"Nick, I've been asked to write a column about us. I don't think I can do it - what should I say?" I questioned my boss, the sports information director at Buena Vista University.
"Erica," he replied. "I can't help you with that; it's something you have to figure out on your own."
Always the teacher, Nick Huber is, even up to the finish line. I started packing up some stuff in his office, our office really. As I was putting his Cheat Commandos in the box, I tried to block out the fact that tomorrow would be his last day at work.
I still remember the first time I met Nick. He was tall and too thin with dark hair and he walked into my college class with a jolting gait. Later I found out it was due to ALS, the terminal illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. When he put out the call for student workers in the sports information office, I thought I would give it a shot. It has proved to be the best decision I ever made in my college career.I could fill pages with the work I've done over the past two years but it wouldn't be that interesting. Press releases are boring and there are only so many ways you can describe the slow freezing of your appendages on bitter cold days at the soccer field. Instead, I'd like to focus on the relationship between myself and the man who is my boss, my friend, my mentor.
When I first started working for Nick, I wasn't sure how I was supposed to approach him. I didn't know much about him except that he was an A-list sports information director and that he was dying. With that combination, I floated between treating him as the god of sports information and a fragile porcelain doll that might shatter at any moment.
Last summer, I worked for Nick full-time. You think you know someone but if you haven't spent 40 hours a week with them in an 8x10 office with no windows then you really don't have a clue about another person. We worked a lot but we also spent a lot of time just talking about everything: his Cubbies, my love for tennis, the dismal state of the world. We would jam out to rock 'n roll, joke around and we journeyed down to the racquetball courts. He loved the game when he was able to play and he was aghast that I didn't know how so he explained it to me one hot summer afternoon.
This last year, I picked up some more duties around the office as Nick's health declined. We were pretty close by that time and no longer did I treat him as someone who might break. I stood there and watched as he moved from walking to using a scooter to being confined to a mobilized wheelchair. These days, our close friendship has developed into a work asset. I have become proficient at deciphering what he is saying and can read his mind about what he wants done as his ability to speak has deteriorated sharply. I'm working for him again this summer. There are less laughs in the office these days and more serious conversations, conversations about life, about the future, about death, about all the topics most people spend a lifetime trying to avoid.
For those who don't understand the disease, ALS attacks the nervous system and slowly shuts the body down causing muscles to waste away, the loss of motor functions, speech, the ability to swallow. It effectively encases a sharp and active mind in an immobile prison. ALS patients typically have 3-5 years to live after diagnosis which usually occurs in middle to late adulthood. No one knows what causes it or how to cure it. Nick was diagnosed in 2003 and now it is 2007; he is 27 years old. You do the math.
How do you talk about something like this? I'm a writer but even I can't put into words what Nick means to me and how he has impacted my life. It's not even the fact that he has been a pivotal factor in shaping me into the sports writer I am today although that is certainly true.
Mostly it is how he has shaped me into the person I am. He's taught me how to accept life as it is, how to deal with the hard stuff, how to go after what I want and how to be a fighter. He's been there for me when I've made bad decisions and he's helped me make some right decisions and he's always been a sounding board for my problems, problems that are so minute in comparison to what he faces daily. I used to think that I needed to keep my problems and my triumphs to myself, that I couldn't burden a man who is carrying the ultimate burden: knowing you are going to die. Then I realized that he didn't want that and neither did I. We are real with each other and that's the only way I can manage to describe our relationship.
I push difficult things into remote corners of my mind, telling myself I'll deal with them later. Well, later is now and since I still don't have a grasp on how to handle the magnitude of something like this, I run. I crank out miles a day on the pavement, hoping to find some perspective, some reasoning behind this madness. It is just lately that I have realized that I already have perspective. Nick gave it to me. It is the one thing that so many people go through life never finding and I already have it thanks to him.
I still don't know what to say about us. Maybe some day I will have the right words but for now, I'm just going to run.
* Erica Beck, a 2007 BVU graduate, is a part-time Pilot-Tribune staffer who has worked with Nick Huber in the BVU sports information department.