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Seventeen years ago, just months after my diagnosis, with my pilot’s license rescinded, my job gone, and no idea what would happen next, I promised myself that I would take advantage of whatever time and capability the disease left me.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.

Several actual Amazon customer reviews of “The Lost Intruder, the Search for a Missing Navy Jet”

“Superlative writing that takes aviator adventure tales to a new level of existentialism. There are pain-filled episodes described that are indelible once read. However, the author found that his debilitations unexpectedly enhanced his inner life and perceptions of others. Very memorable and graciously instructive. This is a rare find.”

  • Kmag54           August 13, 2020

“I first heard about this story from an Air & Space article about “Christine” and the many gremlins this aircraft had. I couldn’t wait to download and read the whole story. If you’re any kind of aviation-enthusiast you will be drawn into the technical details of how Peter and his team did what the Navy couldn’t. Despite the hardships mother nature threw, Peter was battling one even greater but fought through it better than I’m sure most of us could have. And of course there will be some characters along the way that make things even more interesting. Buy it, read it, enjoy it because it’s worth it… and it happened.”

  • MLiep              July 5, 2021

“Incredible, fast paced, captivating read. This book works as a how-to on a process for identifying an impossible goal and making it happen but the author adds so much more. The documentation of the search, details on technical diving and military aircraft are the threads which the author weaves though the larger story of life with a challenging disease. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you dive, fly, are into military aviation or boat in the Puget Sound this is a must read. Very inspirational.”

  • Amazon customer      September 12, 2017

“An incredible adventure story combining diving and flying during a naval aviator’s quest to find an aircraft lost in the sea, while fiercely fighting a debilitating personal physical battle. This book is an inspiring page turner about the indomitable human spirit!”

  • Amazon customer      December 6, 2017

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.

Just like a big boy

Sleeping well, at least for my rapidly evolving standards, provides practical as well as emotional support, allowing me to walk without incident from the airport hotel to the check in counters. I wait in line, renewed confidence gradually calming my rapidly beating heart: I’ve done this hundreds of times, I remind myself; it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it.

With my main bag checked, I prepare mentally to transit security. I glance at my boarding pass for the departure gate, and my pulse races in a burst of adrenaline: it is in the unfamiliar south concourse.

Fortunately, security is empty, one of few benefits of a 7:05 am Sunday departure. Deciphering airport signage goes smoothly, still, the slightest movement takes tremendous effort and everything I do is so damn slow. I get to the south concourse train with lots of time to spare, but I’m unable to calm my mind, eyes furiously darting from face to face in hope of recognition, until—much to my surprise—they lock onto one.

I’ve made this mistake before in my desperation to see a friendly face, with imagination and hallucination interchanging in rapid succession. Is that Brad?

At the other end of a cluster of people waiting to board the train is a pair of uniformed pilots. The captain looks like an old friend from navy days, not seen since 2017 when he and his wife attended a local presentation I was giving on The Lost Intruder. He catches my eye and starts walking over.

It is Brad. Instantly relieved, my heart swells with gratitude, and, suddenly, I’m overwhelmed with a fervent sense of well-being and a deep abiding love for nothing; for everything. My eyes moisten, and voice chokes as I struggle to speak, and I’m suddenly grateful to be alive.

“Hi Brad,” I sputter, an impossibly broad smile gracing my face. Despite incorrigible hardship of inevitable magnitude, I am joyful to be in life. Brad and his first officer, each pulling a wheeled, black suitcase, amble with casual ease to where I stand. We start to talk.

“Traveling alone, Pete?” Brad asks, oblivious to the pertinence of the question.

“Yes,” I answer in a slight slur. “Just like a big boy.”

Overcome with a feeling of well-being, I stand and smile.

It is all okay; it really is.

Simple things

I sit on the plane, alive and aware, as the Parkinson’s courses through its cycles of mistrust, ceding disdain’s focused calm to the shadow game that surrounds.

No longer able to reliably drive, I took the three-hour shuttle to SeaTac Sunday afternoon, much as the rest of my life, consigned through unearned promotion the role of watcher, my sole interaction of purpose being writing to you in this connection of grace.

Unable—so far—to vanquish the fear stemming from attachment to this body, old trauma resurfaces in predictable ways. As I stumble in a levodopa fog, the familiar airport surroundings remind me of my pre-planned goal. I must walk the quarter mile of bridged pedestrians to the elevator, go down to ground level, then hoof it to the hotel. It is a daunting challenge in my present condition, with body shaking and voice little more than a slurred mumble.

Past pre-flight jitters of examination-grilling check rides lurk at the edge of consciousness: remembering key piloting numbers—crosswind corrections, approach parameters, and so on—while flying 200 passengers who trust you for their very existence. Then the true triggering source comes into cognition’s view: memories of the airliner’s crash axe resting loosely in my lap, just days after 9/11.

The imaginary script of mindful illusion runs its course, allowing for sufficient space to recognize it for what it is, and it evaporates into the ethereal. Spending the night at an airport hotel should allow sufficient sleep to make tomorrow’s scheduled 0705 flight.

It is pushing back at the disease at its finest. What will be learned? I smile, welcoming my old friend, the unknown, through the eyes of nobody, not a nobody, but nothing at all. I get to the hotel, smiling broadly, the first leg of my journey, complete.

To be continued…

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.

Enduring intentions

We are born free and bred into insecurity, bequeathed from ancestors an innate fear of being revealed as the scared little children we are, searching for our place in the world. We have learned instead to march to an unfamiliar beat, a role of rules and retribution.

We fight an internal battle, some with great secrecy, others gleefully open, to become who we are. Everyone’s path is different; we make individual decisions on which rules to ignore and which to incorporate into the belief system that is our life.

Treating those with whom you disagree with kindness and humility, not from fear, but the higher awareness that we are all nothing but scurrying cockroaches on a sinking ship of oppression, imbues life with meaning, opening a path to peace.

Following your heart’s humility relies on the gratification of the soul without regard for legacy. Charmed by the serene frolic of soulful presence, oblige spectators with love’s ubiquity in grace, smiling in gratitude for life in all its forms.

Kindness and love are life’s only enduring intentions, the sole tools available to move forward in the hidden game. Be kind, love, and witness regrets and hope vanish in the warmth of connection, hoisting the flag of neutrality, watching, and believing. Love always wins.

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.