Steve Gleason’s Unflinching Memoir of Living With A.L.S.

A LIFE IMPOSSIBLE: Living With ALS: Finding Peace and Wisdom Within a Fragile Existence, by Steve Gleason with Jeff Duncan

After you turn 70, as I will this year, any celebration will be muted by an ever-increasing awareness of mortality. I fear death, but what I fear even more is the way in which I’ll die. I hope it’s a heart attack in the dark of night — quick and painless, here today, gone tomorrow.

I’m terrified that the cause will be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It fundamentally destroys the nervous system, not all at once but in excruciating steps, leading to loss of muscle and the inability to speak, swallow or breathe on your own, constipation, drooling: You name it, A.L.S. will destroy it. The one area not affected is your brain. You understand what’s happening; you’re conscious of every indignity and humiliation until you die, usually within two to five years of diagnosis.

Which leads us to Steve Gleason’s memoir, “A Life Impossible,” written with Jeff Duncan. More than a decade after learning he had A.L.S. at the age of 33, Gleason has survived with the help of faith, resilience and the support of his wife, Michel, who has endured her own share of suffering.

I greatly admire “A Life Impossible” — its unflinching honesty and candor — but I’m not sure I am better off for reading it. Sometimes, ignorance is a mercy.

Gleason was a football player from Spokane, Wash., one of those athletes who supplemented his talent with a relentless work ethic, measuring himself by how much pain he could withstand, the more the better. He went to Washington State University, where he was a star linebacker on a team that went to the Rose Bowl. He wasn’t drafted but several teams expressed interest in signing him. For eight years, until his retirement in 2008, Gleason played on special teams with the New Orleans Saints, making his presence felt on every kicking play.

He was a physical kamikaze, fighting off blocks to get to kickoff and punt returners, all at blazing speed, a magnet for pain and adrenaline. He led the team in special teams tackles for several years and was named to ESPN’s All-Pro team for his performance during the 2002 season. But when the Saints returned to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, Gleason made a career-defining play: On the very first series of downs, he blocked a punt by the Atlanta Falcons that led to a Saints touchdown. It was an electrifying moment for New Orleans.

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