Saturday, October 6, 2012

Working Hard and Parkinson's Disease

Working on a difficult case over the past few weeks has got me thinking, again, of my father. Sometimes 16 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, he knew how to work hard (and taught his children the same). He had done so his whole life. In fact, he really didn't know how to stop. It was, to a large extent, who he was, his identity. Retirement at 65, although welcomed in some respects, left him searching for purpose and seeking to redefine himself. He never said as much, but that is how I see it from my current vantage point. Stumbling into my 60s, being chased by the spectre of Parkinson's disease, my goal of continuing to work into my 70s and 80s seems to have only the slimmest chance of survival. So, will I follow my father's footsteps into a desert of self-definition, wandering in a wasteland of purposeless recreation and the distraction of retirement?

I think not. 
There are significant differences between my father and me, and his worklife and my own (although I admit there are some similarities). I love my work. My father never had a chance to choose a profession or a calling he could love. His options were limited by his grade 8 education and the need to feed his family. A near-fatal logging accident left him unable to manage the very heavy work required of men on the front lines of the lumber industry (although he continued to work harder than most able-bodied men). Ultimately, retraining gave him a more secure and less demanding job as a school custodian. He was a diligent, intelligent, loyal, honest and, yes, hard-working man. But I don't think he loved his job.

My father had no hobbies really. When he wasn't working at the school, putting in more hours than he was being paid for, he was working in our own or someone else's orchard to learn a little extra money so my mother could stay home with the four of us children. And when he wasn't working, he was coaching his kids' baseball team, on some church committee, or volunteering to help someone less fortunate. He was unselfish to the core. Perhaps that is why he did not plan his retirement. Like many others of his generation, he was too busy thinking of others. And for me, as it was for him, it is a scary prospect to plan the years I may have when work is no longer manageable. 
Working hard, and the discipline it required, defined my father. It gave him self-worth. At the risk of self-delusion, I believe we are different. I see my work as a calling, not just a job or a paycheck (although I am thankful for both). Working hard for me is less of a discipline than the heartfelt desire to fulfill that calling. If forced to anticipate, at least on some distant horizon, a departure from the practice of law, I do not foresee a vacuum of calling. In fact, purposeful opportunities abound. My days after law will not be spent bettering my golf score (I have enough of a handicap not to attempt that) nor luxuriate on some tropical beach. But they will likely include writing, mentoring young people, trying to contribute to the lives of others and spending more time communicating my love for family and friends. 
So why do I experience such angst about that distant day when my disability outweighs my ability to carry on? Perhaps it is simply a lack of faith; the difficult letting go of one thing in order to grasp another. It is the struggle to end a chapter that has been jam-packed with significance only to face writer's block in starting a new one. Maybe it is just another manifestation of loss, the inevitable leaving behind of something that is loved.

For now, I must get back to work. Challenging, demanding and exhausting, it calls me to give my best. My hope and prayer is that when the time comes for other things to take its place that there will be a purpose and a passion for the days ahead. I'm planning on it!


  1. Bob, I enjoy reading your reflexions, and am especially inspired by your comment: "But they will likely include writing, mentoring young people, trying to contribute to the lives of others and spending more time communicating my love for family and friends. " Thanks for sharing!

  2. Those of us who were raised by "hardworking" men, tend to not want to give us working. I've had so many careers in my 62 years, sometimes 2 or 3 at once, but working just makes sense. I too had a father like yours. He came back from WWII deaf from a stupid mistake when his ship fired a testing shot while men were on the way back from lunch to the ship. The percussion knocked the men to the ground, and dad soon had headaches and blackouts. But he didn't let this stop him. He went to work for an oil company, through corresponddence courses (he only had a 3rd grade education pre war) got his mechanics degree, and soon rose to be the superintendent of the gas plant that provided all the gas to the homes in Amarillo. He was diagnosed with "juvenile diabetes" at the age of 40 - very rare. But it was caused by an episode where his pancrease ruptured and he almost bled to death on our bathroom floor by vomiting all the blood up. He had to have blood flown in as he had a rare blood. He lived through this at age 40 and then the next year was diagnosed with the diabetes. He suffered with that for 42 years; but during that time he not only continued to supervise the plant but pastor many churches. At about 60 he had a stroke at the plant and had to retire early, but that didn't stop him continuing to work with quarter horses, pastoring churches, doing his own lawn work, and being active until such time in his 80's that the combination of diabetes, strokes, heart disease and hearing problems (nerves going off continuously in his head as sirens) brought him to the point of a wheelchair. He died at 82, well loved, well respected and an example to anyone of how to live a challenged life and rise above most any obstacle. When you have that as an example, it's hard to say "quit working". I so feel a connection with you and your family through your writing, and enjoy reading your blog whenever I feel down.