For the Vincent family, life changed, in the blink of an eye 

  • Pat Vincent gives his son Nathan medicine on Tuesday in their Pittsfield home that they have adapted to better care for him. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Vincent family at Parkers Roast Beef and Seafood restaurant in Chichester for their 25th anniversary party eight years ago. In the front, from left, are Jaden and Kegan. In the back row, from left, are Ian, Nathan, Patrick, Gail and Nicholas.

  • Gail Vincent with her son Nathan at their Pittsfield home on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gail Vincent communicates with her son Nathan at their Pittsfield home on Tuesday. Nathan, once an athlete at Pittsfield Middle High School, was diagnosed with ALS in 2014. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/10/2019 9:00:22 PM

One blink meant “Yes.”

Yes, Nathan Vincent told me through that blink, he loves the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. Yes, his blink said, he thinks the Red Sox still have a shot at making the playoffs, and yes, his blink revealed, he forgave me for rooting for the Yankees and the New York football Giants, his favorite teams’ arch-rivals, despised in many corners of New England.

Vincent never said a word during our one-hour meeting this week, at the family home in Pittsfield. People suffering from ALS lose their ability to speak after a while. They lose their ability to walk, to breathe on their own, leaving them to wonder why they received this death sentence, caused by a disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Muscle control is lost. Nathan’s breathing, one day soon, will stop.

So ALS patients sometimes blink to communicate. There is no cure, and the doctor gave Nathan five years to live. He was diagnosed on Oct. 22, 2014. Nathan is 27.

Bills and costs have added up. A fundraiser will be held at Parkers Roast Beef and Seafood restaurant on Sunday, Aug. 9, from 3 to 6 p.m.

That’s part of the story here, too. The part about the restaurant’s owners, George and Heidi Parker, befriending a customer named Richard Miller, an official with the Patriots, and his wife, Sharon. They agreed to bring Richard’s six Super Bowl rings and the team’s most recent championship trophy to Nathan’s home last Sunday.

Friends and family, about 50 of them, came to the house and wore the rings. They were photographed with the trophy. Your chance to do this comes Sunday, this time to raise money.

The first time worked quite well. It made Nathan happy.

“He had the biggest smile he’s had in a very long time,” Nathan’s mother, Gail Vincent, told me. “He can smile, so he was able to show us his emotions. The biggest smile.”

Asked how she was holding up, with Nathan’s health declining, Gail said, “Not good, but I’m pretty good at faking it. Pat and I have a very good relationship, so we do a lot of talking.”

Pat is Gail’s husband and Nathan’s father. He’s a truck driver who’s on leave so he can give the care and attention his son needs, 24/7. Together, this mother and father explained to me how their lives one day were turned upside down when a doctor mentioned that three-word acronym.

They sat in the living room, Nathan on a recliner, covered with a blanket, wearing a mask attached to a ventilator system, the whooshing of air created by the compressor a subtle-yet-constant reminder that someone was sick.

Pat and Gail were rocks. They never cried. Not even when Gail adjusted Nathan’s blanket, tucking his hand beneath it, and not even when she looked deep into Nathan’s eyes, asking him what she could do to make him more comfortable.

That snippet hurt, because Nathan’s mind is fine. He knows what’s going on. He could hear his mother, feel her warmth, probably sense her pain. Maybe that’s the reason he rarely joins the family in the backyard, by the pool.

“To me, he doesn’t want to burden us anymore,” Pat said. “And he was a swimmer, loved the ocean, but this is a movement disorder. He’s never complained.”

Once, at Pittsfield Middle High School, Nathan was a great athlete. He played basketball, baseball and soccer. Once, his life was full, with an associate’s degree in business from New Hampshire Technical Institute and, later, a job making medical trays, which included placing parts in an oven to form the final product.

That’s where it began. Why was Nathan coming home with burns on his arms? Why had he lost feeling in his left hand? Why had he fallen twice?

