Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST – “It can mess up what you can do or how you go about what you do, but she doesn’t let it mess up who she is,” Ryan Zimmerman said of his mother, Cheryl, and her battle with multiple sclerosis.

By , Published: June 29

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The worst part is not knowing. Ryan Zimmerman came to grips with that long ago, before the disease confined his mother to a wheelchair and slowly, insidiously and relentlessly stole the ability of her muscles to function. Cheryl Zimmerman can no longer move any part of her body below her shoulders.

On the baseball diamond, playing for the Washington Nationals, where he has grown into one of the best third basemen in the world, Zimmerman has complete control. He is powerless in his mother’s daily battle against multiple sclerosis. He can only wonder what might happen next.

Cheryl Zimmerman learned she had multiple sclerosis in 1995, when Zimmerman was 11. He has lived more of his life with the knowledge that his mother is under siege than without, which is hard for him to believe. The hardest part isn’t seeing her diminished physical condition — Cheryl Zimmerman is strong, and she demands no special treatment from her family. The hardest part is that any day her condition might be the same as the day before, or it might not.

“That’s the most frustrating thing,” Zimmerman said. “You really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Zimmerman has taken into his hands what he can, what the resources his baseball skills have allowed him to. Thursday night, Zimmerman will own Nationals Park.

He had it written into his latest contract that one day a year he has full use of the stadium for an event called Night at the Park. It benefits the ziMS Foundation, the charity he conceived at age 20 and has run with the help of his family.

Multiple sclerosis, “affects everybody differently,” said Keith Zimmerman, Ryan’s father. “You ask a doctor, ‘What does that mean?’ They don’t have an answer for you.”

Cheryl Zimmerman and her husband still come to Nationals Park a few weekends each season to watch their son play, never when it becomes too hot or too cold. She watches most Nationals games from home in Virginia Beach, yelling and screaming at the television. She leaves angry voicemails for Zimmerman when he cusses during an interview. Her health has changed, but she hasn’t.

“It can mess up what you can do or how you go about what you do, but she doesn’t let it mess up who she is,” Zimmerman said. “No matter what happens to your mom, she’s always going to look the same. She’s always been your mom.”

Cheryl Zimmerman was an athlete. She played lacrosse and field hockey in college. Keith, her high school sweetheart, was an athlete, too, a high school football star and a college baseball player. The family jokes Ryan got his athletic genes from Cheryl.

“I would say that’s probably true,” Keith said. “Actually, both of us were athletes. . . . ”

In the background, Cheryl heard her husband waffled on the speakerphone. “Yes,” she confirmed. “He did.”

Early indications

Around 1991, Cheryl Zimmerman started to lose feeling in the left side of her body. Her left leg would drag behind as she walked. She could not tolerate very hot and very cold temperatures. She would come home from teaching elementary school special education completely exhausted.

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