When time is the greatest gift, every day can be Christmas

Alan Herman, who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago, visits his wife, Cathy Herman, at her Laurel salon, Sassy Scissors.
Alan Herman, who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago, visits his wife, Cathy Herman, at her Laurel salon, Sassy Scissors. (Nikki Kahn)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010

This is what the perfect Christmas gift looks like. It is a thick but comfortable coat. Size XXL. Made of a fabric that's warm but also a little slippery. The last bit is the most important part, Cathy Herman explained, as she roamed through the Bass Pro Shop at Arundel Mills mall.

When it comes to Christmas, she and her husband, Alan, have always favored sensible gifts, things they needed anyway. And this year, she hoped to surprise her husband with a coat they could slip easily over his head - the only part of his body he can still move - and thread his arms through without catching on the wheelchair that shuttles him around.

It was around the time leading up to Christmas three years ago that her husband first started having trouble walking. Then came the doctors' diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. And with it, the devastating prognosis: two to five years to live.

Since then, Alan, 58, has lost control of his body little by little, and Cathy, 52, and their three children have learned what it means to dig deep in life, to find joy in the season, to laugh and pray and hope together. At their home in Laurel, they've learned to celebrate each Christmas as though it could be their last.

But it's also something they don't often talk about, that they try not to dwell on.

If the disease has taught them anything as it's crept through Alan's body, it's that if you focus too much on what you have lost or on the future, you forget to enjoy what you have in the present.

A day earlier, it had been Alan's turn for Christmas shopping.

As soon as Cathy left for work, Alan began plotting his trip out, to pick up a few surprise gifts for Cathy while she was gone.

With the help of his full-time caregiver - a guy Alan likes to refer to as his "executive assistant" - he covered himself in blankets to brace for the cold and made his way out the door.

Although the disease has robbed him of the use of most of his body, he can move the index finger of his right hand and breathe and talk on his own, abilities he often puts to full use joking and ribbing his caregiver, Khen Greathouse, 34.

In the past year, the two have become fast friends. Each morning, they team-tackle online games such as Trivial Pursuit, shouting out their answers. They've put together a lineup of morning shows, headlined by Maury Povich and their favorite, "The Jerry Springer Show."

Maury, however, would have to wait today. Alan intended to get to Costco and back to hide Cathy's presents before she returned from work.


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