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Lacking in luck, he makes up for in pluck

BY SCOTT SHENK

Al Gregory in his Chancellor-area home. / Photo by Robert A. Martin

The pitfalls Al Gregory has endured in his life are enough to make a grown man cry.

“I don’t want to say he’s unlucky, but he’s unlucky,” said longtime friend and well-known Fredericksburg-area auctioneer Buddy Updike. “He could fall into a bucket of roses and come out smelling like manure.”

The thing is, though, Gregory mostly laughs while recounting the troubles he has endured.

The most recent is a rare muscle disease that has rendered his body nearly useless and likely will land him in an assisted-living facility.

The disease, inclusion body myositis, is just one of a string of maladies the 63-year-old Spotsylvania man has experienced in his life—including divorce and untimely family deaths.

But Gregory has made it a habit of bouncing back when life knocks him down. As a matter of fact, he’s quite happy.

“I’ve been lucky all my life. It doesn’t seem like it, but I have been,” he said recently in his living room while sitting in a motorized wheelchair. The chair offers him mobility nowadays, along with a handicapped accessorized van. “I enjoy life.”

Gregory admits that he hasn’t always dealt with his setbacks very well, often living recklessly while in the depths of despair. And though he has many friends, he also says he doesn’t necessarily come across as a sympathetic character. He describes himself as a “hot-headed redhead,” “argumentative,” “contrarian” and a general pain in the rear end.

Still, he has a story to tell, one he hopes can help others make it through their struggles. And he thinks it’s time more people know about his rare disease. It won’t help him but could benefit others down the line.

“I’ve been through enough,” he said. “Maybe I can help somebody understand things, or accept them.”

Gregory, who grew up in Maryland in an apartment over a grocery store his father ran, suffered his first tragedy as a teenager when his 21-year-old brother was killed in a car crash.

As a youth, he watched his mother suffer through a host of ailments. She had a hole in her heart caused by rheumatic fever as a child.

She endured lupus and “horrible” asthma. And, to top it off, she was stricken with breast cancer, which she survived.

No matter what happened, “she kept on going,” he said of his mother, who lived to age 72.

Gregory credits her for his toughness.  Her example helped him through the many difficult times, including a painful divorce and the death of his adult son, who was severely injured a decade ago in a car crash. The 29-year-old was placed on life support until Gregory and his former wife made the decision to end care on Gregory’s birthday.

Gregory has experienced enough despair and anger to know that “it doesn’t change a thing.”

You have to accept things as they are, he said.

“If you don’t get to the acceptance, it’ll tear you apart,” he said. “You either face it and deal with it, or you let it defeat you.”

The answer is simple to Gregory: “Nobody can beat you, but yourself.”

He said that after his divorce he turned to religion, but he still sometimes lived life recklessly. He worked hard and played hard.

Most of his life he has worked in sales. In the 1980s he started working for a German stone company. That job has allowed him to travel the world and meet all kinds of people, something he calls a blessing.

Gregory rarely works anymore, though, as the disease has wasted away most of his muscles. There is no cure or treatment for IBM, which has basically affected his entire body. Over the past few years he has gone from using a cane to a walker, and now most of the time, he needs the motorized wheelchair.

He falls often, which has left him with injuries. He recently fell in a closet at his home, and it took him three hours to get up. He often has to call 911 for assistance.

Even though the disease has robbed him of so much, he remains independent.

He also promised himself he wouldn’t let the disease change him.

In recent years he has returned to religion. In October he talked to the congregation at Fredericksburg Baptist Church about his life.

Though Gregory is outspoken, talking about himself is not something he likes to do. He’s not concerned about himself.

“Other people are more important to me than me,” he said.

Updike, who admits to getting a kick out of teasing Gregory, agrees that his friend is “a very generous person.”

He also said that Gregory has an indomitable spirit.

“The thing I like best about Al, he really must get down at times, but he never shows it,” Updike said. “He never complains. Doesn’t gripe.”

Gregory admits that the disease can be frustrating.

“You just get tired of fighting,” he said. “But the next day you get back up.”

Faith, family and friends, he said, are the key to life.

“If you’ve got those three things, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world,” he said. “And I’ve got those.”

Gregory is still a bit concerned about his future, but he said he’ll deal with it like he has everything else.

“It’s been an amazing trip,” he said, a wry smile curling on his face, “and I’m not ready for it to end.”

Scott Shenk:  540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

INSPIRATION is a series  about people who encourage  others with their kindness,  courage or perseverance.

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