Dead easy.

My son, Jared, and his fantastic girlfriend, Maddi, left this morning after a visit punctuated by deep conversation and hikes. Yesterday, Jared gave me an early Christmas present.

Jared didn’t fall far from my irreverently twisted humor tree. Past gifts include an “I ain’t dead yet, Mother Fuckers” coffee mug and a t-shirt sporting the pithy statement “Not today, Satan.” The icing on the cake was my 60th birthday when Jared and my daughter pooled resources to buy me a wheelchair. I silently vowed to let it collect dust for as long as possible, maybe forever,

I was prepared for about anything except the present’s composition: it was a thoughtfully creative gift. A glass frame enclosed an underwater photo of my final dive in 2020 next to a neat paragraph of laser-etched writing. Two of Jared’s friends took the picture of Jared and me floating side by side, 55 feet underwater off the beach in Mukilteo.

Next to the photo were the final lines from a favorite poem, The Quitter, by Robert Service. I used to recite the poem from memory to both of my children in the hope that it would provide a rallying cry when enduring one of life’s inevitable rough spots.

Without going into detail, Jared has been in just such a rough spot for the past two years. Instead of becoming consumed by problems, he included the poem excerpt to help bolster my determination as my eighteen-year battle with Parkinson’s takes a dark and dirty turn for the worse.

I was blown away with pride for my son as he leverages suffering into fortitude, discovering an inner resilience not unlike my experience doing battle with Parkinson’s. Jared, I am proud beyond words of the grace and compassion with which you move through life: you are my inspiration.

Thank you. I love you more than I can say, Jared, and Merry Christmas.

A ham-fisted ally

Living landlocked is not for me – being close to the ocean is a must. From my long-time hobby, shipwreck diving, to my first real job as a navy A-6 Intruder carrier pilot, to where I choose to live today, the ocean’s influence on my life has been nothing short of monumental.

Military flight training appealed to my adolescent mind. But the notion of launching from a ship thousands of miles out to sea, with no emergency shore-based airport available, compelled me to join the navy. The sea was my ham-fisted ally, ready to kill in a monstrous hug, a friend who, despite her unforgiving nature, would back me up as long as I gave the day everything I had and, if need be, more.

As a child, I basked in the revelation of the unknown, mesmerized by the ocean’s contradiction of enigmatic obscurity, spending hours snorkeling, looking for anything unique. When too cold to continue, I would park my wrinkled young body on the rock jetty adjacent the beach, radiantly lost, gazing into the depths. When confronted with critical decisions, confused, or depressed, I have always looked to the omniscient depths for answers.

The ocean has marked every step of my life, inspiring a long list of adrenaline-charged memories. Self-discovery, the finale’ of my life challenges, welcomes the ocean’s serene fortitude.

Disguised by a thin veil of the world’s harshest interpretation of reality, the ocean’s wisdom is raw, unrefined. On the seas, there is no societal stigma; no complex cultural etiquette to follow. One is free to be. Born a Pisces, Poseidon has always been my god.

Home

It rained all day, imparting a halting melancholy to the prevailing mood for my wife, the dogs, and me; we all seemed affected. The summer was gone, and it was time to start the work to prepare for winter, an indelible tarnish to the gold in our remaining years.

But by late afternoon, blue was on the horizon, a rich shade of azure reflecting nature’s compensatory response to the earlier rain. It was going to be an impeccably clear sunset.

Magnificence is universal in the Pacific Northwest, and my gratitude for the natural beauty of where we live is an insignificant fee for such sanctification. I decided to drive the ten minutes to the beach to watch the sun disappear behind the Olympic Mountains, some fifty miles away across the straits of Juan de Fuca.

The beach I chose for my rendezvous with the setting sun faces west, directly into the prevailing winds where the modest surf could not conceal the imputed promise of the water’s cyclic tidal purpose. Standing amid the ragged driftwood with face to the wind, I thought about where I had been, the ethereal everywhere of my life, a story preparing to end. And begin.

Reluctantly, returning to the car to drive home, the day’s melancholy returned with animated purity.

Topping the final hill to my destination, a murmuration of Starlings played in the wind just shy of rooftop height, awakening a dormant recollection of youthful curiosity. Approaching my house, I couldn’t stop smiling as the birds performed a final time before landing to welcome me home.

A precarious trail

Ordinarily, my many sleepless nights are exercises in boredom relief, but yesterday was different. In the early morning, around 3:00 am, despite overeating the day prior and ignoring an uncomfortable fullness in my gut, I allowed Parkinson’s to leverage my gluttony into an agonizing near-win for the disease. Maybe.

Almost immediately after finishing a bowl of granola, I doubled over in excruciating pain. It felt like my intestines were being twisted and yanked back firmly in a repeated cycle of torment. At the same time, my body’s temperature regulation went haywire, causing me to stagger across the room, sweating profusely and leaving a trail of perspiration.

