It’s time to introduce you to the story of Lefty and Righty.
The year is 1956. The place is the sweet womb of one Bernice Jean Galbraith Ogan, a 27 year old school teacher in Lorain, Ohio. You’ll remember Lorain, for its famous, polluted Black River that flamed its way to the national news. I would also like you to know that Lorain is the birthplace of Nobel Laureate Tony Morrison, and actress Milica Govich. No doubt you’ll remember Milica from her roles on television and Broadway, and famously as Ansel Elgort’s mom in the blockbuster movie The Fault in Our Stars.
Back to the womb.
You see, Lefty and Righty are fraternal twins. They’ve been a duo from the very beginning, At seven months, they were passing banana bits to each other for fun.
The twins have always been happy to work and play together. Climbing trees, riding bikes, eating a field-fresh ear of hot-buttered corn at a picnic in July. These two go way back with fun and festivity.
Bernie, as she was known to her friends, loved Lefty and Righty equally. She clipped their nails with great care, and inspected for cleanliness before meals. She taught them to move a chess piece, and shoot pool on a revered table in Mr. Ryan’s basement. She eventually gave up on anything that involved hand-eye coordination, but to be fair, that was not the fault of either Lefty or Righty,
Bernie, and her father before her, were known for being left-handed. So, when Lefty preferred to hold the spoon, then the Crayola, I suspect that Bernie was silently well-pleased.
Lefty emerged as the one with notable dexterity at a keyboard. His bass-line could astonish, and his speed with A,S,D,F was truly remarkable. Righty, worked to keep up with above average success, and remained content with J,K,L, semi-colon. Lefty couldn’t help feeling the tiniest bit sad for Righty, regarding the semi-colon.
Let’s keep this next part to ourselves, since now is not the time to reflect on past failures. The truth is that Lefty could be a bit of a show-off. For example, the repeated errors in typing class were due to Lefty’s competitive edge to exceed 50 wpm. Lefty has always been the one who needs to be convinced to slow down.
As life for the twins poured forth, Lefty would emerge as the favored one.
Lefty wears the ring. Lefty pens the letters. Lefty strokes the hair of children at bedtime. Lefty uses the fork, and chops the onions. Until, recently, Lefty’s index finger pushed seeds into the fresh, cool soil each Spring.
A year ago, Lefty held Bernie’s left hand as she lay dying.
Lefty has led a life of privilege. And Righty has been, well, right there, ready to help. Righty held the onion to be chopped. Righty held an equal number of children’s hands to cross a parking lot. Righty happily joined in push-ups, and swimming across Walden Pond. Righty has always been grateful to tag along with Lefty, who has always happily taken the lead.
If the symptoms of ALS had started with Righty, instead of Lefty, the diagnosis may have been longer in the making. Slight weakness in Righty’s thumb and index finger may not have manifest as a problem, like it did for Lefty trying to write clinic notes, and prepare vaccines in syringes.
Dysdiadokinesia is the medical term for the inability to perform rapid, alternating muscle movements. It is a hallmark of ALS, along with muscle weakness and fasciculations (muscle twitching). The neurological exam tests for dysdiadokinesia by comparing the right and left hands. The examiner asks the patient to wiggle their fingers, and to tap the fingers against the thumb of the same hand in rapid succession. Lefty, of course, has always excelled at this task, so much so that many a doctor has worried about Righty. That is, until I reveal Lefty’s privileged place in the world.
ALS doctors who had never met Lefty and Righty were reassured by Lefty’s lack of dysdiadokinesia, but I knew. Lefty knew. So did Righty. We kept quiet for awhile. After all, what was there to do?
In an unassuming way, Righty has learned to button a shirt alone, to brush my teeth, and shave my face. Lefty was downhearted at first, maybe still is. But Lefty is also grateful for Righty who has never been one to brag about brushing teeth, or pushing the start button on a microwave.
What has become clear to me as ALS progresses, is that Righty and Lefty are in this together. Righty is quite happy to hand Lefty the pen that would otherwise slip away from Lefty’s loose grip. And Lefty, God love Lefty, is honestly growing more comfortable receiving the help, because it means the two are still in this as a team, even if some of their roles are shifting.
For now, as Lefty’s function declines, Righty is there for assistance and comfort. I’ve noticed Lefty settling into Righty’s palm, or lacing fingers as a way to settle into my lap, like the way Peggy and I spoon to sleep, night after night. It’s an act of ordinary tenderness. It’s an unconscious kindness. It’s love manifest in the reality of ALS.