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Article updated: 10/7/2013 5:41 AM

Lombard man completes 'emotional' Alzheimer's walk to Atlanta

By Marie Wilson

William Glass spent almost all of August and September walking.

Now he's decompressing.

The Lombard man traveled by foot to Atlanta from Chicago, completing the 750-mile journey in more like 850 miles worth of wrong turns and detour but spending every step advocating for more research, treatment and understanding of Alzheimer's disease.

The "Flowers for Mom" Chicago to Atlanta Walk to End Alzheimer's, as Glass termed his journey, brought him back to his mother, Eileen, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2010.

The trek gave him plenty to think about now that he's once again with his mom.

There's the kindred spirit from the Atlanta area who recently completed a roughly 2,000-mile run to California for Alzheimer's funding and awareness. The social media follower whose mother recently died from the disease. The surprisingly few people who said they didn't know anyone who suffers from Alzheimer's. The generosity of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, yet the difficulty of collecting $5 here and $35 there into a total anywhere near the walk's $10,000 goal.

"I'm still dealing with a lot of emotions," Glass, 37, said from his destination, the assisted-living facility his mother calls home. "It's been up and down. Nothing would have prepared me for what I went through, the mental part of that."

Glass arrived at his mother's home Tuesday, Oct. 1, with less than $5,000 raised, but plenty of stories to tell. By the end of the week, donations to his fundraising page on the Alzheimer's Association website had grown to $9,080, and he's still accepting contributions.

Throughout the journey, Glass said he was a listener as much as a talker. It's a sign of someone who understands the devastation of Alzheimer's, and not only comprehends but cares.

Because the disease affects so many -- 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's and another 15 million people take care of those patients -- Glass said his show of caring was something hundreds of people relished along the roundabout path.

"They were just so happy to know there was somebody out there helping them because they thought they had just been silenced, that nobody cared," Glass said. "Hundreds of heartbreaking stories I have heard, and no one really stands out because every single one of them are just heartbreaking."

His own family story contains its share of heartache. The youngest of four children who grew up on a farm in Plainfield, his father died when Glass was 3 months old. A year later, his oldest brother committed suicide at age 12, and Eileen Glass lost her first child. After a remarriage resulting in a "challenging" relationship, Eileen's Alzheimer's diagnosis three years ago was another devastating blow, her son said.

"It's really sad that she has been diagnosed with this because she's such a beautiful person," Glass said about his mother, now 72. "She had a very rough life."

Alzheimer's attacks the brain and causes slowly worsening symptoms that interfere with memory, thinking and everyday behaviors. It is the most common of a subset of disorders called dementia. Glass called it a curse no family deserves. It has no cure.

Glass named his walk "Flowers for Mom," as an allusion to his childhood habit of searching for wildflowers and using them to cheer up his mother, even if they were actually weeds.

He carried one special flower for her along his entire walk and gathered some fresh blooms along the last stretches of road. The journeyman flower survived in a sealed container, and some day, it'll have a special place in a frame for Eileen's room.

When the towns along his journey didn't have campgrounds, he pitched the tent he carried in a 25-pound pack among the wildflowers and weeds of public parks. He made "Camp Bill" on extra bunks at fire departments in towns like Williamsburg, Ky., and Waleska, Ga., or sometimes in rooms donated by hotels like the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Dalton, Ga.

He wore shoes in the bright purple hue of the Alzheimer's Association the whole time, going through three donated pairs from New Balance in addition to the ones on his feet when he stepped off Aug. 5 from Chicago. And he kept old friends and new followers updated along the way with frequent social media posts on a Facebook event page and on Twitter @7504alz.

In roughly 15 towns along the route, Glass tried to meet with U.S. representatives about the HOPE for Alzheimer's Act, but like the walk itself, the meetings had their ups and downs. He said he met only with staff members and had trouble scheduling appointments with some. He called one congressional office repeatedly to no avail, only to eventually have his last call answered by the representative himself.

With 850 miles of walking for a purpose in his bones, Glass plans to meet today with the representative in his mother's district. He's trying again to promote the HOPE for Alzheimer's Act, which would create funding within Medicare for services including a documented diagnosis and care planning.

Eileen is coming along for what may be the last congressional meeting of the journey. Glass' brother and his fiancee are joining in, too.

"We're making a big family day out of it," said Glass, who quit his job as a waiter and bartender to make the trip and then stay in Georgia.

The towns on road signs and the food at diners and the fire stations and public parks and campsites and hotels of the 58-day journey still are blending and swirling through his mind.

But for now, William Glass is with his mother, the motivation behind what some would call the madness of his long, sometimes lonely walk. Glass is with his mother and her flowers, and he's decompressing.

"Emotionally, it's hard to explain," he said. "I haven't really wrapped my head around it yet."

When he completed the walk, he found himself standing on a busy street corner, looking back at how far he had come, and then ahead at the unknown path Alzheimer's is charting for his mother, his siblings and himself. If the walk taught him anything, it's that the journey isn't over. The fight isn't over. Because Alzheimer's isn't over.

"A lot of people stopped and asked me if I was all right," he said. "I just responded with 'I don't know.'"

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