Life is hard

Life is hard, and it does not get easier as we age. With an incurable, progressive disease like Parkinson’s there are bound to be moments with little or nothing to look forward to, which begs the question, why continue?

I remember when I began asking that question in 2014, more as a hypothetical as I was mostly happy at the time. It was just before my deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery, on the steep precipice of decline nine years after my Parkinson’s diagnosis. But the real possibility of gaining a renewed lease on life because of DBS existed back then. Eight and a half years later, there is no such “hail Mary” play for me to delay the inevitable descent into stillness.

What is it that keeps me from constant depression? Life could get far worse as Parkinson’s progresses, and it probably will. So why stick around?

Seventeen years ago, just months after my diagnosis, with my pilot’s license rescinded, my job gone, and no idea what would happen next, I promised myself that I would take advantage of whatever time and capability the disease left me. The only certainty before me was pain, discomfort, and death. Fuck Parkinson’s.

Six months after diagnosis, I was skippering our new boat far into Canadian waters with my beautiful wife and children. Since then, I’ve tried to squeeze every last bit of life from chance and circumstance.

My most meaningful life experiences have been born from the fires of Parkinson’s threatened constraint, allowing me to grow and love without reservation. Yes, “Fuck Parkinson’s,” I say, even as I embrace the disease. Without conspicuous challenge stretching our core prospects, life tends to pass us by.

It makes me smile. Hey, Parkinson’s—you’re the best thing to ever happen to me. What do you have to say to that?

A friend of the strangest sort

Astros, Peloponnesus Peninsula, Greece, 1976.

Gently kicking face down on the surface, I breathe deeply from the plastic snorkel with disciplined practice while following the shadowy school of giant fish on the bottom. The water is clear, but the ninety-foot depth hosts a confusing array of thermoclines. These sharp drops in water temperature create subtle obscurations to visibility, wavy zones of disparate water densities.

My 14-year-old mind tries to process a plan for the impending free dive and return to the surface. How will I know when I’ve overstayed my single breath welcome? Will I even reach the bottom? And if I do, is my speargun powerful enough to kill such huge fish? The deepest that I’ve been before today is just sixty feet.

A moment later and any indecisiveness is gone as I take a final deep breath and rapidly pike my legs up, waiting until my fins are entirely submerged before I start to kick. With speargun extended forward to streamline my form, I rely on my powerful thigh muscles to push me toward the bottom.

I savor the frontier feel of jeopardizing it all for an enigmatic prize. My sole companion on this new adventure is a novel sensation—fear. I am profoundly alone. It is just me, the fish, and the sea. I pass sixty feet without hesitation, ignoring the awful sensation of lungs already craving air, a clear and imminent warning that I’ve gone too far, that I am beyond redemption’s range…

As the incident’s physical sensations pass through me almost half a century later, the abject terror is fresh and eerily sweet, much like the out-of-control feeling of a Parkinson’s brain fog. It is a familiar, time-honored fear—a friend of the strangest sort—that joins my downward plunge, still feeling utterly alone and craving air, in a great circle of reflective mastery.

Delightfully depressed

A few select songs incapacitate with their haunting beauty, stranding me in a netherworld of delightful depression, frozen in a timeless dimension of emotion. Lola, by the Kinks, has always been one of these songs for me. These compositions evoke a purity of joyful pain that overwhelms, losing me in a cathartic confusion of authenticity that I’ve only recently recognized as the sharing of unconditional love between unfamiliar souls.

This experience is not today’s fairy tale notion of romantic love that we’ve come to believe reflects truth. It is far more potent a sensation, bringing one to their knees in the moment’s ecstasy, without regard for sex or society’s veiled ingratitude for the gift of life. I find myself encountering this phenomenon more frequently, the greater my Parkinson’s induced incapacity.

Usually precipitated with a shared look into the eyes of a stranger in passing, it infuses me with an immediate need to cry, deeply, not in sorrowful wails of expectation, but in a tsunami of clarity beyond human convention, unknowable energy coursing through me with all the beauty that life brings. With the immutable transience of grace, welcomed in the glory of all that is, we share through infinity’s moment a glimpse of the ultimate wisdom of the eternal.

