Dave glances back at his passengers, checks their seatbelts and gives them a smile, turns back to his work. The cockpit is carefully designed to put the many instruments and controls within easy reach. Dave adjusts one more lever, twists a key and brings the engine to life, then programs the radios and navigation system, checks it all against his flight plan, keys the mic. Ten minutes later, the ship breaks ground and soars through the clouds, toward a hospital many miles away.
That was three years ago. Today, the mission is different. Dave looks up as we come through the door, gives us a friendly nod, turns back to his work. He is breathing heavily under an oxygen mask, and his wife tells us it’s been a hard morning. Dave’s sophisticated wheelchair is carefully designed to put its many controls within easy reach, but he cannot reach them.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the disease that attacked the great baseball player, Lou Gehrig, is attacking Dave, short-circuiting his connection to his own body. Dave sees and understands and speaks, but like an airplane with no battery, his once strong and graceful body lies dark and still.
“He may not be able to talk”, Cindy warns, and we can see that he is laboring, but he turns his head toward her and nods emphatically. He wants to try and, carefully, she removes the oxygen mask.
ALS is a cruel and patient disease. Its puzzled victims blame themselves at first for becoming clumsy, unaware that a sinister process has begun that will gradually take away their arms and legs and, finally, their ability to breathe. It is a slow drowning that leaves the victim’s mind alert, able to see what is happening but unable to do anything about it.
Dave knows all this, knows what is coming. The arms he used to hold his wife, to embrace his grandchildren, to fly his airplane, now lay limp upon the chair, but he still has the use of his face, and his smile is warm. He steals a breath, forces out a “Hi”. Another breath. “Good.” “To see.” “You.”
For years, Dave has flown sick people to hospitals as a volunteer for Wings of Mercy. For years, he has served on the board and organized events, all this above and beyond his everyday job and his care for his family. He has never been a man to sit around and watch others work, but now he has no choice.
I ask how he deals with the frustration. “I pray.” His voice rises, pinched by the longing in his heart. His words come out one at a time, a pained whisper. “I can’t do anything. They have to do it all for me.” And “they” is often Cindy. She is petite – in her own words, “a peanut” – and she struggles to move her husband’s long body between a hospital bed and the wheelchair. Her mother helps, and sometimes an aide.
This is not their first sorrow. One morning eleven years ago, Dave and Cindy’s seventeen-year-old son bounded out the door and jumped into his car, unaware that he was in his final hour. A large collage now hangs on the wall in the living room – portraits of a handsome young man in baseball and football uniforms, a page from an essay he wrote for school. When Dave received his ALS diagnosis, one of the first things he said was, “I’ll get to see Kyle”.
I ask how he copes with such trouble. “Not”, “God’s”, “Fault”, Dave says, shaking his head slowly but emphatically. “Not God’s fault.” He closes his eyes and, though the words come slowly, memories are rushing through his mind. “I was proud. I was selfish. I wish I had done more.” He confesses weakness that was never visible to us, examines his life critically, prepares his soul. But such severity he reserves for himself. To us, he offers his normal warm smile, nods to underline his quiet words.
He was always a man you wanted to be around, a man whose radiance warmed you. So much has been taken away from him, but somehow, he is radiant still. His smile costs him a great deal and it reaches your soul, a patriarchal blessing that you will carry away and remember.
He loves Wings of Mercy and has high hopes for it. “A good team”, he says. Smiles. Nods again. And when we are forced to continue without him? He pauses, and a different, more focused expression comes over his face. “Be bold,” he says and meets our eyes. “Never be ashamed of the name of Jesus”, quoting a phrase first spoken by his brother, Rick, and frequently repeated by Peter VandenBosch, the organization’s founder.
It has been a few weeks since our last visit and today, as we move into the room, it is apparent that the disease has crept forward, now targeting the muscles Dave needs to breathe. Perhaps it has attacked his spirit, too, but you cannot see it. He smiles through the mask, nods a weak but cheerful greeting to each one of us. The board of Wings of Mercy – his friends and colleagues – have come to the house today to say thank you and, perhaps, good-bye.
Terry Boer presents Dave with a plaque honoring his service and, one by one, each board member speaks of Dave’s faithfulness and courage and friendship, some with tears. Dave cannot speak, but when his friends praise him, he lifts his eyes, lifts his head – uses all he has left to point toward Jesus.
This is not the kind of news we want to publish. We share this now, while Dave is with us, so you will know what kind of man he has been and perhaps join us in saying thank-you.
“And let us run with endurance
the race God has set before us.”