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The Storm (Part 2)

The thing about storms is their uncanny ability to either bring people together or drive them apart. In my own experience, gusting winds, pounding thunder and crashing lightning only make me want to be a little bit closer to the people I love.

As a little girl, I begged my dad to come inside and away from the storms he loved to watch because I was scared for his safety. But I also did so because I was scared myself: I wanted him to pick me up and give me a great big hug and tell me that everything would be ok. Sometimes, you just need the assurance and comfort of someone bigger, stronger.

In truth, my family’s circumstances and experience with Parkinson’s Disease are not particularly unique. People endure “storms” every single day all over the world. When you sit down and face reality, hard times are hitting people everywhere. I know people who’ve lost loved ones too early; have endured the pain of a bitter divorce; lost everything the owned to a flood; lost their job; lost a baby...the list goes on.  

In college, I had the opportunity to get to know and become friends with a young man who was a survivor of the civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan. Over cups of coffee and a period of hours spent in our campus library, he recounted to me his story of survival: separated from his family at 5 years old, he fled to refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. Along the way, he saw some of his friends killed by rebel warriors or eaten by wild animals. I remember the tears that came to my eyes as I looked at this extraordinary person who had lived this amazing life. I am so selfish to think I’ve ever endured something truly hard, I thought.

It breaks my heart when the trials of life—the storms—drive people apart. In our times of deepest sorrow one would think we should cling to those we love the most for support. But, sadly, this is not always the case.

The fact of the matter is this: We have a choice.

We can chose to open up and be vulnerable to those around us—allowing them to see our hurt and pain and in turn heal it with their compassion. Or, we can close ourselves off to the world and never experience the healing power of love.

The funny thing about my father’s disease is that is has truly brought our family closer than we ever were before. This past year, every holiday, every visit home has been filled with some of the most cherish moments of my adulthood. By drawing together, we’ve somehow tapped into a harmony we never experienced before. In our case, our storm (Parkinson’s) isn’t exactly the kind of storm that goes away. But, I know that we can take it on together, as a family.

As for my friend from Sudan: After three years of living in the United States and through the resources of the internet, he was able to find his mother—the woman he had not seen since he was five—living in Kenya. He traveled there in the summer of 2006. I like to picture my friend on the day of that reunion: I like to imagine that the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as he traveled along a dirt road surrounding by stretching plains and spotted by wild animals. I also like to imagine the smile on his face. After such an intense storm, he was finally going home. Later, he told me about the experience and about the joy the laughter the tears they shared when they saw each other for the first time.

That’s the beauty of storms: no matter how terrible, no matter how hard, no matter how impossible they may seem—if you will let them, if you will learn from them—they will bring you to the place where you’ve always belonged: Home.  


The Storm (Part 1)

A few weekends ago, I went for a beautiful 7 mile run through Cherokee Park and the Highlands. (If you haven’t put two and two together already, I am basically obsessed with this area of Louisville.) When I started, the air was a hot, smothering 90 degrees. But as I maneuvered among the curves of the road, I noticed the temperature was falling. A strong breeze began to blow and around me leaves were falling: scattered reminders that autumn is upon us.

Amid the leaves and the breeze, I was acutely aware of something else: a storm was coming.

In Cherokee Park, there is a hill that overlooks a small valley where tree tops and sky seem to stretch endlessly before you. For some reason, I love this hill and this view. It fills me with a sense of hope and anticipation (though for what I have not quite decided.) As I topped this hill that evening and looked out at that favorite view, I had to stop for moment because what I saw took my breath away: billowing clouds above me barely broke to reveal a glimpse of heaven, while in the distance the sunset shone through ominous, much darker clouds in an orange haze. Meanwhile sheets of rain fell to the earth against its golden backdrop.

I could already see flashes of lightning in the distance, so I turned toward home. Running in the rain is fine, but running in a thunderstorm is a different story. Along the way, I realized the wind had ceased to blow. No birds sang. No crickets chirped. It was as though the world had gone silent: the calm before the storm.

Storms always make me think of my Dad. He loves to watch them from the safety of our porch. And I don’t mean mild, every day storms. He will stand there, defiant, in the midst of the torrential blasts that send other people fleeing for their basements. As a child, I used to stand in the doorway and plead with him to come back inside, afraid the storm might carry him away. 
 When I was little, Dad was my protector. Whenever I was scared at night, or awoke from a bad dream, I ran to my parents’ bedroom straight to his side of the bed. I’d tap him on the arm and he would wake up, scoot over and let me sleep on his right arm. As long as I was there, I knew I was safe.

As a toddler, Dad held me on his shoulders and we climbed dormant volcanoes near Cimarron, New Mexico. When I was four or five, I got to go to the small college where he taught.  

Armed with a tablet and pen he let me borrow from his office, I would sit and listen to him teach Greek New Testament and write the alphabet out over and over and over. When his class was over, I’d proudly show him my accomplishment and we’d go to a lounge area where he’d buy me candy bars and let me try to play ping pong with him.

At home, my brother and sister and I spent our days playing on a giant rope swing he and a family friend had hung for us on a large oak in the backyard. In the evenings after work, he’d come out and push us on this swing, so that we swung higher and higher and higher. Sometimes, we’d spin on the rope until we were so, so dizzy and see who could run through across the yard without falling down. Other times, we’d play inside in our living room. Dad would play the guitar and the three children would dance like silly little monkeys.

In the midst of all of this, I remember my Mom was there, watching, playing along and laughing.

And so I have this vision of my Dad from those years: healthy, strong, active, and so intelligent.

As we got older, life—of course—changed in the way one would expect it to. Our family moved. We started going to a new school. My dad got a better job. My parents bought their first house (we’d always lived in parsonages up to that point.) We were holding on to the past…our memories of all those nights of fun and laughter…and still moving into our future as a family.

Dad’s hair got thinner and started to grey. Arthritis began to set in. An accident in a stairwell left with him partial strength in his right arm. It became harder for him to play the guitar. But, he was still my dad. And in many ways, I was oblivious to the changes that were occurring right in front of my eyes. We all were.

I was a junior in college when he told me. I’d come home for a holiday and found him in the living room try to strum his guitar one evening. “I need to tell you something.” I sat down, and he walked me through a series of doctors visits that had led to a diagnosis none of us could have ever anticipated: Parkinsons Disease.

I’d like to tell you that our lives changed immediately with that announcement. But, they didn’t. My family approached this new development with the same mentality as any other change we’d experienced. In fact, in the midst of it all, we were all going through major changes. My brother was graduating from high school and moving off to join the Air Force. My sister was getting ready to graduate high school and go to college. I was about to enter the real world. Change was all around us, and in the midst of them, things that had once been easy for dad were becoming harder.

It was not until the last year that the reality of my father’s condition began to bring tears to my eyes. Our entire family has experienced a series of trials in that space of time we never could have seen coming. In many ways, I have come to view the first 21 years of my life as the Calm. The diagnosis of this debilitating disease is—without a doubt—our family Storm. 

(To Be Continued...)