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ST. GEORGE — A young father is facing a reality he never thought possible: his daughter could grow up without him.
But rather than let that thought get him down, St. George resident Ben Thomas is working as hard as he can to create memories she can hold onto once he's gone.
Ben is only 31 years old, but he's fighting a deadly disease. In 2010, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The illness attacked his limbs and affects his speech.
Ninety percent of ALS patients will live only three to five years after being diagnosed. But Ben won't allow it to dampen his spirits.
"Maybe my legs don't work, but I can make my daughter laugh," he said during an interview Wednesday.
Not quite 2 years old, Emmerson Thomas is Ben's only daughter. Sitting in a chair, voicing his memories, hopes and dreams for her is not the image that came to mind when he envisioned fatherhood, but he's spent the last several months doing just that.
"His sense of humor and his ability to just be OK with things, and to enjoy life regardless of how it's going … and just be positive and supportive of me even though he is going through something really difficult … that really inspires me," Ben's wife, Jena Thomas, said.
Jena hopes her husband's attitude will also inspire their daughter, Emmerson, when she reads her father's memories of their family.
It might be painful for a little while, or difficult and sad, but we believe in an afterlife. We'll be together again … and 300 years from now we'll think, 'Remember when you had ALS? What were we so worried about?'
–Ben Thomas, ALS patient
"It might be painful for a little while, or difficult and sad, but we believe in an afterlife," Ben said. "We'll be together again … and 300 years from now we'll think, ‘Remember when you had ALS? What were we so worried about?'"
For now, he wants to tell his daughter about the time her mother took her out of church for screaming about how much she loves balloons.
"When you came back in, there were other parents in the hallway that said their kid started to freak out about the balloons after you showed them," he read from her book. "You are quite the ring leader."
And he tells her how she loves to help her daddy.
"When I eat, my hands get messy because they don't work very well. Lots of times you get into the baby wipes and bring one over and start wiping my hands," he read.
And in the time they have left together, probably his most poignant message to his little Emmerson is one of happiness.
"I'd probably want to tell her that she can be happy no matter what," Ben said, his voice breaking with emotion. "Happiness is a choice. People can take things from you, or your health can be taken from you, but you can always choose to be happy."