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Beverly Beckham

A friendship sealed every Thursday

By Beverly Beckham
Globe Columnist / August 21, 2011

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I called him the Thursday Guy because he never missed a Thursday. Because he was zealous about his one day a week with his friend, Sal, whom so many people had abandoned because visiting a guy with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) who can’t talk or move isn’t exactly a day at the beach.

For Peter, in fact, it sometimes meant a day away from the beach. He drove up from Cape Cod every week, year after year, summer and winter, never mind the long distance, or the road conditions, or his own personal wants and needs. Neither rain, nor hail, nor a bad night’s sleep, nor an invitation to do something far more exciting than sitting in a hospital room all day kept him away.

He promised his friend he’d show up on Thursdays, so that’s what he did for 7 1/2 years. He made Thursdays a holiday. That was Peter Alessi.

He would stride into New England Sinai Hospital in Stoughton, always before noon, and you’d hear him before you saw him, talking to the nurses and aides and residents.

He brought presents for people he got to know over the years. He brought candy and cookies and books. And for Sal, who couldn’t eat because he couldn’t swallow, and couldn’t read because he couldn’t turn a page, Peter brought movies, just-released ones that he reserved and picked up at Blockbuster down the street every week.

Peter had a system. If Sal hadn’t been bathed and dressed by the time he arrived, the nurses heard about it. If Sal told him (Sal communicated by computer, spelling out words letter by letter, which he “grabbed’’ by using a monocle and moving his eye) that someone hadn’t done this or that, Peter would complain. The man was not reticent. He smiled and cajoled but he yelled and screamed, too.

He was a grown man, but he was also like a 12-year-old boy who didn’t back down when he was convinced that he was right, a kid who was vigilant about protecting his friend.

Peter and Sal watched movies together, Peter pulling up a chair and sitting next to Sal’s bed, closing the curtain so he would not disturb Sal’s roommate, dividing the small room into two even smaller rooms.

Peter fluffed Sal’s pillow, wiped his mouth, and pulled him up higher in the bed, because he would always slowly slip down. He made sure his socks weren’t bunched on his feet. He adjusted his legs. He closed the window. He turned up the volume.

Between movies, Peter would talk about old times when they were kids in Hyde Park, about life then and life now, about work and family, and about the universe and the great master plan. Peter believed in a great master plan and the power of thought and the irrelevance of time, and sometimes he’d go on and on, and even bring in tapes about this for Sal to listen to.

And Sal, who could do only two things, smile and raise his eyebrows, would stare at Peter and arch his eyebrows repeatedly whenever he heard “great master plan’’ and “the irrelevance of time.’’

They laughed about this, Sal only with his eyes. But they cried sometimes, too, the question between them, between all the words and movies and weeks and years, the question that bound them, that kept Sal trapped in this place and Peter coming back, the question we all ask: Why?

Sal died on April 8, 2006. He had spent 2,755 days at New England Sinai Hospital, nearly 400 Thursdays.

Peter missed some, of course. He took vacations. But he always came back.

Peter died last week. He was 67. He went out for a walk and fell. A friend told me. It was a stroke, he thought.

The Cape Cod Times called Peter Alessi “a man who understood the values of joy and reflection’’ and “an irreplaceable presence in so many lives.’’

He was an irreplaceable presence in Sal Grasso’s life. He was the Thursday guy and he had no peer.

Canton resident Beverly Beckham can be reached at bevbeckham@aol.com.