Preparing to land

Trying not to squirm in the 737’s exit row, I struggle to avoid bringing attention to my condition and risk losing the relative comfort of extra legroom. As I stare at the boarding passengers, no earth-shattering revelations pay visitation. Carefully reviewing the emergency exit card, I weigh the value of being a former airline pilot with emergency exit training with that of the average fully physically capable passenger.

If I am fortunate enough to travel solo again, the overarching lesson is that I grow progressively weaker each day away from home. Sleep is as elusive as the disease is fair, unrecognizable in form or effect. Each successive day brings a progressively worsening brain fog, less ability to speak cogently for much of the day, and less independence. I thought Parkinson’s would behave similarly to home if given sufficient attention. I was wrong.

The effectiveness of my deep brain stimulation (dbs) system is waning. I’ve assumed that as dbs loses effectiveness, previously dbs-masked symptoms will present unusually quickly. My assumption could be faulty. It is a question for my neurologist next appointment, but it is growing apparent that the current rapid rate of disease progression could also continue.

I know where the finish line of this race lies; the desired speed and direction to traverse the course are still mysterious, however, wreaking emotional wreckage with haphazard intent. Gently, with heart’s still longing to bracket likely corners of retribution, my future becomes apparent with a sense of serendipity ordinarily reserved for dreams and flow-states of unusual grace. And then, in an enduring spectacle of confusion, it joins with the grand mystery, penetrating form with the ease of the ethereal.

Home is gradually coming into view.

My father

My father died several years ago at age 87 after a meaningful life. He lived overseas and traveled extensively, including a three-year stint in the navy as a ship’s navigator and many years teaching in Athens, Greece, and Damascus, Syria.

He volunteered tirelessly for civil rights, including marching—and getting arrested—at Selma. He exercised civil disobedience for racial justice many more times back home in New York, including more arrests and the occasional sleepless nights as he stood guard on our back porch with a baseball bat in response to death threats to our family.

My father lived to be humble in victory. Through his example, I learned not to be easily intimidated by the strong when defending the weak and always to leave a bully a way out that he might save face and learn. Bullies were people, too; he would remind me.

My father was no stranger to physicality. A former college football lineman who declined a tryout with the Green Bay Packers, he had the foresight to recognize that intelligence was a more lasting weapon. An Ivy-league undergraduate, he held a Harvard master’s degree and a completed fellowship at Northwestern. After raising four children with my mother, the two clocked in over sixty years of marriage.

I learned from him the meaning of service to others and the honesty of righteous commitment.

My father was a passionate teacher, bringing history to life and positively impacting the lives of countless students. When he died, the family received condolences from around the world. One prior student flew in from London upon learning of his illness to thank him personally for changing his life through his teaching. He and another former student, who had driven four hours to visit, presented a 15-minute recording of testimonials from former students who were grateful to my father. It had been over 20 years since they were in my father’s class. Three days later, my father passed.

I strive to do my best because of my father. He taught me to be curious, never accept the status quo blindly, and ask hard questions.

Our family camped in a rickety VW bus throughout Greece—our home during the 1970s—and Europe while my father taught me about the world. In later years, we disagreed about much, often arguing loudly into the early morning hours as the conversations inevitably transitioned to politics, our clashes usually producing more heat than light. He eventually won me over to his point of view. The long nights of argument always ended the same, with soulful hugs of loving authenticity.

My father taught me to be true to myself and always do the right thing in his reserved New England manner, especially if nobody was watching.

Dad, you are still a great teacher. I love you and miss you greatly.

A child’s love

When five years old, I had a thing for Captain Crunch cereal; fortunately for me, my parents would rarely buy the sugar-laden garbage. Finally, sensing a fatigued mother one morning, I browbeat Mom until she relented to my pleas to allow me to go to the local supermarket to buy a box of Captain Crunch. My mother stayed home with my napping baby sister while monitoring my progress from a front window.

