When my girlfriend and I were on a cruise recently, I couldn’t help but think in a few odd moments here and there what it had been like the last time I was on such a boat: same company (Royal Caribbean), same cafeteria name (the Windjammer, or the Jammer or just the Jam, as we called it now in cheerfully derisive, husky voices), and even more to the point: we’d signed up for the handicap room because we thought it would be a little bigger than the standard-issue shoebox-sized staterooms on the boat. Amanda couldn’t have been expected to know how strongly I would associate hand rails in the bathroom with my ex-wife’s father Chip, who had been dying of ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the last six years.
I’d helped to install the bars in my ex-father-in-law’s basement when the first of his muscles started to deteriorate. When he stopped being able to use them, I even helped him onto the toilet myself–dutiful son-in-law that I was. Chip’s illness worked its way up his body, where it would then take its time eating away at his lung capacity until he could no longer breathe. How long this would take was anyone’s guess, but in the three years that I was a witness to it, I saw him go from silver-haired, gangly patriarch ambling around a cruise boat to a man with less than twenty percent lung capacity in a motorized wheelchair that could go up stairs as well as rise up on two wheels to put him eye-level with someone standing in front of him. It was disconcerting to watch at first, but even so, such a wondrous advance in wheelchairs gave us all a false sense of hope in the advances of modern medicine. If a wheelchair could do that, what could drugs do?
Before getting divorced from his daughter, I started playing chess with him online. I thought it would be nice to play chess (he was a smart man), and it could give him something to do while he rolled around in the chair. After the divorce, I didn’t know how to stop (my ex and I parted on decent terms, even if we’ve long since ceased communicating for the benefit of everyone involved), so I continued to play. I was afraid that if I did stop playing, he would die. When I was on the cruise, I was nervous because I didn’t have any internet access at all, and that meant seven or more days without making a move. I told myself I was being ridiculous and that it was a foolish superstition.
I came back from the cruise, and he was still playing. He asked me how it was, and I told him it was fine. I felt a little guilty, since the reason I’d gone on my first cruise was because he’d wanted to take the family. He’d known then that he had ALS, and he wanted to travel as much as possible before it ate him up. Now I had returned from a second cruise with someone who was not his daughter, and he was in a wheelchair unable to walk out his own front door.
Not to mention that cruises, in general, make me feel guilty and spoiled.
We played for another week, and I started to lose. He made some great moves, and soon he had a bishop’s advantage on me and pawns within easy range of promotion. I was going down; there was little I could do. I usually won our chess games, but he had this one in his pocket. He brought his king around to back up his bishop. With nothing but my kings and a few pawns left, I moved my king to start an assault that would prove fruitless. I waited for him to advance his pawns on the other side of the board and promote one of them to a queen and finish me off.
Except three days later, I was still waiting for his next move. We generally moved four or five times a day. It was a telling silence. When I did a Google search and found his obituary, I was not surprised.
He was 64 years old. His last move was King to E1. Above is a screenshot of the actual board as it was left. A part of me wants the resolution of a finished game, but no–this is how things really are. There is no better, more perfect depiction of death than that of a game left unfinished, the mind that made the moves as coherent as ever within the body that turned against it.
Still, I think it’s clear: this one gets called for him by any objective judge.
Chip, congratulations; you win this one. Well played. Good game. Rest in peace.