Andy's Journey: The Struggles Through ALS | Part I: The simple things
Brattleboro man relies on faith, family in fight against ALS
BRATTLEBORO — A drink of water.
For Andy Leclaire, the simple things in life — his wife, his family, the game of baseball, a drink of water — always brought him the most pleasure.
Yet, water's one thing most everyone takes for granted. But not Andy Leclaire of Brattleboro.
For this husband, father and man of faith, a glass of water is worth appreciating.
"There are the simple things like picking up a glass of water and just guzzling, guzzling it down," he said.
THE MOST OF LIFE
Born in Brattleboro on Aug. 18, 1957, Leclaire's family moved to the suburbs of Chicago when he was 3.
At 12, his family returned to the home his grandparents built in Brattleboro, where he and his wife reside.
As a youngster, Leclaire threw his passion into baseball.
"That's me," Leclaire said, pointing proudly to a photograph from a 1970s Brattleboro Reformer newspaper clipping. "I made the front page."
The photo shows a youthful Leclaire sliding into home as his team won the state Little League title. To Leclaire, the win was among his life's greatest accomplishments, and he continued playing baseball and softball into adulthood.
Though for Leclaire, meeting his wife and raising a family was his life's biggest accomplishment.
On a Saturday morning in the 1970s, at a candlepin bowling league on Putney Road, he met the young woman who would become his future wife. He was 16. Kathleen Pearson was 14.
"I was immediately drawn to her." Andy recalled. "But I was a shy kid, so I never approached her right away, until I started visiting her with my cousin and she kind of broke me out of my shell."
From there, Andy and Kathleen began dating, and not long after, Andy proposed.
"He asked me to marry him." Kathleen said. "I liked him so much, and he was just the best person I've ever known. Even at that age, I said, 'I just don't want to let him go. Yeah, I want to keep him.'"
They married on Oct. 23, 1976.
"It was an old-fashioned, hootenanny-kind of reception, and of course the wedding was in the Catholic church," Leclaire said.
A MAN OF FAITH
Before Andy Leclaire met his future wife, he had considered becoming a priest. The Catholic faith Andy and Kathleen shared was a foundation that helped build their relationship. Their faith is what held them together when Andy Leclaire's health started to decline.
In 2010, Leclaire stopped playing softball for Dr. Bob Tortolani's Team BFHC, or Brattleboro Family Health Care.
His legs had begun to weaken. Three years later, he started to tire at his job at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Andy and Kathleen would talk on his breaks.
She would ask him, "How are your legs?"
"Fatigued," he would reply.
"We argued over whether 'fatigued' and 'tired' were the same thing," Kathleen said, reflecting on that with a bit of a laugh. "He was always 'fatigued.'"
A doctor came to recommend that Andy stop working. He kept on. But he did so with increasing difficulty, and Kathleen saw him struggle.
"I remember he would lean up against the wall and slide down just so he could rest," she said.
On Dec. 19, 2013, Leclaire went to work for the last time.
Andy realized he could no longer do it anymore.
"He went to his boss's office, and said 'I'm done,'" Kathleen said.
In February 2014, Andy Leclaire was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. It did not come as a surprise to him.
"ALS is hereditary in my family," he said.
ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, is found on the superoxide dismutase (SOD1) gene.
Andy Leclaire lived life knowing he could be carrying the gene, but he had opted against getting tested for it. He said he didn't want to live with the stress of knowing whether he might one day be stricken with ALS or not. The ALS gene doesn't always "awaken."
Andy and Kathleen's children, Angela Rae Healey and Andy Leclaire Jr., live with the same mindset.
Since the early 20th century, ALS has claimed at least 30 of Leclaire's relatives. Within the same month that Leclaire was diagnosed, his brother, Dean, also was. A few years previously, his niece, Tara Sanderson, died in her 20s from ALS, and shortly after, her mother (Leclaire's sister), Michelle La Rue, died from it.
'JOY NEXT TO US'
After the diagnosis, Leclaire's life changed radically. As the disease took hold, the muscles in his body began to weaken, imprisoning him within his own body.
Early on, Andy and Kathleen would still go for walks in the rain, something they had loved to do since they were married. Later, Andy became confined to his bed in their living room.
Andy Leclaire's message throughout it all was clear.
"I think people tend to, or are so busy with their lives, that they take for granted a lot of the little things that are going on around them," he said. "Because you can see a lot of good and I think sometimes it just passes.
"There's a lot of joy if you look for it. Even with all of the terrible things going on in this world right now. And it takes our focus off the joy that is actually right next to us."
Like family. Like faith. Like baseball. And a drink of water.
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