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After the Fall

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Thank you, William D. Downs Jr.

Professor Downs wrote "Accepting Parkinson's" about learning to accept and live with a serious disability. (See the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 18, 2015.) His words struck a personal chord with me. As he tells it:

"Being the cockeyed optimist that I am, I never paid much attention to the occasional ribbing I received from good-natured colleagues at Ouachita Baptist University who accused me of shuffling when I walked down the hallways in our mass communications department. About three years ago, however, I was trotting along on Feaster Trail in Arkadelphia (Ark.) when suddenly I was moving much faster than I intended and could not slow down. I also was about to faint. A few yards ahead of me was an iron gate that I knew I had to reach before collapsing. Moments later, gasping for breath, I crashed into it. An OBU student who had been running a few steps behind me, yelled, 'Way to go, Dr. Downs!' I suppose he mistook me for an out-of-control athlete. I thanked him for helping me get back on my feet; we had a good laugh, and he drove away."

It took the professor only a few minutes to make an appointment with his family doctor, who referred him to a neurologist in Little Rock. After watching him walk down a hallway, or rather shuffle, the specialist diagnosed his problem immediately: Parkinson's.

Dr. Downs had many questions. Not just for the specialist but for himself. How was he going to cope with all this? "Returning to Arkadelphia later that afternoon, I'll admit, I was asking myself, 'Why me, Lord?' To my surprise, I immediately answered my own question: 'Why not me?' Still, I was frightened by the unknowns that lay ahead. This was not a bad dream but a terrifyingly real illness to someone -- me -- who at 80 had never suffered a really serious illness."

Me, I had a bad fall this winter, coming on top of a succession of other problems. And so Dr. Downs' experience sounded all too familiar. Now I can scarcely take a step without feeling an almost electric shock zig-zag down my right leg. Something about a frozen hip joint. After a couple of visits to a pain clinic, I realized that this was going to be a long and painful haul.

In my younger years, it never occurred to me that I would be reduced to such a state. (Does it to anyone?) Pride still goeth before a fall. Even at 78, when I should have learned better long ago -- through many another trial and travail. Thank you, Dr. Downs, especially for passing on your doctor's one key word of advice: acceptance. Which is much easier to say than practice. Thank you for writing an article in hopes of helping readers -- just as I can hope to be of service now.

Thank you, friends and family who have put up with me. And thanks for my wife, who didn't sign on for all this, either. And has been a rock, always there.

For me, beyond the shock lay something darker: the shadow of what Kierkegaard called the unforgivable sin, despair.

But maybe that's where faith begins: with thankfulness for all those who stand by us -- the physical therapists and coaches at the pain clinic, my publisher, and the other editors who have had to take up the slack my absence has left. Then there were the total strangers who have seen me shuffle and stumble, and instinctively come to my aid. Humiliations great and small have awaited, but so have consolations.

This, too, I tell myself, will pass. Like life itself. And I must remember to take a deep breath. To be kind to myself. But tough, too. Self-pity is a deadly trap. Avoid it. Go on. Try to put things in perspective. No, things won't get better all at once. But little by little, one step at a time, we do go on. It's a delusion to think things will ever be the same. That's not how time works. It goes in only one direction. Accept it. Be patient but not passive. Yes, breathe deep and go on.

Whence cometh my help? Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed. Renew us, and we will be renewed.

I write a lot about faith. Now let's see how well I practice it.

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