Saying goodbye to Ron Akeson – my final lesson

Death is the great unknown, a fact that if viewed objectively by anyone who enjoys adventure would seem to be a final-days positive, a climax of exploration to cap life’s end with a curious optimism, if not actual excitement.

But—as we all know—the unknown, uncertainty in general, is scary stuff. The reality that death comes to us all may be superficially accepted, but that has little to do with the denial most of us live with every day.

If you have read Setting the Hook, then you are familiar with the name Ron Akeson. I don’t believe that Ron lived in such denial, but rather took the risks of what he was doing underwater seriously and thoughtfully.

Ron Akeson was the owner of the “Adventures Down Under” dive shop in Bellingham, and as my trimix and technical diving instructor in 2000, he played an integral role in bringing my long dormant deep diving skills up to modern standards.

Those astute readers will have noticed the uncomfortable use of past tense in the above sentence. Ron died one week ago, much as he had lived – diving. I honestly believe this, despite the technical medical perspective of death coming days later in a hospital while in an induced coma.

I did not know Ron well. He was a difficult person to get to know, and our conversations in 2000 were almost exclusively about the dive training track. He was an excellent instructor, which really means that he was an open learner, willing to pick up what he could from whoever was able to provide a tid-bit of additional knowledge.

It wasn’t until while at a DEMA (Dive Equipment Manufacturers Association) trade show in Las Vegas, a year and a half ago, that I had my first “real” conversation with Ron. He walked up to me out of the blue and asked real questions and listened intently while I gave what I considered thoughtful, honest answers. Maybe the entire 2000 episode had been a warm up or try-out of some sort before he committed to getting to know me better as a person. The same might be said of my attitude toward him.

That doesn’t mean that I lacked regard for the man, much to the contrary, I admired and respected him greatly. It just seemed that once technical diving was no longer in my future, we had too little in common to keep in touch.

Ron died one week ago during a “routine technical training dive.”

There is a saying in the Navy: “Never go on a routine training mission” because that’s where the overwhelming majority of accidents occur (visualize headlines: “The mishap pilot was on a routine training mission at the time of the accident”). It’s an unsettling truism that holds water for diving as well.

Perhaps it points to the unnerving fact that the vast majority of us will not go out in some blaze of glory, but instead will succumb to some dreary illness or simply life’s tired story’s denouement. What possible meaning can be derived from that?

Although I don’t recall the actual substance of our hour-long conversation in Las Vegas, I clearly and distinctly remember the tone: honest, direct interest and engagement. Ron and I finally connected, if only briefly.

So what is one to take away from this? As Ron was being readied to go off life support in what has to be a sister’s most difficult task imaginable, I was doing chores and thinking about our talk, the tone, trying to figure out the inner core of this amazing individual who I had thoughtlessly brushed aside from my focus fourteen years earlier. I surprised myself with an unplanned, genuine smile.

And that, in my opinion, is the real lesson. It is not in the act of dying that we intercept meaning or obliquely touch upon purpose, but rather through the vibrant, daily connections with other living people that we might catch a peek at life’s essence.

I learned to honestly cherish human connection (again), a lesson as valuable as it is inevitable to be learned and re-learned countless times.

That was Ron Akeson’s final lesson to me.

A damn fine day…

Today was interesting, initially in a bad way, but I managed to turn it around and pushed the PD flat on its back (for a time…).

The last two nights I have experienced extraordinarily deep sleep (for me), deep enough to perhaps dream, even, which is indeed a rarity these days. Unfortunately, the reason behind the welcome slumber was not from the “good” category: after much reflection, I can only attribute it to a near collapse from exhaustion.

The past several months have seen a quite rapid acceleration in symptoms after almost two years (maybe…) of relative stability: so long as I stuck to my medication regime religiously, I could reasonably factor in such anomalies as a particularly hard work out or an unrelated stressor and get fairly predictable results. Not always good results, but at least predictable.

Recently, I have lived 24 hours a day between the two “off” extremes of Parkinson’s.

1. The over-medicated induced dyskinesia wiggles and odd movements and;
2. The under-medicated dystonia of a shut-down of my right side, initially manifested through a severely painful “muscular contracting claw” of my right foot and wrist muscles (actually, a little bit of my left side is shutting down now, too, so I got that going for me ).

In a truly novel juxtaposition of what I would have thought mutually exclusive symptoms, for the final 30 minutes or so of transition from one to the other (these range from “soft landing” transitions to at times 5-6 brutally intense daily swings), I am currently experiencing both symptoms of over and under medication simultaneously.

The short conclusion to draw from this is that, as the French would say, “I’m fauxed” until and unless Deep Brain Stimulation works (scheduled for September).

That certainly does not mean that I cannot function, however. The tricky part is handling the psychological accompanying symptoms of both “off” conditions: over-medication is fatiguing and difficult on the body, but the induced mood is invariably positive. Not so with under-medication. With the dystonia comes severe, nearly un-relievable depression and ennui (indecisive listlessness).

Only nearly un-relievable, however, and that’s what made today so interesting (good interesting). After spending the morning bringing Jared to get his braces removed  and doing house chores, the depressing fatigue was so great that all I could think of was laying down and giving up (for the day, that is).

I had two alternatives.

First, up my medication with the certainty that in an hour I would be severely over-medicated, but at least in a decent mood and capable of being marginally productive, or;

Second, try to suck it up, maintain the medication regime I’ve established (which still puts me over, but a manageable over-medication), and try to literally power my way through for 30 minutes until my “normal” dose.

