Of the many elements important to a fulfilled life, family and friends may be the most critical and also the most uncertain. Sometimes we choose – we do the best we can to choose well, and some of us are luckier or more blessed than others in our choices. At other times, we have no choice. And once again, sometimes fortune or divine providence shines more brightly on some than others. As with all other elements of life, though, the full picture is always a combination; some good, and some not so good.
Although I really can’t claim credit, I think I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in the choices that I have made. One of the smartest things I’ve ever done is to ask my wife to marry me. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually ask until our first anniversary. I was so unbelievably nervous and inept the first time through that, rather than popping the question, I told her, “I want you to marry me,” in a rather authoritarian, military manner. She graciously chose to interpret my command as a question, and answered, “yes, I’ll marry you,” even though I had also failed to either understand or acknowledge the old Texas tradition of speaking to her father first. In other words, I bungled the entire situation. The real choice was hers, and I am lucky that she chose me. As an attempt to atone, each year for the past 27 I have asked her to marry me at some point on Christmas Eve, the day I originally told her to marry me. So far, the answer has always been yes, but sometimes I can see her mentally reviewing the events of the past 12 months before giving me that answer.
Our relationship was based on choices: hers, to forgive my obvious faults and look at me with the eyes of love; and mine, to stop talking before I overwhelmed her capacity to forgive my faults. However, since then, I’ve been the benefactor of a host of relationships I could have never anticipated. Her mother and father also overlooked my shortcomings (my wife clearly didn’t give them the full story) and welcomed me into their family, and I met brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and old family friends that are now as much a part of my heritage as my own family. I’ve learned their family stories, I know their family mythology, and I can tell their family jokes as well or better than I tell my own.
When I was younger, I always thought I would make a terrible father. My sister still occasionally tells the story of the time her five-year-old daughter came to wake me up one Saturday morning while they were visiting. I was still a teenager, and I had little use or tolerance for children. My sister says that my niece emerged from my bedroom with a stunned look on her face and told everyone, “he opened his one big eye at me and said, ‘GET OUT.’ ” I have absolutely no memory of the event, but when they told me about it later, the humor was lost on me.
When I first learned that I was to be a father, I was apprehensive. I believed that I didn’t like children, and it seemed clear that they didn’t really respond to me either. I was serious, reserved, and had an aversion to being goofy, and even my own parents used to say that when I was a child, I never really was a child. I learned that it’s different with your own children, though. I think I grew as much as they did, and I believe I’m a much better person for having been a part of their lives. Now that they’re independent and building their own futures, I hope they can look back and say the same. They didn’t choose to have me as a father any more than I chose them as my son and daughter, but if I had, I could not have chosen better. I hope that they can forgive me my faults, just as my wife has. At least I can say that most of the mistakes that I made were different from the ones that my own father made.
I didn’t choose the family I was born into, either. Everyone’s family history is a combination of both good and bad, and mine is no exception. Some of my history, such as the times that I’ve shared with my next older brother, have been astoundingly good. The trips we’ve taken together over the past few years are among my best memories. We’ve enjoyed each other’s company during those trips far more than the locations we visited, and those locations weren’t too shabby. We just returned from a river cruise on the Seine in northern France, and if everything works out we have plans to go to Marrakesh, Morocco next spring. As I’ve told him many times, though, it’s not the location that matters; it’s the company.
Some of my other family experiences have not been as positive. Without being too dramatic, some of my memories are simply terrible. I try not to dwell on it excessively, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to realize that it’s the sum of my experiences, both good and bad, that have created the person that I am today. I believe that there’s wisdom in the thought that you can’t truly experience light without knowing darkness. I do wish that the darkness had not been quite so deep sometimes, but perhaps that will give me a better capacity for understanding the light at some point. I’m working on that.
Parkinson’s disease typically progresses at a relatively steady rate, but sometimes the rate changes unexpectedly. In the last several months, mine has progressed noticeably, probably due to an automobile accident I was involved in recently (no, not my fault – I wasn’t even driving). I’m clumsier than I was just few months ago, I’m starting to walk with a cane again, the medications don’t work as well or as long as they once did, and even with DBS still doing a good job for me, I’m still mostly immobile by the end of the day. I think this sudden acceleration has been yet another wake-up call along the path, and I think it’s made me both more adventurous and more reflective. I hear the clock ticking loudly now, and so I’m trying to do things and go places that I always wanted to, before I no longer have the choice. PD has already closed the door on several of the items on my list, and I’m trying to move faster than it does. Moving fast isn’t one of the things I do well anymore, though.
I’m also reflecting on the course of my life up to this point, and trying to develop a broader context. At my wife’s urging, I’ve become interested in my family genealogy. Digging up interesting information about both near and distant relatives has been fascinating. Apparently, my extended family was kind of a big deal in Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries. Now I understand why I like bagpipe music, although I can still do without the haggis.
Some things we choose, some we don’t. Regardless of how it fits into your world view, I think there’s great wisdom in the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Serenity, courage, and wisdom – good things to seek, and good choices to make where you can.
On our trip to France we visited the D-Day landing sites on the Normandy coast, and I was once again overwhelmed with the magnitude of the serenity, courage, and wisdom that it took for those brave men and women to safeguard the freedom that many of us take for granted every day. We have the chance to exercise that freedom today by choosing who will help lead us for the next four years. Regardless of how we choose, we should all be grateful that our hard-won freedom allows us to choose without violence and bloodshed. There will no doubt be cynical rhetoric and sour grapes regardless of the outcome, but we have the freedom to choose. I hope you don’t miss your opportunity to exercise that freedom.