Family's hope is its strength

Published May 1, 2007

Rose Eannel was pleasantly surprised when for several months, her son Jimmy, a second-grader at Deer Park Elementary, came home with spotless behavior reports.

Then over the Christmas break, Rose heard the 8-year-old in his room crying.

"He had made a bargain with God to heal his dad if he behaved, " Rose said. "He was giving up. It didn't work."

John Eannel Jr. pronounced Ee-N-el has been living with Lou Gehrig's disease since 2003. His family has watched him deteriorate from a cane to a walker to a motorized wheelchair. A 2005 trip to China for experimental stem cell treatment hasn't slowed his decline. He eats through a feeding tube and communicates with the help of a laptop computer.

But as John, 44, struggles with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, the family's journey has been spiced with moments of grace. Their three children have responded to their father's illness in surprising and refreshingly hopeful ways.

Jimmy has had the hardest time dealing with not having a strong, active dad. He quit baseball when John could no longer coach him. He gets counseling from Steve Brown, a Pasco-Hernando Hospice staffer who has been a steadying influence. Uncles, aunts and grandparents have formed a support network for the family. But Jimmy still gets angry.

So for Rose, hearing her son talk about his bargain with God opened the door to a conversation about faith, life after death and enjoying every day the family had together. Jimmy understood that.

"It was quite a moment, " she said.

As we spoke in the living room of their home in New Port Richey, Jimmy and his baby sister, Alexa, 4, were fussing in the kitchen as sisters and brothers do. John sat in his wheelchair listening, ready to chime in at any minute with a laptop computer.

Alexa was a few months old when John was diagnosed with ALS.

"This is the only way she has known him, " Rose said. She has only seen her father walk and talk in old home videos.

Alexa has become daddy's special helper. If he drools, she climbs up and wipes his mouth. If his head is leaning, she'll straighten it.

"It's amazing, the compassion she has for him, " her mom said.

Her compassion is accompanied by one lingering question: "Will daddy ever walk again?"

There are no comforting answers. ALS destroys a person physically while leaving their intellect untouched. John's only antidote is hope, if not for himself, then in the lives of his children. That hope gives him reasons to stay around for family milestones, like the recent annual fundraising golf tournament in his honor two weeks ago, Rose's 42nd birthday in September, even his stepson Austin's high school graduation a year from now.

Austin Bradford is Rose's son from a previous marriage, but he and John have always been close. John used to picked him up after school and take him on his delivery route.

Now Austin has tried to fill his dad's shoes. He accompanies his younger siblings to the park. He takes out the trash and washes the dishes without being asked.

Rose tears up with pride when she talks about her children.

She never figured this was part of the bargain. ALS may take her husband, but it certainly won't destroy her family.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.