Many people think they should write a book about their lives. Fewer have the commitment to get through even one chapter. And if the project involved thousands of hours of staring at a 15-inch monitor, selecting half a million characters with one’s eyes — the number might be just a handful.
Dominique Bauby, who wrote the bestselling memoir "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," did it, describing life before and after a massive stroke. Physicist Stephen Hawking, who lived and wrote for 53 years with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, before his death in March 2018 used a similar system.
And now retired Long Island elementary school teacher Chris Pendergast, whose name may be familiar to Newsday readers from regular coverage of his annual Ride for Life, has done it as well. His memoir "Blink Spoken Here" (Apprentice House Press, $17.99) tells the story of his own 27-year journey with ALS.
Since 1998 — with its first break ever this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Pendergast has made his 100-mile, 15-day journey by wheelchair for ALS awareness. The first few were 350 miles from Long Island to Washington, D.C. Now the Ride goes across Long Island with visits to schools along the route. He inspires students from first through 12th grades to face their own challenges by describing his.
"Blink Spoken Here" continues that work, with an introduction by Lou Gehrig’s biographer that compares Pendergast’s achievement to that of his famous predecessor. The first half of the book describes the author’s life as a teacher before and after ALS. With the assistance of his students, colleagues and the Northpoint school district, he was able to teach for 10 years after his diagnosis, giving students hands-on experience with nature, science and animals.
“Chris grew up when Long Island was very rural,” explained his wife and collaborator Christine in a recent Zoom interview from their home in Miller Place. “The woods were his backyard and his playground. He took that love of nature into his elementary school career.” The fascination continues today — when asked what he’s been reading lately, Pendergast named "The Secret Life of Plants" and "Tears of the Tree: The Story of Rubber."
He was kind enough to answer a few questions about "Blink Spoken Here."
You tell the moving story of how you inherited your eye-gaze computer after a PALS [a person with ALS] you were friends with died during superstorm Sandy. How did that lead to writing a whole book?
It took me several years and a couple of computer buddies to master the complex software. The device uses two infrared cameras that track my eyes, and processes that data using mathematical formulas it determines where I am looking on the screen. From there the software does its magic and, presto, I am able to type my thoughts. So when my friend Stony Brook faculty member Dr. Al Jordan insisted I share my stories with a wider audience, a fire was ignited in my belly. Thanks to my friend, I summoned the discipline and confidence to make a dream come true.
Tell us about your original idea for Ride for Life, which since 1998 has raised more than $8 million for ALS research and care on Long Island.
The Ride came from my frustration of seeing thousands of people dying every year without the public knowing about this silent killer. I was angry that nothing was being done to cure it. No one knew or cared about ALS. In my lifetime, I had seen advocates bring about the Civil Rights era, end the bloodbath in Vietnam, usher in women’s and gay rights and start the environmental movement. So going to the streets was a natural for me. I believe you must stand up and fight, even if you must sit down to do it.
You tell readers that you’ve learned how much good can come from bad, and “how valuable it is to get a chance to evaluate and reprioritize your life.” Do you have any advice for readers who are facing the “bad” of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The strongest substance on Earth is diamond. Diamond comes from decaying plant and animal material. Its transformation requires unimaginable stress, not for months but millions of years. The pandemic can do similar things for people who embrace the opportunity.