of Crookston
As I shared a year ago, I have ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was diagnosed in December of 2017. There is no cure for ALS and it results in death usually 2-3 years after diagnosis. There have been some who have lived many years with the disease as it progresses differently for each person. Apparently, I don’t have the “long life” version. Best guess is I have months and not years to live.
As I type (which is the first thing I am thankful for; the hands often go first) I can still walk, although I am using a wheelchair more and more. I am able to shower even if Lake Bemidji shrinks in size because of the time it takes! I can no longer dress myself which has been a great lesson in humility! My voice is fading away, especially appreciated by my sister! (Just kidding!) The whole eating and swallowing process is goofed up and I have choked twice. For better or worse, ALS is a great way to lose weight (note the sarcasm!) as I have lost more than 30 pounds at this point.
As things deteriorate, I have had more than one person ask if I wished “Physician Assisted Suicide” existed in Minnesota so I could end my life and avoid going through what is coming my way. Now, some readers may be shocked that I would hang out with people who would say or think such a thing. Well, I hang out with them because I know they love me and care about me. If you have ever prayed for God to take someone you loved “home” to heaven, you know what you mean and so does God. Wanting death and making it happen are truly two different things.
The Minnesota legislature is now in a pattern of considering such legalization every session. Thankfully it has not even made it to the legislative floor for a vote but the fact it is in the pipeline should scare us all.
Our culture is so afraid of what we cannot control (death!) and so we call it “mercy” (as in mercy killing) when we want it to go away. Of course, we are afraid of and want to avoid suffering! I am not looking forward with eagerness to what is coming my way. I often avoid looking up ALS on “Google” because I don’t want to know! I bet those reading this column who also suffer from a terminal disease, whatever it may be, are not eagerly awaiting their future on this earth either.
However, I am eager to watch what God will do with the coming days because I am convinced he will bring good somehow, someway when I/we least expect … for it is already happening. “Assisted suicide” is a lie and the word “mercy” has no place in that discussion. Why are we so afraid to let God do what God does best, which is to bring light in the midst of darkness?
Unless some other ailment or unexpected health crisis comes my way, I will either die of a heart attack and/or suffocate. ALS affects muscles, and my heart and diaphragm are two critical ones.
This is what I know as true:
First, although I do not (yet) thank God for allowing ALS to take over my life, ALS has helped fill my heart with gratefulness for my family and for all those I have met along the way of 32 years as a Catholic Priest (33 as of March 15!). In these remarkable years, I have met incredible, holy people wherever I have served. People who have shared with this simple farm boy from New York Mills the deepest sorrows, sins, joys and victories of their lives. I will ask to my grave, “Why have I been so honored?”
During those 33 years, I have also had to face myself. When you stand before Christ – whether that is in the mirror, at Eucharist or in the eyes of those you minister to – you can’t get away from yourself. I don’t think any of us enjoy healthy naval gazing, yet that is where freedom is … standing before Christ as we are, not as we hope others believe we are.
Second, I can trust God through the winter of life because I know the spring is coming. I trust the snow piled up outside my window will fade away and the bitter, cold, howling winter wind will give way to birds rejoicing. All of that is true in nature and in our relationship with Christ.
And Third, ALS has become an invitation to life, not a death sentence. Ever notice that “evil” spelled backwards is LIVE? I am learning what St. Paul said about the “thorn” in his side.
He never tells us what it is and that is deliberate so each of us can fill in the blank for ourselves as to what the thorn is for us. We may beg God to remove it as St. Paul did, still I hope we hear God’s reply: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
How true it is. When we turn and face the weakness, the shadows, the darkness, the abyss or whatever you want to call it for yourself, we find Christ standing there with open arms, not a pointing finger! Our “weakness” has brought us to the Savior! We are free!
In all of this (which may seem like rambling) I simply want to echo the words Christ said over and over again: “Be not Afraid!” I pray my final moments on this earth will be filled with trust, love, gratefulness and JOY … knowing the best is yet to come.