Please let me insert here that sucking it up sounds like a good idea when detached from the reality of the situation, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I only attempted it because I got good and pissed off, angry like I haven’t been for a very long time (ask Jared…).

I did it.

I actually weed-wacked (a nightmare of wrist intensive, loud, back-hurting labor) the entire yard for the first time since last fall (not pretty, both yard and me). I managed to power through the dystonia, limping, but never relinquishing the weed wacker or having to rely on my canes, and got through to the other side.

The rest of the day was spent on the slightly to moderately over-medicated side, I got lots done around the yard and on the boat, and even customized a T-shirt to wear to celebrate the event real time (all while blasting classic rock). If truly interested, please email or text and I’ll send you a photo, but the T-shirt is not suitable for children (well, only for one child – me!).

It’s 7:25 pm now, and I just went through a transition while writing this (more sucking it up). With a bit of luck I will be able to carry this experience with me for the following days, weeks, and months, but nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Still, it was a very difficult and a very good experience. It will be interesting to see how/if I sleep tonight. It is now 8:30 as I post.

When all is said and done, it was one damn-fine day.



So I lied a little…

The military was supposed to teach me never to “put myself on report,” not to admit to an error: if an act were truly an egregious offense, you would be caught. Otherwise, getting away with something was fair game. More honest tax payer money wasted on my military education…

If you look back through these blogs to the ancient date of Friday, January 31, 2014 (yes, only two and a half months ago), there is a well-meaning blog with the inspirational heading that reads:

Personal strategies learned the hard way for others afflicted with Young-Onset Parkinson’s.

Well, mea culpa (it appears Latin is destined to be my second language, maybe my first), again.

It’s not the points made that a now sage-75-days-older-in-life-experience-me takes issue with, but rather the embarrassingly specific examples used in “Pete’s perfect universe.” Here is what it (i.e. “I”) said:

“Here are some personal examples. I still serve on the local school board, often run public meetings, and have given two graduation speeches (a third one is coming up in June) to about 5,000 people. I also occasionally have the opportunity to present on scuba diving and writing to at times hundreds of strangers in different parts of the country. Just traveling to these locales can be a physical challenge.

It is not easy. I always have second thoughts before such events, I’m always scared and stressed, and so far, I have always followed through anyway, usually with my walking canes nearby. But guess what – so far, I have never had to use them: just as it was prior to PD, the bigger the challenge, the greater the reward.”

Anybody who has taken on real personal challenge knows that it’s not the direct, in your face threat that will get you; it’s the simple things, in this case the statements uttered in apparent total ignorance of life’s recent and not so recent jovial retributions. Here is what happened.

In February, I traveled to the Midwest’s largest Dive/Travel Expo, “Our World Underwater,” to speak on the Andrea Doria. I was scheduled for two separate, 35 minute, no-notes PowerPoint presentations, each slated for the last daytime seminar slot of their respective days, Saturday and Sunday (start time 3:15). I jumped at the opportunity.

I knew this would be a big problem five months earlier when I received the invitation to speak; 3:15 Midwest time – 1:15 pm West Coast time – was my absolute lowest point. On most days, I could barely move for the hour before and after 3:15, but actually believing that snapshots of life hold true five months later – at least if you have Parkinson’s – I replied in the affirmative.

I never mentioned a word about the timing of the event to my gracious Midwest hosts, who would have undoubtedly made other arrangements to accommodate me if they had only known what an intimidatingly exhausting challenge it presented.

Things change with time. So what was the end result?

I spent months attempting to adjust my round the clock medication routine, altered my life style in an attempt to change my severe “down” time by just one or two hours, and actually tried to live “right.” Here’s what happened.

Saturday: I give a reasonable presentation, which is great, because there’s a bunch of world reknowned long time deep wreck divers in the 100 person crowd who are well versed in what the heck they are talking about, as opposed to a long dormant pretender like me. And they are not unkind in their critique, for which I am genuinely and eternally grateful.

Sunday: I hit a wall. Despite not going to the film festival and instead catching an honest 3-4 hours of sleep (pretty much a normal night), I got big-time off mid presentation and literally fell apart. I didn’t quit, but it wasn’t pretty. The good news was that there were only 25 in attendance. The bad news was that they were 25 great people who had paid good money to listen to me, a fact which – all kidding aside – simply awes me, disappoints them, and teaches a good lesson.

The lesson learned was one I thought pretty much nailed down after writing Setting the Hook: Soulful challenges are not static and go the direction that is right, not necessarily the one that is desired.

Why bring this up now? As an aspirant to higher primate decision making skills, I made a call tonight in regard to the first personal challenge listed in above embarrassing quote:

“(I) often run public meetings, and have given two graduation speeches (a third one is coming up in June) to about 5,000 people.”

It became clear to me that my Parkinson’s was a distraction at best during school board meetings and my communication skills (verbal) were getting untenable. I stepped down from the Presidency, but opted to stay on the board (wait for it, here’s where I learn something…) until something else changes to make that a bad idea.

And I feel great. Folks (not that many – it’s a school board meeting, for crying out loud!) got to see how things really are for me, I sort of relaxed and only expended a modicum of energy so as not to freak out too many people, and the meeting was far more effective than if I had been still running things. That was the reason I got involved in the first place, to do good (just like Underdog) and now my place has changed, and that’s all very, very good.

Oh, and did I mention that I’ve got a new challenge? One that involves long hours on the boat with the new sonar two of my best friends gave to me (yeah, I know how to play this…)? Stay tuned, probably no diving for me, but who knows where it will lead…

Life can be a shaky, writhy, pain-in-the-butt, but that’s part of what makes it so good.