ALS Inspires Reflection

By George Smith

Author photo by Kevin Bennett

When neurologist Dr. Stephanie Lash first diagnosed me with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, more than a year ago, she started me on a mental journey that has taken me both forward and backward through my life.

On the ride home from Rockport the day she told me, I decided the diagnosis would not define the end years of my life—realizing that I have been blessed with a wonderful life, with a wonderful wife and family, great friends, and interesting and rewarding work. Sure, I would have loved more healthy years, but that was not to be. I will increasingly need help doing everyday things.

ALS, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a specific disease which causes the death of neurons controlling voluntary muscles, causing muscles to weaken and making it progressively difficult to control those muscles to accomplish even basic actions such as speaking, swallowing, and breathing. There is no known cure for ALS or medicine to halt its progression.

Even as I research ALS issues, and diligently plan for whatever lies ahead, I am taking a rewarding trip back through life’s memories.

I had a terrific childhood. Growing up in the small Maine town of Winthrop, with wonderful parents, siblings, and friends, was a blessing. We had a real downtown with many stores featuring the owners’ names on them and those owners were in the stores—including Wilson’s Dollar Store where my dad worked. You could find everything you needed, right there in Winthrop.

I was just four years old when I started walking the mile to school, with friends, right through a busy intersection, across active railroad tracks, and through the downtown. We were very safe—everyone knew us. On weekends my friends and I rode our bikes, often with fishing rods in hand, or hiked in the woods. No one worried about us as long as we made it home for supper.

By the age of twelve, I worked three jobs—mowing lawns, selling my 4-H vegetables, and working at Wilson’s, where my favorite job was roasting the peanuts and cashews. I’m not sure the owner ever realized I was eating all the profits!

After graduating from the University of Maine in Orono, I worked for two years at a Maine bank before diving into politics. My first job was as Bill Cohen’s driver and aide during his first congressional campaign.

After Bill’s campaign ended, I sold real estate in Winthrop for two years, and in the second year, also managed Dave Emery’s first congressional campaign. We astonished everyone, including me, by upsetting the incumbent congressman. I worked for Dave for the next eight years, traveling back and forth between Maine and Washington, D.C.

I loved my job, but in 1982 Dave decided to run for Senate and lost to George Mitchell. That loss was another turning point for me, as I immediately incorporated my own business, Mainely Marketing Inc. We took on interesting projects, from helping rural Maine towns create comprehensive plans to working on referendums and candidate campaigns. I developed an expertise in raising money, something I still enjoy doing today.

I also served in many public offices, from county commissioner to town councilor to selectman to planning board member. I still love local government.

Having served on the board of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), including a stint as president in the 1980s, I contracted with SAM to help pull it out of a challenging time in 1991. I enjoyed that work so much that eventually I agreed to serve as the organization’s executive director and lobbyist, although I was never a SAM employee. I signed annual contracts specifying the services I’d provide.

Throughout the eighteen years I worked for SAM, I occasionally took on other tasks. And I always worked from home, where I was most productive.

With my own business, I could structure work to spend time with my wife, Linda, a teacher, and our children, particularly in the summer when we traveled the country and spent time at our north woods camp. And, of course, I took every opportunity to hunt and fish, enjoying amazing fishing adventures in Quebec, Montana, and Alaska.

Seven years ago, I left SAM to write full time, another wonderful experience that included two books with Islandport Press.

The most fun was writing a weekly travel column in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Traveling the state, finding and telling readers about our excellent inns, restaurants, and events, was a real privilege.

We also wrote about our trips out of state, including to our favorite place, Greve, Italy, where we stayed in one of two apartments in a small family winery, Il Santa. We’ve now sent more than fifty people from Maine to stay there, and all have loved it.

Since my ALS diagnosis, I’ve enjoyed writing columns about my life and the state I’m proud to call home. I’ve reached out to share this life-altering experience as it unfolds. The response to those columns has been amazing and inspiring, with people from Alaska to Italy sending messages.

In addition to tackling obvious items of concern, from finances to medical care and insurance, I’ve refocused my life on the people and activities I value most—family and friends, especially. I suggested to readers if there is a lesson from that column it is this: Many of us clutter our lives with things that are not all that important. I sure did. And you are welcome to join me in assessing how to better spend your time, and perhaps focusing on the most important things in your life.

Many readers have told me they’d taken my advice, which pleases me.

I also connected with others experiencing ALS or similar illnesses, resulting in lots of helpful information and guidance. My brother and sister, my three kids, and many friends have stepped up to help with all kinds of things, from shoveling snow to taking me fishing (I can no longer tie on a fly or release a fish, having lost strength in my fingers). I also feel lucky to have a terrific medical team right here in Maine.

I feel especially blessed to have grown up in a family of faith, where my mom, our church organist and choir director, centered our lives in the church. At this point in my life, that is a real strength. I still sing in the choir, thanks to Mom, who started me on that path when I was six years old.

There have been many things to do at home, from making it wheelchair-accessible, when I reach the point where I must use one, to getting rid of stuff. Of course, on day one of that project, Linda asked me, “Do you really need fourteen fly rods?”

Well, yes! Yes I do!

George A. Smith, a lifelong sportsman, is a former newspaper columnist, and author of several books, including A Life Lived Outdoors and Take it from ME. See his work at www.georgesmithmaine.com.