The Courage of Bob

04/17/2017 02:55 pm ET

The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter Three, invokes: “to everything there is a season.” The storied folk rock group, The Byrd’s, got religion in the mid 1960s and sung about Ecclesiastes—an anthem for the Baby Boom generation.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

“A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

“A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

Today is a time of weeping.

At 78, there are a lot of miles on Bob Bertschy, who, as a lanky young ballplayer, crouched behind home plate, wearing the “tools of ignorance,” as a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

The term—coined by either Muddy Ruel, who caught for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in the 1920s, or Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey, who played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig—implies that smart people would never don such apparatus and play such a precarious position as catcher, with baseballs thrown at them at hurricane speeds. Yet the intelligence required to handle duties behind the plate, directing play as a field general while bumbling with the tools of ignorance, is a disconnect of remarkable proportions.

We catchers stick together, a fraternal body of friendship. On several occasions, Bob and I have talked about our early years behind the plate. Something that still distresses us, clearly not over it yet, is that catchers in the days before batting cages generally never got to hit in batting practice. We were too busy digging balls out of the dirt. No wonder our batting averages were lower. For hours, we patiently backstopped the practice lobs, looping curves, and fastballs to the team roster, then the coach summarily called it quits. Pissed all us catchers off. Behind the plate, we were always on defense, never on offense. In the Dodgers organization, Bob, in fact, one day pleaded as a brash 19-year-old to hit at the end of batting practice, saying he’d even wear his bulky catcher’s equipment to the batters’ box to save time. Rebuffed and frustrated by the system, he dropped an expletive here and there.

Bob and I are close friends, and we still are wearing tools of ignorance, but of a different kind—still on defense, not offense, both of us fighting Alzheimer’s. Bob also suffers from Parkinson’s and Lewy Body disease, another form of progressive dementia with symptoms that include fluctuations in alertness, hallucinations, slowness of movement, trouble walking, mood changes, depression and more. We know the infield baseline of dementia, having picked off in our day many a base runner leaning the wrong way. But extra innings don’t bode well now for either of us. Lots of passed balls.

Bob was born in Dover, MA in the working stiff “chicken coup” section of town; his mom used to stitch together Little League uniforms for his neighborhood team. The son of a school superintendent and a librarian, Bob, a Boston University graduate with a Ph.D. in Business Management, was always a fighter, but there is a tender side to him, too. For many years, he taught chemistry and performing arts at the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, a private college prep boarding school that instills in its students courage, integrity, leadership, curiosity and concern for one another. At the Hyde School, Bob also coached football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse and tennis, and choreographed dances with his Hyde students, which they performed on Broadway and at the Kennedy Center. Always striving, Bob in his 40s began painting stunning oil and watercolors, and at age 62, he took up the violin, forever encouraging those around him to persevere. Bob saved lives at the Hyde School, and now his students are trying to save him. That could be a reach; sadly, he’s fading out to Pluto.

A man of strong faith, Bob straddles this life and the next, seeing things beyond the view of others, often times seeing things that aren’t there. Frequently, he notices strangers lurking in the house—illusions from the disease. Then he’ll spot his golf bag in the corner with thick wool head covers for his drivers. One day, having one of his hallucinations, he yelled at his wife, saying, “There are a bunch of midgets over there staring at me! What the hell are they doing here?” demanded Bob, a guy who used to call his errant golf ball “Mr. Peckerhead,” until he started playing with members of Brewster Baptist Church, then changed the name to “Mr. Pee.”

Removing the head covers, Pat gently reassured Bob that the “midgets” were his golf drivers. He settled down in the moment, until more strangers appeared.

Another interloper arrived weeks ago in the form of Stage 4 terminal stomach cancer, with Bob’s body continuing to break down from an onslaught of diseases. The inoperable tumor has enveloped most of his stomach, and has crept into his esophagus. His pain on a scale of one-to-10 is at a 20. Doctors at first sought to shrink the tumor with palliative radiation so Bob could swallow. Bob, reaching deep into the soul, rejected stutter-step treatment, pending recommendations from Boston’s finest cancer doctors. Catchers control the game, until the game is over. Death is the only other option now. Bob is on hospice and on morphine to ease the journey beyond.

