Sunday, September 27, 2015
The Thing With Feathers
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won….Think of it--always.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
On the day the Robin Williams took his life I was very sad as were many. Early in the morning when it was revealed that he was not only struggling with depression but he was undergoing the early advanced stages of Parkinson’s that exasperated his condition a lot of friends sent me messages. The first I received was from a friend, Melissa, who said, “I didn’t want you to hear about this on the television.” I thought that was very kind of her. I then went to the news channels and watched the reports. Again, it made me very sad. Throughout the day many people called and I assured them I was fine. Here’s why.
When I was six, while we were living a bit in Florida, my older sister, Melissa and I took our swimming lessons in a lake near our house. Melissa wore a bathing cap but I did not. The bacteria in lake gave me massive bleeding ear infections that resulted in me losing most of the hearing in my right ear. Over time I lost it all. When I was in high school my friends Mike and Kevin used to come to my house and tune my stereo speakers so I could listen to music properly. Still no one likes to ride in the car with me, and my neighbors often tease me about leaving my music or TV up too high.
When I was nine and we had moved back to the Chicago area I had what I will call my first nervous breakdown. During a short simple math quiz I freaked out because the numbers made no sense to me. I couldn’t figure out how to arrange them and solve the puzzle. I started shaking and crying, and my teacher took me out of the room. I had the same problem with reading. I couldn’t make the letters get in line. My mother, who was an artist, but had been an educator, took me to a place where I did a lot exercises and they not just being hard of hearing but also dyslexic. She being the good woman she was took me back there on frequent weekends for boot camps on how to overcome and manage my issues. It was always referred to as “special errands with Tom.” I still repeat myself a lot and flip letters when writing or speaking but it hasn’t really slowed me down. Then at age 16 I had my first stroke.
It was a day when we were supposed to do an endurance test by running on the upper shelf of our high school gym. “How many laps can you do?” A friend of mine, Shawn, who was known as a stoner, really wanted to show people something about himself, so I ran with him. Together we completed the most laps of the class. Afterwards when I was walking through the hallways I noticed my head hurting and I started seeing things in tunnel vision. At the time I was acting in a high school play. I exited the dressing area starting to descend the steps to the stage and then I fell unconscious. My friend, Alan, came to my rescue and then an ambulance came. I wasn’t out for very long and didn’t want to go to the hospital but it was insisted. On the way the paramedics tried to make jokes to put me at ease. Then at one point I lost all feeling in the left side of my body; they on the sirens, and put me to sleep. In the six weeks after I got out of the hospital I was so far behind in classes that I had my second nervous breakdown. At that time I was a high-performing student and I thought this would destroy everything I worked for. There would be no play, no being student council treasurer, no dances, nothing. One night in the family kitchen I fell into my father’s arms crying and shaking again like in fourth grade. My dad did the right thing. He hired a boy named Joe Rausch, a brilliant senior at school, who came to tutor, talk to me, and get me back on my feet. And that is what we did. Through the years I never learned to write in cursive or to type, but that year the play was a hit, I won the election, and went to a very nice dance with a very nice girl, who also gave me a great goodnight kiss.
My second stroke happened when I was 48. I had gone to a late night Cubs game with friends I met in the Metro Deli and Bar in Union Station. The next day around lunch I again felt that head-throbbing sensation and the tunnel vision. I called my wife and went home. She met me at the hospital emergency room. They started treating me for a heart attack but before they could get too far I again lost all feeling on my side. I couldn’t speak. They rushed me into another room for a CAT Scan and I don’t really remember much after that until I was in the cardiac ward. Apparently, there was another blood clot but they resolved it very quickly. The one thing that was unusual during the blood and stress tests was that they had neurologist come see me. The nurses had noticed that I shook a lot, especially in the morning and while I slept. Jennifer said I should keep an eye on that given that my dad had Parkinsons but I laughed her off a bit. The next year, after my dad passed, I was sitting in her office when she confirmed the diagnosis that I have Parkinsons and Essential Tremor.
I was a Vice President of Sales, Marketing and PR when this all happened and tried to keep up but eventually I couldn’t anymore after a couple of years. I got bought out from the software company I worked for and now I do a lot of other things on my own pace. I work with a children’s museum, a wonderful community center called Alive as an art mentor, I volunteer at my church and in the community, I teach now and again, I advocate actively with Parkinson’s groups, and mostly I just write.
During the course of my life I have gone through a lot of things; lost a lot of things, like people I love, and have gone through a lot of changes, but the thing is I don’t ever despair. I now walk on a cane. Who cares? I now look distinctive.
I am sad about Robin Williams but despair is a ridiculous emotion when you compare it to hope. It’s not for everyone and apparently was not for him. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers /That perches in the soul -/And sings the tune without the words -/And never stops - at all… “ Robin had a great life and people who loved him, but also his struggles with depression and addiction. He chose what I call “The Night Train,” and despite everything I have been through and struggled with, I always choose the thing with feathers.