A Conscientious Companion
The angel on my shoulder shares his perspective
I watched him as he stubbed out a filterless cigarette on the top of a fence post at a kayak landing near the mouth of Bay County’s Grand Lagoon.
Moments later, he retrieved from his Jeep a canister that I took to be portable oxygen. He had it in hand as I approached, coming off the water following an early morning wadefishing session.
“I don’t see a stringerful,” he greeted me.
“I caught a big bluefish,” I honestly replied. “Fight like sisters, but you can’t much eat ’em.”
I was close enough now to see the nicotine stains on the man’s mustache, one large enough to put John Bolton to shame, even Craig Stadler back in the days when he was full-on walrus.
The man next dragged from his vehicle a length of rope, neatly coiled, and a large, amorphous piece of plastic or nylon or some such.
“You know, if you’re hungry enough, a bluefish will do all right,” he offered.
The canister proved to be a pump, not an air supply, and the relaxed material soon took shape as a kiteboarding wing. Smoking had not incapacitated the man, not yet. Those kiteboarding foils, you know, they really go.
I thought back to the Man With the Yellow Mustache — and his comment suggesting that outlooks on bluefish may vary with perspectives — after spending time at the Lynn Haven home of Randy Walton.
Randy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) in July 2019 and lost the ability to walk two years later.
Confined now to a custom-made, motorized wheelchair and relying on demi Dixie cups of meds taken in the morning and at night, his perspective has changed dramatically — and in a way that I never would have expected.
We reached the point in conversation where I was comfortable asking him, a man with a progressive and terminal disease, where he continues to find joy. Already, he had described to me the operation of his power toilet seat and bidet. He had described nightly muscle spasms so excruciating that before he found a medication to relieve them he did not think that he could go on.
He had described his career as a civilian Department of Defense employee whose specialty, micro-circuitry, required the hands of a surgeon. Today, he lacks the dexterity needed to retrieve a pill from a bottle. He delivers voice commands, mostly, to his phone. Keystroking is possible but difficult for much of the day and becomes impossible in the evening when he tires and his hands begin to shake. When I met him, he was in the process of trying out several seat cushions to see if one might be slightly more comfortable than the rest.
Prior to his ALS diagnosis, Randy said, he never had stopped to consider his relative good fortune.
Now, he does.
He has met, via an ALS support group, others with Lou Gehrig’s disease who are worse off than he — people without savings, people whose only insurance plan is Medicare.
Randy’s home and truck are paid off. He has a Blue Cross supplement. He has qualified for $2,500 monthly payments from the Social Security Administration. His parents are with him as round-the-clock caregivers. He is surrounded by supportive neighbors.
He has bluefish when others have none.
And so he gives back in any way that he can, sending bedding and candy and even a microwave oven to support group members, delivering treats to a neighbor’s dog, rolling down the street to show a woman how to operate the mirrors on her new Lincoln.
Randy has come to be for me a better angel who sits on my shoulder.
The other day during my morning run, I encountered a red carry-on bag on a sidewalk. Maybe, I thought, it had bounced out of a pickup truck. Randy told me to inspect the bag, see if I might find a tag with an address on it. But in my other ear came that airport public-address system voice that warns you not to touch unattended luggage.
I was inclined to bring the bag to the attention of police who report to the school crossing not far from where the bag was.
Suspicion trumped trust. Perspectives change.
Steve Bornhoft, Executive Editor