I met a man at a bar about six years ago. His name was Brian. He had Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was in a wheelchair. His body was thin, and his limbs were slightly contorted. He was 30-something years old. He'd lived a physically active life before the disease arrived. He'd done a lot of hiking, mountain climbing, boating, and martial arts. But his passion was for motorcross. He knew that he'd be dead within months, or possibly even weeks.
He wasn't close to his family, but he'd had a group of friends that shared his active lifestyle. When his disease made that lifestyle unsustainable, they abandoned him. All of them. They stopped calling. They didn't come visit. They didn't write. They were gone. He was left to face death alone.
He moved to the north end of downtown Chicago. That part of the city was easily navigated by wheelchair. He had money in the bank, and he made the bars of Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood his new and final home. The bartenders and doormen all knew him by name. But he was desperate to be truly close to somebody.
He told me all of this with a steady downpour of words. He had no time for pretense or subtlety. He could not afford to be cowed by the thought of rejection. He did not have the luxury of lying to himself.
And I listened to all of this. I let the words soak in. I could feel the fear and the loneliness in every word that the man uttered. We moved together from one bar to the next. Faces that were familiar to him, helped him in and out of bars. Onto and off of bar stools. He drank gin. And he threw his naked pleas for companionship at me like a mad fisherman, furiously throwing his line at the water, over and over again.
As the night inched closer to morning, he wound down. The urgency that had been in his words and movements began to subside. But there was no peace in the creeping silence. There was only defeat.
When we prepared to part ways, he gave me his phone number. I don't know whether he believed that I'd call. I do know that he wanted that call to come. But it didn't come. Not from me.
I was sincerely sympathetic. I was even curious. But I was also scared, and that was the emotion that won.
I don't know how long I held onto the number. I don't remember how close I came to calling. I only remember that I didn't do it.
I sometimes wonder how his final days played out. Whether he found somebody more courageous, or simply more caring, than me. Whether he had somebody to hold his hand as he died.
I wonder what would be different with me too, had I made that call.