Tony met Miguel on a bridge about two years ago when he heard crying as he was packing up his fishing gear. He followed the sobbing to the top of the bridge and found Miguel about to jump. He was counting.
“Hey,” squeaked Tony. “Wanna fish?”
“Yeah … fish,” Tony said matter-of-factly. Luckily, it worked.
They fished together every Sunday after that and formed an unlikely friendship. Tony was a divorcee in his mid 40’s and Miguel was a widower in his late 60’s.
Miguel was a creature of habit, but after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he evolved into a creature of ritual. The number nine controlled everything Miguel did like a ruthless dictator. Instead of bowing to it, he counted to it.
He would turn lights on and off nine times. He’d lock his front door nine times, and before eating, he’d wash his hands nine times. If something interrupted him or it didn’t feel right, he’d start over again.
Sundays fishing with Tony helped Miguel free himself from the shackles of his OCD. He’d dip his lure into the water and watch his anxiety disappear into the river like rainwater.
Tony noticed his friend’s declining memory and chalked it up to old age. He didn’t mind Miguel starting a story he had just finished minutes earlier, but recently, things had gotten worse. Miguel would go through periods where he’d forget Tony’s name and treat him like a stranger.
On this Sunday, however, Tony marveled at Miguel. His memory was sharp and his banter was as witty as ever. They laughed and told stories. They even reminisced about Miguel’s fishing technique before Tony taught him the basics.
When they started getting ready to leave, Miguel began the conversation he had planned on having.
“I’m wasting away, Tony,” he said softly.
“What’s that?” Tony asked. He had been rummaging through his tackle box.
“I’m dying, man.”
Tony sat up and looked over at Miguel only to find him staring at the bridge.
“Did you go to the doctor or something? What’s wrong, Migs?”
“Remember that day on the bridge?” asked Miguel. “That’s the day I found out I had Alzheimer’s. I forget a lot, but I’ll never forget that day.”
Tony became angry.
“All this time and you didn’t tell me!? I thought you were just having a bad day.”
“I WAS having a bad day, Tony,” snapped Miguel. “I just found out that my mind was slowly wasting away, and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
“Do you remember what number I was on when you stopped me from jumping?” asked Miguel. Tony shook his head. He didn’t want Miguel to talk about that day anymore. He was afraid it’d make him walk back up there again.
Miguel answered his own question, “Nine. The number was nine.”
Tony tried to bite his tongue and let his friend talk, no matter how aimless it seemed.
Miguel continued, “And ever since then, that number has been my only hope. I counted to nine for everything. It was a superstition thing. I thought if I did it just right, I could keep the Alzheimer’s at bay. But now, now I can’t even remember most of my rituals. I can’t remember anything.”
Miguel, who hadn’t set foot in a hospital since his diagnosis, had been struggling with his Alzheimer’s like never before during the past few weeks. He could’ve gone to his doctor, but he had read the literature and seen other people suffering through his affliction. He already knew his fate.
“I never thanked you,” said Miguel. “Not only did you save my life, but you gave me something else to focus on. You gave me hope.”
Tony didn’t like to see Miguel give in. “There still IS hope, Migs,” said Tony. “You can fight this thing. They have treatments and ways to slow it down.”
Miguel hadn’t taken his eyes off of the bridge.
“I need you to do me one more favor, Tony,” said Miguel.
“Anything you need, bud. What is it?” asked Tony.
Miguel turned to look at Tony for the first time. “I need you to help me kill myself.”
Tony scrambled to his feet and looked down at his friend. Miguel slowly looked up and explained.
“I don’t want to be some guy who can’t recognize his friend, Tony. You saved my life before, now I need you to help me end my life.”
Tony, shaking, was hunting for words to describe what was whirling around inside his head. A loud “NO!” was all he could muster.
Miguel tried to calm his friend down. “I know this is hard to hear. But I need this, Tony. What kind of future do I have to look forward to? I’m going to die, can you please help me do it on my terms?” asked Miguel.
“How am I supposed to do something like that, Migs?” asked Tony.
Miguel decided to answer his question literally. “I want you count for me. I stop at nine so much, I don’t trust myself to get all the way to 10,” Miguel explained.
“And then?” asked Tony.
“I jump.” answered Miguel. “I jump to my freedom.”
With that, Miguel started walking towards the top of the bridge. Tony looked on, confused and horrified.
“Get back here!” he screamed. “You’re crazy, man! Let’s talk about this!”
When Miguel didn’t respond, Tony raced up to the bridge and found Miguel standing in the same spot where he first asked him if he wanted to fish. Only this time, Miguel wasn’t sobbing, he was smiling.
Tony had never seen Miguel so alive. He looked up to the sky and took a deep breath. He was calm now. Miguel’s tranquility seemed to be contagious.
“Please.” asked Miguel.
With tears starting to stream down his cheeks, Tony nodded and began counting, “1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … 7 … 8 ….9 ….10.”
Written by: Justin Grady
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe