The long, slow death of Captain America
Steve Rogers always knew he could die in service of his county.
But he never thought he’d die like this.
By Florence Eihn
The Daily Bugle
Steve Rogers’ house perches on a hill with a commanding view of the broad, green valley around it. It’s a modest place with a wide front porch and gleaming white shutters. His nearest neighbor is 10 miles away.
He bought the land 25 years ago, using the 70 years of back pay and interest he received from the U.S. government after his revival. The land sat empty for a few years, until Rogers built a retreat for himself after his battle over the Potomac with Hydra propelled him once more into the spotlight.
He’s been living here full time since his sudden retirement from the Avengers five years ago. Only a select few — including his former Avengers teammates — have ventured onto the property.
So why did he invite a Daily Bugle reporter into his sanctuary?
He’s dying. And the world’s first superhero has a warning for those who are following his in his footsteps.
At a glance, Rogers, now 119, remains a healthy, robust-looking man settling into middle age. There are a few flecks of a gray in his hair and a few wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, but they add to his charm instead of age him.
But his hand trembles when he shakes mine, and his voice is slightly slurred when he welcomes me into his home.
The tremors were one of the first signs of his health troubles.
“It started early,” Rogers says as he shows me around his home, pointing out pictures of his children and introducing me to his dogs. “Just six months or so after my fight with Bucky. The episodes never lasted long then — just a few minutes, and then it would settle back down. I wrote it off as stress. But it was more than that.”
He serves coffee, and his wife joins us as we sit on the porch with two black labs sprawled at our feet. Sharon Rogers, 52, keeps a watchful eye on her husband, but today, they’re happy. She takes his hand and smiles.
“This is one of the good days.”
What are the bad days like?
Sharon’s smile fades, and Rogers smiles wryly.
“It’s hell,” he says simply.
The Battle of the Potomac and the fight with the Winter Soldier left its mark on Rogers. Bucky Barnes’ enhanced strength and mechanical arm did what Rogers’ previous opponents couldn’t — knocked Captain America out.
“That arm of his packed a punch,” Rogers says.
While it took Rogers mere days to recover from the physical wounds of the battle, Dr. John Keller, a leading SHIELD researcher and Rogers’ personal physician, says the Captain’s healing brain was likely vulnerable for weeks after the fight.
“That one concussion on its own probably wouldn’t have had any lasting effect on the Captain,” Keller says. “The damage was accrued over time. Because of the nature of his work, the Captain didn’t have a chance to heal from one blow before receiving another.”
In the decades since his return, Rogers has fought dozens of gods, aliens, Hydra agents and super-powered villains. And punch by punch, they’ve all contributed to his death.
“We’ve known about traumatic brain injury in soldiers and chronic traumatic brain injury in boxers and athletes for decades,” Keller says. “But none of us ever thought it would affect the Captain. We all believed the super-soldier serum would make him immune to such long-term damage. We were wrong.”
And no one, including Keller, knows what happens next.
“The damage done to his brain has led to symptoms similar to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Some patients can live with those diseases for decades, and some decline rapidly. We don’t know how long the Captain has left.”
Rogers’ loss of muscle control wasn’t the only early sign of his brain damage. Occasionally, he had trouble with his balance, and he slurred his speech.
He didn’t think much of it at the time.
“We had a lot going on. I thought it was lack of sleep, simple exhaustion, stuff like that,” Rogers says. “I never thought it was anything serious. It’s going to sound arrogant, but I just didn’t think something like this could happen to me.”
With some sleep and rest, Rogers recovered quickly from these early attacks. And it’s likely his enhanced nature masked the severity of his brain damage, Keller says.
“With most normal people, these symptoms would be more pronounced and would progress into more obvious signs of chronic brain injury much faster. But the serum let the Captain recover from and control these attacks. The very thing that made him a superhero also made it much more difficult for us to spot the damage early.”
Would it have helped?
“Who knows?” Keller says. “We can do a lot with medicine these days, but we can’t reverse brain damage yet. Certainly, if we had known what the Captain was going through, we would have advised him to stop fighting much earlier — and that would have lessened the amount of damage he sustained over time.”
The first time anyone noticed Rogers’ symptoms was on his wedding day. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking, and he was so dizzy he had to sit down before taking his place at the altar.
“Thor made a joke out of it. He said he’d seen some grooms pass out from sheer terror on their wedding day, so all in all, I wasn’t doing so bad,” Rogers says.
“His hands shook through the whole ceremony,” Sharon says. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s Steve.’ He’ll take on an 80-foot monster without batting an eye, but of course he’ll be nervous at his wedding. He was rock-steady again by the time we had our first dance at the reception.”
It became second nature for Rogers to brush off his symptoms. So it didn’t phase him when he started suffering from memory loss three months after the Avengers’ battle with the Titan Thanos left the Captain close to death.
“It was just little things,” Rogers says. “I’d forget where I put my keys or sunglasses, where I parked my car. I’d always had a good memory, but forgetting things like that seemed pretty normal. It seemed human. So I didn’t give it much thought.”
“We joked that he was just getting old,” Sharon says. There’s a certain amount of regret in her voice, but Rogers just looks at her and smiles.
“I was about a hundred at the time,” he says dryly. “I’d say I was doing pretty well for my age.”
The headaches started when Sharon was pregnant with their second child — just weeks after yet another brush with death and yet another concussion. Rogers’ mood became increasingly erratic, his memory worsened, and his physical symptoms — the tremors, loss of balance and slurred speech — came more frequently. Rogers fought through it all, convinced it was nothing more than stress or nerves or human nature.
Until five years ago.
Rogers shifts in his seat and clears his throat as he takes a tighter hold on his wife’s hand. It’s clearly an uncomfortable topic for him, but he presses on with his story.
“Sharon and I were in Avengers Tower, just walking down a hall, and — I don’t know how to describe it,” Rogers says. “I sort of just snapped off. I was angry, frightened and convinced we were in danger and something was after us. I don’t know what or who. I just lost touch with reality.”
“It was terrifying,” Sharon says. “One minute, we were talking about James, worrying about this fight he’d gotten in at school, and the next, Steve was in a completely different place — he was a completely different person. He actually threw me over his shoulder and tried to run out of the building with me.”
“It took nearly everyone to bring me back,” Rogers says. “Thor and Bruce kept me from leaving — and kept me from hurting anyone. And Natasha and Sharon managed to convince me that we were safe.
“When I snapped back to myself — when I realized what had happened, I knew I had to give it up. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. And I couldn’t put others at risk because I was too stubborn to know when to quit.”
When Keller examined Rogers three days after the incident at Avengers Tower, the alarm bells finally went off. But it was too little, too late.
“The damage had already been done,” Keller says. “The best we can do from here is manage the Captain’s condition and give him the best quality of life we can.”
Little is known about how widespread chronic brain damage is in superheroes. Many heroes, Keller says, die young, and those that live longer — like Thor and Bruce Banner — have such radically different physiologies, both from normal humans and each other, that it’s impossible to tell what effect their battles have had on their bodies.
“We theorize that Thor, with such a dramatically different lifespan, won’t begin to show symptoms of brain injury for decades — maybe even centuries. As for Banner, no one really knows. The Hulk doesn’t like to be studied.”
SHIELD Director Phil Coulson isn’t taking any chances. Rogers’ diagnosis has prompted a host of changes at the agency.
“The Avengers roster has dramatically expanded since the team was first formed,” Coulson says. “We have enough members now that we can rotate heroes every six weeks. No one superhero is in back-to-back battles. It gives them all a chance to rest and recover.”
SHIELD’s medical team evaluates every hero after every battle, looking not just for classic symptoms of concussion and brain injury but more subtle signs as well.
“Captain Rogers has gone over all his early symptoms with our medical team — everything he can remember about when he started getting sick — in order to help our doctors spot brain damage in our young heroes before it becomes too severe,” Coulson says. “Even now, Captain America is leading the way.”
For Rogers, the lack of research and concrete answers don’t matter. He has a simple warning for the heroes following the path he blazed.
“Know what you’re getting into,” he says. “Your strength, your speed, your youth — it won’t matter in the end. It’ll catch up to you eventually. You have to be willing to make that sacrifice, to lose not just your life but your wellbeing.”
If he could do it all over again, would Rogers still make that sacrifice? The answer comes quickly.
“Yes,” he says, without a beat of hesitation. “I was given a gift. I had to do everything I could with it. It was my duty.”
Rogers doesn’t know how much time he has left, but it’s not his approaching death that frightens him.
“Sure, I want to live long enough to see my kids grown and have children of their own,” Rogers says. “But what keeps me up at night is the idea that I could forget my family — that I could wake up one day and not recognize my wife. I don’t want to do that to her.”
Much later, when Sharon is walking me back to my car in the twilight and Rogers is busy playing with the dogs, she tells me that Rogers’ worst fear isn’t part of a distant, unknown future.
“He’s looked at me and not known who I am. He hasn’t just forgotten my name; he’s forgotten our life together,” she says quietly. “I don’t like to remind him of it. He’s having a good day.”
And no one knows how many good days Captain Rogers has left.
Illustration by Blain Hefner