After thirty minutes of constant pain, I woke Laurie, and we decided to go to the emergency room. Still sweating furiously, I struggled to get my pants on, barely able to stand. And then, just as suddenly as it had come, the pain miraculously disappeared, and I went from sweating like a fevered baby to experiencing a bone-chilling cold in the blink of an eye.

Huddling in a fetal position, Laurie draped me in an electric blanket and turned it high. It took twenty minutes to stop shivering. I thanked Laurie and drifted off, managing half an hour’s wonder of deep, restful sleep.

When I woke up, I felt great, better than I had in weeks, as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Was it a bad experience, or had I just undergone a cleansing catharsis, clearing my body of a long-held negative feeling or energy? I do not know, but the positive after-effect intuitively told me it had been worth the temporary distress. We all walk a precarious trail, bracketing victory and disaster in an unseen display of familiar discrimination, taunted by nature’s exalted indifference, lamenting the lost joy of simply being.

Freedom in this world

On my walk today, I reflected on the meaning of freedom. Given the proclivity of freedom as political justification in foreign and domestic national decisions, including going to war, the definition of “freedom” seems rarely debated.

It struck me, first and foremost, there must be the freedom to ask the question. Many other peoples are not so fortunate as in the United States where our constitution’s first amendment guarantees freedom of expression.

To be truly free, I would also need the time and the physical capability to communicate. In the afternoon when often unable to speak intelligibly, there is a tendency to talk over me. Does this mean the disabled do not have the same rights as a fully capable person?

Work ethic and productivity are two powerful barometers of societal merit in our materialistic society. Overvaluing them is a frighteningly effective way of transforming large population segments into enslaved robots of a fabricated culture. Accounting for every minute of the day irrevocably shackles a person to be ultimately “in this world,” absent the more spiritually attuned being “of this world.”

The materialistic view of the world does not see the surrounding beauty as the flowers along the path are trampled underfoot. The overvaluation of work ethic and productivity in our society brings us to a stale culture, bereft of imagination, lacking color, and certainly not free.

Culture’s limitations are freedom’s most lavish yoke of oppression. Understanding society’s ultimate impact on our behavior breathes fresh air into a liberated vision of reality, clearing the mind of judgement’s learned clutter, freeing us from the faceless mass.

Comeback

Peter’s unbalanced moment

As Parkinson’s symptoms worsen, I am grateful for all that is going well in my life. I’ve decided to mount a comeback.

Parkinson’s, you no longer get to enjoy a predictable reaction to your craven overtures. After almost 18 years of dealing with this cowardly disease, I can now see that Parkinson’s is terrified of losing its power through the recognition that it is no more than a nuisance.

I intend to have fun. Parkinson’s loses any perceived power it may have wielded when dragged from the darkened corners and exposed to laughter’s light.

It’s been eight years since I managed to complete “Eagle,” a one-footed balance pose requiring extreme focus and strength while balancing on my boat’s cockpit rail. I posted the 2014 video of my success just before the uncertainty of brain surgery. To lead off my comeback, I revisited my boat rail this afternoon.

On my 9th attempt, barely able to balance with both feet, I lifted my left foot and promptly fell in the 48-degree water. Some might view this as a failure. I do not. In fact, my reaction as I saw myself plunging into the chilled depths was to say, “Oh shit” and laugh.

We will all lose capabilities, eventually culminating in our death. That has always been the unspoken finale of life’s contract. But that’s okay. As I write this, two hours after the shock of hitting the cold water, I am energized, eagerly awaiting Parkinson’s next challenge. It’s all good.

Some of this might appear excessive, but that’s the point, we will wage this battle at the edge of control. Parkinson’s, prepare for an ass whooping.

I am truly blessed. My most significant source of happiness emanates from a rekindled joy in wearing the disease openly, subordinating Parkinson’s pain, discomfort, slowness, and fatigue in the warm embrace of fully living life.

Life’s grandest question

Our two golden retrievers pulled towards Mr. Johnson’s open garage door, a sure sign of his presence. Our entry into the garage prompted the elderly Mr. Johnson to look up. A man known to the neighborhood pups for his bottomless bag of bacon treats, Mr. Johnson gave a silent nod.

He shuffled painfully towards us, back unnaturally stooped, skin ashen gray, movements painfully slow. Ordinarily, his posture was consistent with the Marine Corps flag that flew at the end of the driveway; something was seriously wrong.

A different man stood before me, one not firmly in this life. Still, he exuded emblematic positivity. Mr. Johnson led an active life, crabbing, fishing, and gardening well into his 80s, carrying himself with the self-confident kindness of eclectic life experience.

Reaching into a familiar bag, he pulled out a handful of treats, methodically dispensing them to the two retrievers until the bag was empty. I had never witnessed Mr. Johnson run out of dog treats. I realized with empathy that this would be the last time I saw Mr. Johnson, still knowing virtually nothing about the man. At a loss for words, I turned to leave.