“As far as we know, Nathan probably had symptoms for one or two years,” Gail said. “He never told us about it. He was not able to hold anything very well. He was dropping things, tripping. Someone called from work and said that Nathan fell tonight. He came home and we asked him what’s going on.”

No one thought about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS. It’s also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the former Yankees first baseman, who, in the ultimate irony, was nicknamed the Iron Horse because he never missed a game in 14 years. He died in 1941, at the age of 37.

And in a strange twist here, Gail and her sister, Deb Gosselin, hoped Nathan had multiple sclerosis, since they both have it and, while certainly impacting their lives, have been able to carry on in relative normalcy.

“There’s no cure,” Gail told me, “but it’s livable.”

Before final confirmation, during a meeting with Gail and Nathan, doctors said he might have ALS. Mother and son, both crying, retreated to the parking lot, to their truck, where Nathan said to Gail, “Please, I never want to be in a wheelchair.”

“I couldn’t promise him anything,” Gail said during our meeting. “I said, ‘We need to fight. Are you going to fight?’ I asked him never to give up and he promised, and he hasn’t.”

Both parents were with Nathan when the doctor told them the truth.

“(The doctor) was looking at the information on the computer,” Pat said. “She turned around and looked at us and said he had ALS.”

“If you want to do anything,” the doctor said, according to Pat, “you have to do it within five years.”

That was 2014, the same year Gene Connolly, Concord High School’s principal, was diagnosed with ALS. Connolly, who died last year, agreed to meet with Nathan. Both could still walk, unsteadily, Nathan by himself, Connolly with a walker.

“It was hard and good at the same time,” Gail said, “because (Nathan) saw his future a little. But Gene was so great and he made Nathan very comfortable. We wanted to see him again, but we just never got there.”

They’ll see Patriots stuff, championship stuff, on Sunday, thanks to Heidi and George Parker. They’ve known the Vincents for more than 14 years. Ever since Nathan’s brother, Ian, began working at their restaurant. They make dinner for the family “EVERY Thursday,” Gail wrote in an email.

Which brings us to that Patriots official and his wife I mentioned earlier. Richard Miller is the Patriots’ director of research. He and wife Sharon have a second home on Locke Lake in Barnstead. They eat at the Parkers’ restaurant.

Like all players and coaches, Richard was given a ring for each of New England’s six Super Bowl titles. He got a copy of the Lombardi Trophy as well. Sharon agreed to bring the hardware to Nathan’s home last Sunday, and she’ll bring it back up again this Sunday, to Parkers Roast Beef and Seafood.

Richard Miller declined to comment for this column. In an email, Stacey James, New England’s vice president for media relations, told me, “I sent your email to Richard Miller. While I think it is a great story, I respect Richard’s desire to keep it private, as he was not seeking any attention for doing what he did. I love that.”

“I’m not surprised,” Heidi Parker, referring to Richard’s unassuming nature, said by phone. “A great family, and as soon as something was mentioned, they stepped right up.”

The Super Bowl stuff will make its second appearance here within a week. Nathan sleeps downstairs, in a recliner near his parents’ bed, and the walls there tell you this is a huge sports fan.

Memorabilia and photos of his favorite players hang on nearly every inch of wall space: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Jonathan Papelbon, David Ortiz.

There’s a photo of Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, of course, plus an old-school Patriots helmet, with Pat Patriot in the down position, ready to hike the football. Nathan’s basketball jersey, No. 24, is up too, framed behind glass by his high school basketball coach, Jay Darrah.

Back in the living room, Pat showed me the computer screen positioned a foot in front of his son’s face. It serves a remarkable purpose, allowing Nathan to maintain a sense of independence.

“I will calibrate it, hit this button,” Pat said, “and a box will come up and he will use his eyes on the box and he can do everything on here that you can do with a computer or phone. He can choose movies, text.”

And answer questions, too. Gail asked him about Sunday. Was he excited?

Yes, Nathan said.

In the blink of an eye.

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