The eyes that so keenly observed a thousand sporting events were shut tightly as Bill Lyon rocked in his recliner and tried to snatch stars from the gathering darkness.
In his long and notable career as an Inquirer columnist, Lyon had a gift for finding the angels in his subjects. His eye was as powerful as his voice was sweet. And while Alzheimer’s disease has eroded those gifts, it hasn’t eliminated them or muted a powerful desire to write.
More than four years after his diagnosis, he remains determined to compose his thoughts and convey his struggle. On a recent visit, just weeks after the death of his wife of 53 years, I watched Lyon dictate to a fellow Inquirer colleague what might have been his final column.
>> READ MORE: Ethel Lyon was a fighter to the end by Bill Lyon
Through all the decades when he was a must-read for Philadelphia sports fans, Lyon possessed a remarkable facility for his craft. Better than anyone else I’ve ever seen, he could sit amid the human and electronic clatter of a press box, watch a listless sporting event and, well before deadline, file 900 words that sparkled and enlightened.
As Alzheimer’s has gradually diminished those powers, he’s refused to surrender. Though long retired, he has been episodically chronicling the illness’ impact on his life. When an accompanying neurological disorder made using a computer impossible, he began to compose in his head and dictate the result.
It was both difficult and inspiring to see a sports-writing icon fight so hard, grasping for words and thoughts, carefully but determinedly feeling his way through the dark. But in spite of — or perhaps because of — death and dementia, the familiar act of putting his thoughts into words still brought him comfort.
His wife was gone. Alzheimer’s had forced him to abandon his home, his car, his routine. He wasn’t ready to yield his gift, not without a battle.
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I’d learned so much observing him through the years. Though I soon realized both ambitions were out of reach, I wanted to write like him and to relate as easily to athletes and coaches as he did. Now, on this chilled April morning just a few days after his 80th birthday, in the sunlit living room of his assisted-living unit, I watched him at work one more time.
The words and phrases he once summoned so swiftly and effortlessly came painstakingly slow, and not without considerable anguish. For a while, after Ethel Lyon’s March passing, they hadn’t come at all.
“I had a bad case of writer’s block,” he said. “I’m just starting to get it back.”
Lyon was ready for this session. He’d been mentally preparing what he hoped to say, what he hoped to remember. When a tape recorder was turned on and placed on an adjacent table, he leaned forward in his leather recliner like an eager Sunday school student asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Told to begin, he gently rocked himself. His left hand, which shakes uncontrollably these days, tapped rhythmically on a thigh as if he were again striking a keyboard.
His determination to finish was palpable. It was like watching someone hell-bent on walking just hours after knee surgery. Each faltering step forward was sandwiched by long, pregnant silences, by grimaces and sometimes by tears.
What was most striking was how he counter-punched Alzheimer’s blows, somehow fending off each memory lapse and physical tic by focusing even more stubbornly on the task. His face sometimes contorted in discomfort while he searched for an image or a memory. Seriously wounded, he was dragging himself slowly through the disease’s jungle of damaged neurons, always pointed toward an oasis of clarity.
Sporadically, short and measured bursts of words and sentences emerged from the efforts. He smiled whenever this happened, seemingly thankful for the relief. His ability to self-edit was startling. When he garbled syntax or occasionally veered off into gibberish, he invariably recognized the error and corrected himself.
>> READ MORE: Life after Ethel and why I’ll never, ever give in to Alzheimer’s by Bill Lyon
The column he wanted so badly to write was an update on his ongoing decline – a recent fall, his difficulty walking, the indignities of a recent hospital stay, his struggle to read, even thoughts about death. But he began it with a brief preamble on his late wife.
If the rest was merely uncomfortable, this was sharp pain. The grief was still too raw. But he was dead-set on getting through it.
Each word stung. His mouth quivered. The lump in his throat impeded his voice. His eyes fluttered, reddened, moistened.
“My wife is gone now,” he said, “and I struggle with what I am supposed to do.”
That uncertainty might have been the only false note he hit that day. Even in this impaired state, he knew deep down what he was supposed to do, what Ethel would have wanted, what he’s always done.
Bill Lyon is supposed to write.
And suddenly alone at the start of his 81st year, with grief, time and disease conspired against him and noontime clouds now shrouding the sunlight in the courtyard below, that’s what he did.