You can see, by virtue of this post, that I survived the first day of the class. As an added bonus, so did all of the instructors and other students. I could potentially survive the embarrassment of shooting myself; I don’t think I could bear the shame of accidentally poking holes in someone else.
Every now and then you run into someone with uncommon insight and simple goodheartedness, and they don’t always look like you might expect. One of the instructors, a craggy old bast… umm, gentleman who was a former military diver, demolition expert, wielder of sharp pointy things, and jumper-out-of-perfectly-functional-aircraft, was working with me on one of the exercises. As I had done two years ago, I had mentioned to the rangemaster that I had PD, and he seemed interested but unconcerned. Word had apparently gotten around, though, because I received extra attention for the first few exercises, mostly from the instructor we’ll call CB (for Craggy Bast… ahh, Gentleman).
The point of the “one ragged hole” exercise was to shoot a series of rounds through the same hole to demonstrate that we understood the concepts of sight picture, sight alignment, and trigger control. It sounds much more impressive to say that we were doing this from distance of 100 meters, so we’ll go with that. Too much honesty damages a good story.
When it was my turn, CB approached me and asked how many times I had attended a course there. I admitted to one previous experience, and he said, “Badass, huh? You think you can do this?”
Instead of spouting the string of excuses, caveats, and conditionals that immediately came to mind, I said, “Sure, I can do this. Where do you want the hole?”
He smiled (not a pleasant sight), and said, “Center of the target will be fine.”
My first shot was indeed center of target, but my second shot was six inches lower (I jerked the trigger). He snorted and said, “I thought you said you could do this. Don’t jerk that trigger; press it back and make the shot.”
Stress typically makes Parkinson’s symptoms worse, but apparently stung pride counteracts the effect. I put the next three rounds through the same hole as the first shot. He said, “That’s better. I may even let you keep that fancy pistol. Keep going.”
I made my “one ragged hole” a little bigger with the next three rounds, and then jerked the next one off towards Egypt. CB shook his head and said, “You know, Wilson Combat owners have a certain obligation not to waste every fourth shot. Work on it.” He then put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re doing fine. We’re not going to take it easy on you, though.”
The more I have thought about that three-minute interaction today, the more I am struck by the wisdom, compassion, honesty, and practicality CB showed. He said more in those three minutes about what it means to have a chronic disease in the real world that I’ve been able to say in the last five years. Yes, it sucks to be sick, but the standards don’t change just because of that. Yes, eventually I won’t be able to do this, but today I can. Yes, my body and mind are failing, but so are everyone else’s. No, I’m not the best one here, but I am here, and I am engaged.
I’ve never been inclined to see God in my interactions with other people until recently. Today I saw God in a craggy, crusty old master chief who spoke plainly and let me know there were no kitchen passes available today, but also let me know he was not blind to the struggle.
It may be an abrupt transition, and if it’s not a topic you want to read about, this is your chance to raise the handgrips and eject. But, along with the thinking I’ve been doing recently about first times and last times, I’ve been thinking about dying.
Among those with degenerative, incurable illnesses, this may be the ultimate taboo subject. Thinking about one’s own death is perceived as pessimistic and morose by almost everyone, and unfortunately perceived as a lack of faith in God’s providence and grace by many people with faith. I don’t believe I’m obsessing about it, but it’s been on my mind recently.
I’m not afraid of death; those of you that have read the book I recently wrote probably have an idea why. If I am afraid of anything, it’s probably the idea of ceasing to live while I’m still alive, of merely existing without purpose. That’s why having PD can be so frightening, and why I feel so compelled to live as well as I can, while I can. And it’s not just about new experiences and adventure, like this class.
Much more important are the people I meet along the way, like ol’ CB today. It’s discovering new friendships and renewing old friendships. It’s marveling in conversations with my children at how much they know and have learned, and learning new things from them just as I used to teach them new things. It’s watching the same movie over and over again with Amy, laughing at all the same spots, reciting the dialogue, and making up new jokes together every time we watch. And it’s discovering that Amy has been waiting patiently and prayerfully for God to get my attention for thirty years, and being able to finally share this one part of our lives together that we hadn’t ever before.
I don’t remember where I saw it for the first time, but among all the things I’ve read about what it means to live and die well, one set of ideas attributed to the Native American Shawnee chief Tecumseh stands out in my mind. I’ll quote the whole passage, so you can read it in context:
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
even a stranger, when in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.
Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled
with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep
and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.