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MS insights from my eyes as a little brother

By Dan Digmann

I always was Mark’s little brother.

He relished reminding me of this fact nearly every day when we were growing up in the small eastern Iowa town of Monticello – pop. 3,641 in 1980.

He’s two years older than me, which means nothing when we’re both hovering around the half-century mark. But, yeah, this age difference meant everything when we both started realizing the privileges that came with being the older brother. 

Mark rubbed it in my face when he was the first one to go to school for half-day Kindergarten then all-day first grade, play in the pee-wee T-ball and flag football leagues, get a Schwinn Stingray bike, make real money (a whole $5!) to mow grandma’s yard and shoot a legitimate free throw on the full-size 10-foot basketball hoops at the elementary school across the street from our home.

Bless my mom, Nancy, for her patience in always comforting a broken-hearted Danny when I’d come running and uncontrollably crying because, “Mommy! Mark is being mean to me!” 

By the time I was 12, I also could shoot legitimate free throws and at least play against Mark in a one-on-one pickup basketball game to “10 by ones.” Notice I said, “play” and not “compete.” Mark was agile and athletic; I was stocky and brought only a two-inch vertical leap to the Carpenter Elementary concrete court.

He always won. Sometimes by a score of 10-1 other times by a score of something like 10-7 merely because Mark toyed with me. You know, purposely missing his shots and giving me wide-open looks at the basket and gracefully giving me the lead, only to turn on the afterburners to come back and win, thereby making the loss hurt that much more.

Mark was being mean to me again, but that merely added fuel to my tired-of-failing 11-year-old boy’s fire. “Next time, you’re all mine, Mark,” I’d spitefully spew to my big brother. “Next time.”

And then, my next time happened. 

I went toe-to-toe with my athletic older brother and answered each one of his shots. We were tied up 8-8, and I knew he wasn’t toying with me. No, on this day he was struggling. The hot hand was mine on this day, and he knew it. This was my day. I didn’t even need to rely on trick or cheap shots. 

I. Was. Money.

I won 10-8. Being the far-more-sophisticated little brother, I didn’t rub his face in my victory. No words could have crushed Mark more than the reality that on this day at Carpenter Elementary, I schooled him.

Neither Mark nor I could tell you how many times he beat me in our athletic mismatches, but the reality is, all I needed was this one victory. One win showed me that with commitment, hard work, perseverance and relentless determination, I eventually will come out on top.

This is one of the sports-related lessons that has shaped the approach I take in my life with multiple sclerosis. 

On so many levels, I am mismatched in my lifelong competition with this disease. That there is no cure for MS, many researchers spend countless hours and resources investigating ways to fix it and the disease has the power to affect nearly 1 million people in the United States and 2.3 million worldwide pits me in the unwanted position of being a meek little warrior in this modern-day David vs. Goliath dual.

I’ve lost track of the times throughout the days that MS has gotten the best of me during the past 21 years. Every moment my hands and feet are numb. The myriad minutes I struggle trying to button a shirt or untie a knot in my shoelace. The uncontrolled urgency that hits me when the nearest restroom is the length of a football field away.

But all it takes is to have that one moment – no matter how small or monumental – that I come out ahead of MS to remind me that I still can be victorious. Such as when I continue to work full time, walk out to check the mail or serve as a caregiver for my loving wife, Jennifer, I take a win from MS.

These victories are relative from day-to-day and person to person. The key is for all of us living with MS to stay in the game and keep our eyes open for our shining moments, whether it’s making a successful transfer in the bathroom or completing a marathon. Tucking a child into bed for the night or having the ability to call a friend who needs to hear your voice. The win is in the eyes of the beholder.

And for the moments MS comes out ahead? “Next time, you’re all mine, MS,” I spitefully spew to my MS. “Next time.”

Yes, I talked the same trash to my brother, but what gives me more confidence in my competition with MS is that I know this isn’t a one-on-one match-up. Remember all the researchers, 2.3 million people worldwide who understand what I’m dealing with, not to mention all of my family, friends and members of my healthcare team

None of us are in this alone.