Amazing Grace

 

Allen Throop, felled by ALS, never saw himself as a victim

By Jeff Welsh
Photography by Family
 

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It was like any other wake, really, when 75 of Allen Throop's nearest and dearest gathered recently at picturesque Beazell Memorial Forest [in Oregon] to celebrate a remarkable journey.

They laughed. They cried. They waxed poetic about the life of a man who learned long ago how to live.

And then, when it was time to leave one of his favorite places on a planet full of wonder and adventure, they had the most priceless memory of all.

They could peer into Throop's sharp, twinkling eyes and see the imprint of their words.

It isn't every day that a man walks, albeit slowly and carefully, to his own services, but then again it isn't every day in our culture that we face death with such grace.

Throop ['66] was touched, of course. He was flattered, for sure. Naturally, he also responded with the dry wit that epitomizes his approach to a fight he is destined to lose, certainly sooner than he hoped and probably earlier than he imagined in February when he learned of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly and ominously known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

"At my real wake," he quipped to his guest speakers, "you can say what you really think about me."

Throop chuckled Wednesday as he retold the story while wrestling with a spinach calzone at New Morning Bakery in Corvallis, using his hands to hoist lunch to his lips because he can no longer manage a fork and knife.

If it's true that laughter, not to mention self-deprecating humor and a strikingly optimistic outlook, are the best medicine, then Throop is as close to a cure for an incurable disease as remotely possible.

Never mind that he must walk ever so gingerly, mindful that if he fell on a sidewalk today he couldn't stand on his own, the way he did after falling face-first downtown just a few weeks ago.

Never mind that he needs help to lock the red tricycle he must use to get around town because he can no longer pedal his bicycle.

Never mind that he must pen his captivating stories for the newspaper's Venture section using voice-recognition software because his fingers refuse to cooperate.

And never mind even that this degenerative disease of the nervous system will get progressively worse, first stealing his ability to exercise and walk, then hindering his swallowing and breathing, and finally robbing him of his life. "It's not a good end game," he concedes matter-of-factly, "so I'm trying to enjoy the moment."

As he talks, he smiles through his salt-and-pepper beard and his eyes gleam through glasses with a sparkle that belies his body's ravages. He is unfailingly upbeat in the face of perhaps the unkindest disease known to humankind, an ailment that renders the muscles useless while leaving the mind and soul unscathed and painfully aware.

One could forgive Throop, especially, if he were to wallow in self-pity.

This is a man whose adventurous spirit has taken him around the world to scale high mountains, hike lengthy trails and pedal highways and byways on each coast.

He has worked as a mining geologist and played as an outdoors enthusiast in Tasmania, Canada and much of the American West. He has looked under virtually every rock in Oregon with the anticipation of a child at Christmas.

On that benchmark camping trip last fall, when his hand went dead on an especially frigid night, he had thought himself near his finest physical shape ever. At first he ignored the symptoms, even as he grew noticeably weaker. Only when his daughter, Heather, noticed that he was nursing his coffee mug with two hands, was he forced to acknowledge that something might be terribly wrong. A local neurologist made the ALS diagnosis in January and, in an ironic twist, did so conclusively because Throop was so fit; most people in their 50s and 60s have myriad other ailments to confuse and confound.

Throop was already bracing for the worst. Every time he had ventured online to match symptoms with ailments, the cursor kept pointing at the same outcome.

"It kept coming up that ALS was a possibility," he said, "so when they told me I've got it I wasn't surprised."

He took a deep breath. OK.

Baseball legend Gehrig lived with the disease for two years. Others live five to 10 years. The average is two to five. Throop was otherwise healthy, so he geared up for a grace period of many months, perhaps even years.

He rode his bike. He continued to take long hikes. He bicycled across Yellowstone National Park. "I thought it'd be a minor inconvenience for awhile," he said. "I guess I was wrong. It's gone very quickly."

First to go were the hands. Then the legs grew weaker. The upper body has followed. Through it all, Throop refused to stop moving.
He constantly adjusts and, taking a cue from a longtime friend who maintained a similarly upbeat attitude to his final breath while fighting cancer, vowed not only to stay alive as long as possible, but to live in the process.

"He just maintained an interest in life," Throop explained. "He didn't dwell on it."

Throop climbed the Flatirons above Boulder, Colo., this summer. Last week, he did a four-mile hike. Next week, he is planning a trip to Steens Mountain. "The trick is trying to figure out a week before I can't do it when to give something up," he said. He wishes he could climb, hike and pedal again, but he has accepted that he can't with few visible signs of remorse. "Part of it is being out there, but part of it is being out there with people I love doing things I love," he said, smiling again.

Yes, there have been moments of despair.

Earlier this spring, while hiking in the Columbia Gorge, he felt sorry for himself. Then he looked around and, even through those maddening spring rains, saw incomparable beauty. He hasn't wallowed since.

So if you see Throop pedaling about town on his red tricycle, don't cry for him. Listen for his dry wit, which will still elicit a chuckle. Look into his eyes, which still burn bright with life.

Allen Throop '66 died Monday, April 12, from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. This column was published in the Corvallis (Ore.) Gazette-Times. It is reprinted by permission.

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