Mom instructed me to walk down our long, steep front driveway, look both ways, and only then cross the road to the grocery store. Once at the front register, I was to ask the checkout lady for the cereal.

It went like clockwork except for one minor glitch: from Mom’s perspective, I never exited the store. Mom followed my progress from our front window, never losing sight of me except for about a twenty-foot stretch blocked by a tree at the store’s entrance.

After 15 minutes without seeing me, Mom grew concerned. She left my sleeping sister in the house and dashed to the grocery store. The register lady had not seen me. Mom went into a panic, ran back home, and called the police in what was the first of several all-points bulletins issued for my whereabouts during childhood.

To this day, I remember entering the store and seeing that the register lady was busy with a customer. Opting to improvise, I struck out for the store’s cereal section, only to learn that they were out of Captain Crunch after getting there.

Not ready to accept defeat, I decided to try the next closest grocery store, about half a mile away on the other side of a crowded thoroughfare without a crosswalk. I walked to the busy street and waited patiently for the traffic to clear when my surprised father and a fellow teacher drove by.

My father’s friend asked: “Hey, Bruce, isn’t that one of yours?” referring to me. Always quick to see the humor in an unlikely situation, the phrase became a lifelong joke between my mother—and my father, when he was alive—and me.

Having children is a labor of enduring love. I made my parents’ lives hell, exercising, at times, near-malignant inconsideration. More to follow on that topic in future blogs.

Mom—and Dad, if you can see this—I am incredibly grateful to have had you as parents. You allowed me the space to enjoy a life filled with challenge and, yes, danger. I’m sincerely sorry for the many disruptions to the family. My affection and love for you both continue to fill my life with joy.

A child’s love, fueled by candid regard for authenticity, is a parent’s greatest treasure, patient in purpose, nurturing the bond that is family.

Life’s details

Sunday, while driving through town on my way to the grocery store, I encountered one of those indulgently sincere, shared moments created by connecting souls with candid meaning.

I stopped as a middle-aged lady with impaired mobility wheeled her chair slowly into the crosswalk. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I could see the cars quickly line up behind me.

The wheelchair edged out into the street, the woman doing her best to expedite her transit but having difficulty due to upper body strength issues. Uneasy with holding up traffic despite enjoying the safe-to-cross signal, she started to drift back with gravity in response to the imperceptible crowning of the asphalt that ensures water runoff.

Unfathomable to most, this brave woman’s terrifying challenge was merely to cross the street.

She stopped her backward slide and, visibly flustered, turned the wheelchair backward, facing me in an attempt to gain leverage with her stronger triceps. She looked at me, probably expecting to see the shared malady of our time, frustration-induced road rage. Instead, I smiled.

I cheered her forward with my expression in unwavering support. She had a kind face, one that glowed with welcome yet could not hide her terror at the thought of being singled out by an inconsiderate passing driver.

Suddenly, we both started laughing in the joy of trying, of not giving in to a less-than-easy life. She inched across the street’s centerline to the favorable grade on the other side, her eyes never leaving mine, smiling sincerely without interruption.

Our silent communication joined us temporarily in the love of life as it is. We went our separate ways.

Grace resides in life’s details. Meaning is present in the ordinary acts we perform, no matter how trivial, requiring only that we slow sufficiently to notice.

And loving it…

For the last year or two, pacifying insecurity from attachment has become a futile nocturnal chore of necessity. Never able to wholly rid my body of instinct, night after night, even our dogs sense my alerted “fight or flight” state of nervousness, evoking a mirror-image mimic of restless hell.

More than a reaction to a mad world absent moral backbone, chronic anxiety and depression structure the disease’s sole promise:

“You will be ground down, worn out. You cannot win.”

The nights drag into weeks, months, years, and decades. Without rest, sheer will is the only weapon to lay anxiety and depression to temporary quiescence. The rules, hopelessly skewed, demand anxiety and depression be met head-on in unadorned rawness, allowing them to run their course. Somehow, you struggle on.