Alzheimer’s in later stages poses its own difficulties in swallowing, called dysphagia. In Alzheimer’s, the coordination and control needed to chew and swallow is wholly compromised. An individual may cough or choke when swallowing, or refuse to try to swallow, part of the end-stage Alzheimer's process of the body gradually shutting down.

Add to this a tumor inching into the esophagus and one has an idea of what hell looks like.

The latest health crisis comes off the heels of two vascular strokes, likely a dementia complication from specs of blood in the brain resulting from vessel damage and leaky blood vessels, the result in some cases of head trauma. Bob and I have had our bell rung many times over the years. The brain, one of the body’s most fertile networks of blood flow, is vulnerable in Alzheimer’s, leading to strokes or what doctors call TIAs, transient ischemic attacks—mini-strokes. I’ve had two of them myself; my mother, who died of Alzheimer’s, had them as well.

Bob has fought on; the Lord has blessed him with great courage. His time now is short, and he knows it. We met for coffee the other day, and talked about his fears of the present and the peace of the future. The challenge, he said, is getting from the fear to the peace, a trial we all face in this journey from the cradle to the grave. Bob now seems more open with me than others in talking about the fears. Perhaps it’s because we’re on the same train: not long ago, I reached for my razor to brush my teeth; my heart told me it’s wasn’t a good idea. I fear the day when I think it is. I told Bob about it, and he winced. Watching Bob today is ripping me up, sitting in the caboose, knowing Bob is in the engine room. Yet Bob doesn’t feel sorry for himself; he’s just worried about his wife and family. He’s realistic, sad, scared, thankful, and loving all at once—attributes critical in the fight against Alzheimer’s

Reserved in so many fundamental ways, Bob is reaching out in these final moments to close male friends to tell them that he loves them, something he was averse to do in the past. Not bad for a guy who once wore, with pride, the tools of ignorance.

“I love you,” Bob tells them from the heart, still feeling a bit discomfited at the invocation, a little awkward, but he knows in his soul it’s the right course.

He confided in me in his confusion on this the other day. Catchers stick together.

“Do you think I’m gay now?” he asked.

“Yes, Bob,” I replied. “We’re all gay in the full reaches of love and faith. And that’s the way it should be, the freedom to love…”

Alzheimer’s teaches perfect love. In Heaven, you leave the stereotypes at the door.

Postscript: Days after writing the above, I received an email from Bob’s wife Pat, sent to all family members and close friends after Bob had seen specialists in Boston. She said Bob’s neurologist, knowing the end game, stressed that he didn’t think radiation would work in shrinking part of the tumor to help Bob swallow, successful enough to warrant the pain it would cause. “The doctor told Bob that if it were him, he would go home and enjoy the time he has, watch more sunsets…listen to music and be at peace.” The neurologist told Bob, “You have earned the right to enjoy your days without more pain.” Bob agreed. Days and a few sunsets later, Bob died peacefully in great courage, sitting next to his wife Pat, holding hands. It was the way Bob wanted to go. They were the perfect battery—pitcher and catcher. Bob caught his final game with great distinction, protecting the plate, protecting his family, and in Heaven, he now has retired the tools of ignorance…Yet today is a time of weeping. To everything, there is a season…

(Greg O’Brien’s latest book, “On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s,” has won the 2015 Beverly Hills International Book Award for Medicine, the 2015 International Book Award for Health, and was an Eric Hoffer International Book Award finalist, as well as a finalist for USA Best Book Awards. O’Brien also is the subject of the short film, “A Place Called Pluto,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James, online at livingwithalz.org. NPR’s “All Things Considered” has run a series about O’Brien’s journey, and PBS/NOVA followed the Pluto journey in its groundbreaking Alzheimer’s documentary, Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped, among other regional and national interviews. For more information go to: OnPluto.org. O’Brien has served on the Alzheimer’s Association Advisory Group for Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and is a patient advocate for the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund of Boston and the distinguished Washington, DC based UsAgainstAlzheimer’s.)

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