John Driggers calls Multiple Sclerosis “the Grinch that stole Christmas.”
For 18 years Driggers has battled MS and has become the face of the disease in Culpeper County. Usually, that face has a smug grin and a quick quip to go along with it.
His sense of humor and his dignity are some of the traits that he says MS will never be able to take from him.
“You have all these gifts that God has given you, that are under the tree and slowly but surely the Grinch keeps pulling them away,” John said. “It’s taken away everything. From my music, from my athletic abilities and the last thing I have left is my dignity. It’s not pulling that away from me.”
There are times, when he worries his dignity will be stripped from him as well. He recalled a moment just two weeks ago when his worst case scenario happened.
He was at home, alone, at 10 in the morning when he fell trying to get into the shower. Naked, with no way to communicate he had to crawl to the house phone to call 911.
“At least they put a towel on me,” he said with that wry sense of humor when the emergency personal showed up.
Those types of stories are common among people who suffer from MS, but it’s still not as prevalent a disease as cancer. John’s wife Janet, whose team Carefree Cruisers raises funds the annual MS Walk, said that she finds people only get involved with MS when they are directly affected by it.
“I just met one of my potential corporate sponsors and he was just diagnosed with MS,” Janet Driggers said. “The thing of it is, when you know about it or when you have MS, that’s when you want to get involved. Everybody knows somebody with cancer, but MS is still a silent disease.”
This year’s MS Walk will be held at Culpeper Baptist Church Park April 7, with registration beginning at 9 a.m. and the walk starting at 10 a.m.
How it affects the family
John will be there, but it is getting harder and harder to make his scheduled appointments. His ability to be prompt is one of the gifts the Grinch has stolen.
“I can tell you up front, I’m not reliable,” John said. “Everytime physical therapy takes place, I can’t go.”
Sleep is fleeting. He wakes up three or four times a night and he usually wakes up in the morning with a “quarter tank of gas.” It’s not until he takes a nap in the morning does he even feel like he’s at half energy for the day. He sleeps on the couch because that way he can swing his feet down to get into his motorized chair and not bother Janet during the night. Still, she says she’s often up as she hears him or he needs assistance.
His independence has been taken from him. He can’t button a shirt, pick up a sandwich or cut his own steak anymore.
“There’s a tremendous amount of anger on the inside, but the one thing MS can’t take away from me is my dignity,” John said.
From the neck up, Janet said, he’s still John. He’s still sharp, he’s still witty and he’s still feisty. It’s his physical being that has suffered.
For his son Joshua, probably better known as local musician Aubrey Driggers, it’s been increasingly hard to watch his dad’s skills fade away.
“As a kid, you see your dad as immortal,” Joshua said. “You think he’s Superman. You kind of realize that’s not happening anymore and life is cruel. You see your dad’s mortality and you kind of realize that you’re going to be there one time or another.”
One of John’s passions was playing music. Now, he can’t pick up a guitar and play with his son, who he says he now lives vicariously through as Joshua plays gigs throughout the area.
“The way that they’ve raised me is that if it hurts, dig into it, make it hurt back” Joshua said. “I keep a guitar over at the house, but I know that he can’t play. I never got the opportunity to play with him as much as I would have liked to. Now that I’m decent for a musician it would be great to have him come to gigs and play with me.”
A few years ago, Joshua wrote a song called “The Chorus” about his relationship with his dad.
“I don’t play that out often because it’s emotional,” Joshua said.
His sister Jennifer and her two daughters live with his parents to help out, but it takes a village when it comes to raising children and for helping those with MS.
“We’ve got a great neighborhood,” Janet said. “A lot of them have said, ‘we’re home in the morning, call me, I’ll come and get him.’ When I’m not there during the day, I have called them and they can help.”
Though John laughs when he says he’s put some of them off with his morbid sense of humor.
“It irritates her,” John said, motioning to Janet.
‘I lived a full life’
He fears nothing, he said, even death, as he jokes that he wants to make sure his body is cremated three times so no one gets it again. He’s lived a full life – crossing accomplishments off his list – and don’t call it a bucket list.
“I hate the term, but I’ve done almost everything I want,” John said. “I’ve ridden in rodeos. I’ve skydived in Orange. I’ve flown in stunt planes. I’m not afraid of it.”
One last trip he’d like to take is to visit Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. A long time Packers fan – back in the days of Max McGee, Paul Hornung, Bart Starr and Jerry Kramer – he doesn’t even want to see a game, just to visit the complex.
However, that’s a dream that seems too perilous to pull off. Janet said that their specialized van wouldn’t make the trip and it would be too impractical and expensive to fly.
“The unfortunate part about that is we would have to drive and our van can’t go that far,” Janet said. “Flying, he has to take the chair and we have to rent a car and van and it’s not affordable.”
He hopes that the money raised by walks like the local one will help research so others won’t have to deal with what he has.
“I’ve had so much that has been taken away,” John said.
Last year, Janet’s team – the Carefree Cruisers – raised $7,300 and the goal for this year is $10,000. Janet says to stay tuned for her “new secret strategy” for raising funds.
To help with research or to donate to the Driggers’ team, visit walkms.org, click on Culpeper County and then Carefree Cruisers.