I first met Bill at the Ananda community in Portland, Oregon when my wife and I were serving as community managers. He rolled up in his camper van hoping to stay a few nights. He had visited The Expanding Light Retreat at Ananda Village some time ago, but now that he had retired, he was looking for a place to call home.
Once settled in the community, Bill participated in community events, enjoyed coming to meals, and taught a yoga class at the local senior center. Slim and athletic in his sixties, he loved to hike and was once an avid skier. Then, three years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
A deeply rewarding friendship
Today Bill and I are going on our weekly walk. It takes us about an hour and we enjoy sharing what’s going on in our lives. But mostly we talk about God, the spiritual path, and the challenges we face as devotees.
Before his illness, Bill and I had occasionally taken walks, but we started going for regular walks when he agreed to help me with a project. I was completing the requirements for a bachelor of science in nursing and needed to do a holistic case study on someone with a chronic disease. Not only was Bill kind enough to oblige, in the process we forged a deeply rewarding friendship.
As we walk, Bill reminds me to keep my arms swinging. I last for about 30 seconds and place my hands back in my pockets. Bill says that the “trainers” at his weekly exercise class try to get everyone to swing their arms. Since this is particularly difficult to do if the Parkinson’s is advanced, the trainers offer walking sticks and encourage the class to use them like ski poles. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to swing my arms, so I silently practice gratitude and give it another try.
The appeal of warmer weather
Having grown up in New Jersey and skied most of his life, Bill is used to cold weather. But today it’s about 42 degrees and that’s a bit chilly for us both. The conversation changes to Florida and warmer weather. Bill has been talking about Florida for some weeks now. Although he enjoys the community and the friends he has made, a warmer, dryer climate is very appealing. Parkinson’s affects the joints and muscles causing stiffness, especially in cold weather.
Bill has friends in Florida and will be visiting soon to check it out as a possible place to live. His only living relative, a brother, also lives on the east coast.
Bill knows that to meet the challenges of Parkinson’s, he needs to raise his physical, mental, and spiritual energy. He believes that miracles do happen and that a recovery from Parkinson’s is a very real possibility. It is this thought that keeps him going. He says, “The key for me is not to lose hope.”
A disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, Bill’s faith is built upon years of practicing yoga and meditation, and reading the Bible. In his daily sadhana, he spends about half of his time doing deep relaxation, visualization, and affirmations. The rest is spent meditating in the silence and feeling God’s presence. He tells me: “In the silence I don’t have Parkinson’s. Everything is all right and I feel at peace.”
Grateful for the entire body
Currently, he is working with the concept of gratitude. Bill has a lot of low back and neck pain, hoarseness of throat, and fatigue. He visualizes what is working well in his body, gives thanks for what is healthy, and expands that gratitude out to the entire body. His affirmation is: “I rest and relax in God’s perfect love. My mind is at peace and my body is healed.”
Near the end of our walk, I ask Bill how his practice of the Energization Exercises is going. He has been doing them in bed because of balance problems. Just then, Bill stops in the road and starts doing the calf tensing exercise. He gets a big smile on his face because he is able to do it today! We talk about how doing the Energization Exercises strengthens our will and ability to direct the life force.
The most healing remedy
I also ask Bill how Parkinson’s has changed his life. He responds with a story. “I was riding the light rail one day when I noticed a fellow in a wheel chair. Instead of arms, he had two floppy stubs. He had no lower legs. Our eyes met and a connection was made. I wanted to go over and hug him. I guess I recognized myself in him and wanted to let him know he was loved, that it was all going to work out, and that he was in God’s hands. I now have great empathy for those who are dealing with chronic physical, mental, or emotional issues.”
In my work as a hospice nurse, I have seen that the knowledge that one is loved is one of the most healing remedies available. Hope of a cure may be gone but not for a “transition” full of compassion, kindness, and dignity. Patients and family are deeply reassured to know they will not be abandoned, and that loving help will be available during the final weeks and hours.
The potential for isolation
Later, Bill and I have tea together. He starts to cough while drinking the tea and I ask if he has been having any difficulty swallowing. He says he has had some problems. He is at risk for aspiration pneumonia because of a poor swallow reflex related to Parkinson’s. He is also at risk for falling because of muscle stiffness in his legs. Bill says: “I am learning that I am not the body, but spirit in the body. The only thing that counts is my personal relationship with God.”
With any chronic illness there is the potential for isolation. Bill doesn’t mention it directly, but I sense he is already feeling a bit of this and, for this reason also, is looking towards Florida. He is still able to drive and shop, but no longer teaches at the senior center. He had been living alone, but six months ago a family in the community changed their sleeping arrangements and offered him the master bedroom. Even so, I know he is concerned about becoming a “burden.”
Have I done my best?
Though Bill and I have never discussed it, surely the thought must come: When will this lifetime end? How will I look back on my life’s story? Will I be satisfied that I did my best? Even when we do our best, our general conditioning is to think we could have done better, something Yogananda cautions us never to do.
In his writings on “Evening Hospice,” Swami Kriyananda offers a number of suggestions meant for the end of life, though certainly of benefit at any time. Some of the most important are:
- Relinquish attachments.
- Release the grip of ego-consciousness.
- Offer every regret into God’s love and infinite consciousness.
- Forgive past hurts and betrayals.
- Give out universal love to everyone, even to so-called enemies.
- Concentrate on infinity.
- Practice devotion.
- Overcome fear by realizing that you are not this body.
Transforming before my eyes
These are not suggestions that can be knocked out in a day or two. They are life-long pursuits requiring daily attention.
But they are certainly the issues Bill is now addressing. Every day he practices relinquishing attachment to a body that no longer obeys him, releasing a bit more “the grip of ego-consciousness,” and offering “universal love” to everyone.
Thinking of how I’ve faced lesser challenges, I am humbled by how well Bill has succeeded in raising and focusing his energy. It’s as if he were taking a crash course in Self-realization with extremely challenging subjects, requiring him to be fully present, moment-by-moment.
And he is transforming before my eyes. Whether or not his disease is cured, a miracle is already in the making.
Post Script: Bill recently moved to a graduated living community in Florida where he has a small studio apartment. Though he misses the community and our weekly walks, he is enjoying the warm climate and the opportunity to spend time at the beach. If he continues to deteriorate physically, he can remain in the community and move from independent living to assisted-living, then to intermediate care, and finally, if necessary, into full time care.