Feeling that this last interaction was missing something integral, I glanced back from the road, finally making eye contact. Mr. Johnson held my gaze rock steady, and for a fleeting moment, I saw a strapping young man in uniform, and I understood his pervasive smile. Acting on impulse, I snapped to attention and rendered as clean a salute as Parkinson’s would allow.

Mr. Johnson looked surprised, and maybe a little relieved. I broke eye contact, saying a silent goodbye.

There are no strangers at death’s door, only friends who have never met, captivating a mutuality of fellowship, awaiting resolution to life’s grandest question in the pale shadow of shared humanity.

Reconciliation

Pride often dictates a reaction that we regret, potentially laying dormant friendship for decades. Recently, I witnessed the reconciliation of two good friends, both mellowed with aged circumstance, as they put their immodesty aside in reconciliation.

Captain/owner of the research vessel Wahoo Steve Bielenda and underwater historian/writer Hank Keatts should be familiar names to those knowledgeable about early east coast shipwreck diving. In the 1980s, the inseparable pair spent most summers diving and enjoying life, as well as working together on famous shipwreck presentations, notably the Andrea Doria.

Then something happened, and the two were no longer on speaking terms. Both maintain that they either never knew the nature of the problem or had forgotten the source. There was no contact between the two for over thirty years.

Now in their 80s, it is easy to see the men I remember from 1985, my last year living in New York, except now they seem whole with added dimensionality. They’ve both gained a broad sense of reflection.

Hank’s life was visited by dual tragedies this past summer when, first, he barely survived a stroke, leaving him permanently incapacitated. Then, Hank’s wife, Carole—a real sweetheart of a lady, as we used to say in New York—passed away from cancer one week after diagnosis.

Steve, known for his bullheadedness, accepted the news of Hank with genuine pain and compassion. Hank agreed to speak with Steve. In an emotionally charged phone call, the two talked about past victories and foibles for almost an hour. Neither raised the topic of their falling out.

Spoken aloud or shared in a silently mutual agreement of charity, forgiveness cleanses the soul with cathartic marvel, shepherding forth a spontaneous goodwill that is beautiful to watch. Not only do the participants in forgiveness gain from this most human of exchanges. It makes us all better.

I am proud beyond words of both of these men, who I call friends.

  • Dedicated to Carole and Hank Keatts

Dental floss

Yesterday, Laurie left for a week in Texas to visit my daughter, her husband, and our new grandchild. I was pleasantly surprised by my positive mood on the departure morning, despite a near-incapacitating run-in with dental floss that had me laughing my ass off while exhibiting no-kidding concern that I might lose the use of a finger.

It has been almost two years since my knee replacement surgeries, two procedures in as many days, that brutally knocked me back (the second, unplanned surgery was to repair an inexplicable bleeder along the incision line). I am finally climbing out of the post-surgical hole, and despite rapidly progressing Parkinson’s symptoms, I also sense the possibility of a substantial physical turnaround.

Although I am not particularly afraid of death, I am also not quite ready for the transition. It is unknown whether I can leverage my spiritual awakening and transmute it into an energetically effective ally. The prospect of established peace, joined with sheer tenacity, empowers me to give it my best shot.

My challenge is clear. Sitting in a fully extended recliner, I am utterly spent, unable to move, think, or release myself from destiny’s web of dental floss. An attempted smile hangs in dumb deliberation as I stare into space, my mouth hanging open. I remain reclined, alone, trying to be unafraid. Parkinson’s “off” time, the confused, calm-looking state of wretched, stagnant suffering, is far worse than the version of painful writhing, foot-dragging contortions.

I struggle to stand up and address my watching muse. A comeback promises to be the most grueling challenge of my life. And potentially the most rewarding. If a turnaround spins out in frustrated agony, that will be okay, though. As learned during the search for the lost Intruder, in the end, everything is okay.

Imaginative surrender

Driving home from the hardware store today, I experienced an intense spark of unexpected connection, cloaking me in a dream-like trance. I’ve come to associate this sensation with the degree of balance within me. When comfortable in mind, at peace, and unconflicted, the instances seem to occur more often. My family aside, it is in these moments that I find my greatest source of happiness.

This magical state draws me into a powerful union of what I can only describe as a fleeting fellowship with a mysterious energy. The transformation makes my chest heave in gratitude, leaving me breathless with compassion, shepherding forth an unconditional, universal love that thaws the fog of enculturation’s mirage. It demonstrates that there is more to life than society’s concocted vision of reality.

It is tempting to dissect these periods of euphoria for higher meaning, but I’ve come to believe this is a dead end. Rationality can never adequately describe this connection through an understanding of learned relations and labels. For me, the only way to catch a partial glimpse of elevated consequence is to consider such experiences obliquely, to deflect the dazzling brilliance to the periphery of consciousness, to the land of imaginative surrender.

As I pull into my driveway, I find reassurance in a single learned truth: relieving the suffering of others helps to put me in balance and find peace. Whether there is a higher significance to life no longer matters. I am content in the knowledge that it is simply beyond my ken, resting in the comfort of goodwill’s grace.