Coming to terms with moderating my attachment to those I love is anything but straightforward. Fear of a loss of perceived (did it ever really exist?) control is a game properly played in the trembling nuance of twilight’s shadows.

My only shockingly meager piece of advice after 17 years of round-the-clock Parkinson’s fallout? Keep at it, keep trying, again and again. And again. Don’t quit, ever.

Somehow, inexplicably, despite the sure knowledge of failure in the end, taking the option of surrender off the table helps. I will go down fighting. And smiling.

Thoughts of childhood calm the turmoiled mind. My favorite television childhood TV show was “Get Smart,” a 1960s sitcom that follows hapless Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, who somehow manages episode after episode to cheat death through no skill of his own. Each week, one of the show’s characters inevitably illustrates the agents’ dire circumstance. As Maxwell Smart emerges, against all odds, victorious once again, he turns to the camera and exclaims with a grimly authentic smile, “And loving it!”

Surprisingly, this helps me survive the lonely nights, the pure joy of reacting to life’s impossible follies with hardened audacity. 

“And loving it” – you got that right, I say to myself, smiling fiercely into the darkness, my words settling close to my heart, taunting and taming that which “is,” gradually gaining breath, inflating the empty shell of quiet night with the warm comfort of love.

I am here, still in life, come and get me. I wonder if tonight the demon warriors will visit in reclamation of mortal audacity, knowing that I will not go down without a fight. 

And I am ready. And loving it…

Reflections

I usually prefer to walk or hike alone to have an undistracted opportunity to think until thought is no longer helpful. These periods of meditative-silenced cognition bring my most peaceful moments, absent the standard lunatic ravings that bounce around my brain with no other purpose than to let me know that the ego is still firmly in charge.

Occasionally, I wonder if any thoughts are genuinely my own or whether they are reflections of those close to me, separated only by artificial habits that consolidate our individuality. Even people with whom I disagree, some vehemently, seem to mirror a part of me lying in wait at the periphery of consciousness.

I’ve begun to consider people’s opinions first in light of how they might mirror one of my character attributes, either past or present. It helps me better understand those around me and accept their beliefs as valid with a little less internal resistance.

We look to the mirror’s impression of the external self as clues of the inner person magnetically draw eyes to eyes. Staring into Nietzsche’s abyss caters to longings nestled deep in the soul of nature’s most curious creature.

What fall from grace precipitated the divisions that plague us, separating humankind from implicit piety, consecrating nature with the threat of horrific destruction, inuring us to the permanence of impurity? Believe that we can do better. Believe in the good that surrounds.

Tribe

Most of us spend our lives in a small circle of friends and family, echoing back familiar reactions to what we perceive to be objective reality. But the cruelty of a chaotic world occurs so quickly that even a formally cohesive tribe can be split into irreconcilable interpretations of sanity.

In today’s world, the pendulum of truth swings viciously through every conceivable color of veracity’s tableau. Perceptions of fundamental reality vary everywhere, corrupting effective communication and eliminating any possibility of compromise. One of the first casualties of cultural ruin is a sudden collapse of shared values, which, in turn, commands an alarming intolerance and reliance on violence.

Ordinarily, if circumspect in method and curious in intention, delving into our darkest nature can be healthy; exploring life’s shadow side can be integral to the self-discovery process. But to dwell exclusively in life’s gloomy silhouette is begging for tragedy, capitalizing on monsters of destruction born of greed and dread.

The world appears to be on the verge of great schism, nurtured by vulgar and hackneyed doctrine and egged on by arrogant pride; our basest traits grow emboldened by the harsh veneer of malicious reaction and violence.

It is not too late to travel to the self that exists deep within each of us, as envisaged across millennia, to rally the genuine nature of man. Humankind survives as one or perishes as many; either lives through love or dies in hate. It is up to us in our daily lives to decide; how we treat others directly impacts the wider world, be it with love or hate.

Honoring mutual decency, dare the collective soul to join the contented refinement of accord. Spur the heart’s courageous emanation toward grace. Choose love.