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Lessons From My Father

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My old man taught me not to feel sorry for myself because I was sick. I was a young man with MS, and the question "why me?" was off limits under his roof. I made the mistake of uttering those very words in his presence just once. I was 30 and discovered a hernia in need of repair. I became a victim, and said so. My father quickly labeled me, well, a professional asshole. I did not make that mistake again.

The man had an unspoken mission as a role model. He did not complain. Ever. After he had to leave his job as chairman of anesthesia at one hospital because of his MS, he took new boards and went back to the OR as a pediatric anesthesiologist at another. I know he was not fabricating the brave face. That was who he was.

The man was resourceful. He just quietly kept moving forward. That is all you can do with a debilitating disease and an unforgiving public. Life is about being and doing, though too many believe the chronically ill no longer can do. So we must prove ourselves again and again, if, in fact, we are given the opportunity. Too often we doubt ourselves.

I have picked up the pieces and reinvented myself as physical deterioration redefined what I could do. Friends have noted how many times I have been reincarnated. The television producer became a consultant, the freelance writer turned into an author, advocate, and Web columnist. My trek has not been linear, though my parachute continues to open.

A person must keep going. On the off chance that this is the one shot at life, opting out and bowing to illness simply are not options. I have a good life. I have been lucky. I feel sorry for those who choose to be victims when battling a chronic condition. I like to quote the poet, Emily Dickinson, who wrote, "to live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else." The time to live is now.

I always referred to my dad as the old man. I asked his permission when I wrote Blindsided, my memoir. "I would expect nothing less," he answered like a straight man. He slowly deteriorated and died at 90. "What do I have to be angry at?" he would ask from his wheelchair. The calm never cracked.

My old man lived to know his eight grandchildren. Then he left. I was not there for that. My father knew peace, and he understood I do not and probably never will. I do have a good life. That concession would surprise him. My old man loved medicine and his family. The rest was window dressing to him and did not matter. My dad refined his ability to recognize what was important.

Those who know loss because of crumbling health need to see what matters and judge what is really important. When I lament that I no longer can hike or climb or throw or even walk, sometimes I am able to look at my grown children and appreciate what I gave them as they grew into their success. I was there for them. My old man would be proud.

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