(Short video done by Don’s son Nick)
Don Barnowski, a man battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), gets me out of bed most mornings. I wake up at 4:50 to be a personal alarm clock for my wife, who teaches mathematics to 150 high schoolers. This is a small tradition in our marriage of 28 years. She rises and gets going, while I begin to visualize my day. I made a promise to myself years ago that I would get out of bed and do something physical outside: run, walk, or bike. Like anybody else, I often think that lying in bed sounds a lot better than greeting 15 degree temperatures or that cold, damp weather we get to experience in Michigan.
When I hear myself complaining, or thinking about all the reasons I shouldn’t go do what I promised myself, I think of Don. And as I said, that happens to me most mornings. The way Don lives his life inspires me to be a better man. A better dad. A better boss.
Several year’s ago, I asked Don to join our organization to help guide our technology into a new era. He brought skill, dedication, and energy to our mission. He knew how to be a team player and how to lead a team. One of the more difficult conversations I ever had was when I had to let Don know I was eliminating his position. The economic crisis had just hit and I needed to trim about 1/3 of our organization’s costs. We lost many talented individuals in that process and Don certainly was at the top of that list.
Don is one of the individuals most committed to family I have ever known. He coached teams. Built a hockey rink in his yard for the kids (and him!) to play on. He changed careers in a dramatic way in order to put his family at the top of his priority list. I had a conversation with Don not too long ago that amplified how important his family is to him.
Don, sitting in his wheelchair enjoying french fries and a shake, said, “I now look back on how lucky I am that I had to leave the organization. I wouldn’t have had the time I did with my kids and Maggie. Even though it has been really difficult, I wouldn’t trade the chance to be with my family for anything. It really has been a blessing.”
I thought to myself, Don has a fantastic compass inside of him that steers him towards the most important things in life. He has made decisions, not just since he has been diagnosed, but all along the way in life, to put his time and energy on the big rocks.
While sharing a coffee shortly after he had been diagnosed with ALS, Don talked about how he walked every day as far as he could. He knew it wasn’t going to last long, but he wanted to experience that joy of moving independently each day. We talked about how we sort out ideas, problems, and other life matters when we are outside walking.
The chance to take a walk every day isn’t available to Don anymore. He measures success in other ways — small and big victories. Even as many of his physical abilities exit or diminish, I would tell you Don is one of the most optimistic and positive individuals I have had the privilege to know. I know he has very tough days, but you come away from time with Don thinking about what is possible and how much of life is determined by our attitude and approach.
So when I start to run through a long list in the morning of why I shouldn’t get out of bed, I do a gut check and think of Don — not because of what he can no longer do, but because of what he does. He makes the most of what is available to him and puts it to positive use. I ask myself, “OK Brennan, what would Don do?” I answer, “He would get his butt out of bed and greet the day in a positive way…so move it.”
I think we can all take Don’s counsel in the video: “Stay positive. Remember to take advantage of each day.”