Many people’s ‘golden years’ are ruined by Parkinson’s Disease. Gary was diagnosed with Early-onset Parkinson’s as a teenager, and it could have ruined his entire life. But the disease did not ruin Gary’s life. He did not let that happen. He made the best of whatever Parkinson’s did not take from him, even though by the end of his life there wasn’t much left at all. Gary died almost twenty years ago at the age of 58. I am still inspired by his life. Today’s meditation is from the sermon I gave at his funeral.
My seminary Pastoral Care professor would tell his students that one of the blessings of being a pastor was that we would get to know so many wonderful people. In fact, he said, in some of our pastoral visits we would receive far more than we would bring. At the time I wondered how that could be. After all, we were the ones being trained for this. We would be the ones bringing God’s Word to these people. What would there be for us to receive?
It didn’t take long to learn that my professor was right. Over the years I have met many terrific people of faith, and my visits with them have been a great inspiration for my own faith. Gary was such a person. I was always blessed by my visits with Gary, even when he could not communicate.
I am seldom ill, but when I am afflicted, I can hardly stand a day of it. I have things to do. I want to be out and around. I want to be among people. I want to come and go as I please. I don’t like being confined to a bed or a chair. I don’t like migraine headaches, weakness, coughing, or being sick to my stomach.
Gary was afflicted not one day, but every day; and for most of his life. He had a heavy cross to bear, and he bore it with courage, dignity, and faith. I did not know Gary when he was younger, but I did visit him in the care center every month for the last four years of his life. He was always pleasant, positive, and in good spirits. I never heard him complain. In fact, I could not drag a complaint out of him, even when I tried. When I asked about his long illness, he spoke of it in a matter of fact way, without bitterness or self-pity. When I said it must be frustrating to be so confined for so long, he simply said, “But the people here are so good to me.”
I brought Gary God’s Word and the Sacrament of Holy Communion, along with the latest news from the church and community. I received from Gary a model of how to endure suffering and disappointment with faith and strength. My life was truly blessed and made richer by having known Gary.
I said I did not know Gary until the last four years, so I did not know how he was able to handle the early stages of his disability. How does a kid in junior high school who likes farming, sports, and horseback riding deal with finding out he has Parkinson’s disease, and is already rapidly losing his strength and coordination? I did not know Gary then, but his brothers did, so they could tell me how Gary reacted. And all three brothers said the same thing. They said they never heard a complaint out of Gary for forty years—not one cuss word, no sour attitude, and not a single ‘Why me?’ Nothing. Just a quiet acceptance and an ongoing positive outlook on life.
His brother Duane gave a powerful example of this. Gary was 21 years old and home alone at the farm. He had fallen and could not get up. He was on his back in the garden for three hours, and unable to even roll over to crawl back to the house. When Duane came home, he heard something out back behind the house. He walked over and found Gary. Gary was crying. Duane went over and asked Gary if he was hurt. Gary immediately quit crying and said, “Nope.” Duane asked if he was all right. Gary said, “Yup.” Duane helped him get up and back into the house, and that was it. There were no complaints, not even then.
Gary was truly a blessing to know, and I think of him often. If he could endure what he endured with grace and gratitude, I too can keep a positive attitude amidst my troubles. And I have tried to pass on that blessing. I have spoken of Gary often in conversations, telling how someone can be handed the worst life has to offer and still find happiness and purpose in living.
Much was taken from Gary, even in his youth, but he always did the best he could with what he had left. First, he learned to do stained glass work which he could do even though confined to a wheel-chair. Then, when he no longer had the coordination for that, he got a computer. On that he would painstakingly type with one unsteady finger, until he filled pages and then big folders with his thoughts and memories. (continued…)