Two Americans have, in very different ways, unwittingly taught me two important life lessons. No, but I follow your reasoning, I am not talking about Laurel and Hardy. Nor Abbott and Costello. No, the gentlemen in question were Mark Twain and Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Although the latter may be new to you, you will almost certainly have heard of Twain.
More than any other author perhaps, Mark Twain is responsible for introducing British adolescents to American literature through the chronicled adventures of Tom Sawyer and the exuberantly named Huckleberry Finn. Viewed by many, Faulkner and Hemingway included, as the father of the American novel, Twain’s output amounts to some thirteen novels and other sundries. Hemingway even went so far as to say that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since”. Strong praise indeed.
Twain was inevitably a rich source of quotations from the humorous to the inspirational but none resonates more deeply with me than this:
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”.
And in those twenty one words are distilled a potent idea and a gnawing certainty - the idea that life should have purpose and that, sooner or later, through circumstance or happenstance, that purpose will be made clear.
A good friend of mine from Texas, diagnosed with Parkinson’s five years ago, found a form of salvation. After the usual feelings of depression, he emerged, with urgency and drive, into a world of advocacy. In a strange way, and one he would not have chosen, Parkinson’s had given him his purpose.
And so it has for me. Like many others before, and doubtless many more after, I am a soldier in this war on Parkinson's. And, if it is to be won, it is a war that must be fought on many fronts. By the best research, by improvements in patient health, by public education, and by changing the political will. These are bold ambitions and will not be achieved by a single individual.
In this war we contribute in our own way, in the way we feel most comfortable. For some that is very public, marching with placards, signing petitions, rabble-rousing militancy. For others it will be behind desks, lobbying politicians or educating the public. In any war, the control of information is paramount. This is no different. And for some, the battlefront is in the world's laboratories and research institutes, in white coats, conducting the research that will ultimately defeat Parkinson's. And then there are those others, myself included, who use websites to make sure that our victories are publicised, that the soldiers are equipped and deployed where they are in the best position to use their talents against the enemy - and to know where the breaches in the line will come and to send reinforcements. The tactics of battle. Which brings me to my second American.
The second man, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, was a Confederate general during the American civil war. My father, at the time I was born, was fascinated by the American civil war and, although he has never said as much, I am convinced that I was named after his favourite general. Jackson was a master tactician, using the limited resources at his disposal to wreak havoc for the enemy. During the famous Valley campaign, Jackson moved his small army (a mere seventeen thousand strong) more than six hundred miles in a month and a half against a force that numbered sixty thousand, inflicting five significant defeats on the union Army. Jackson had a way of making limited resources go further. An inspirational leader and tactical genius, Jackson's command of the Stonewall Brigade probably extended the Civil War by a couple of years as the South briefly entertained the fanciful possibility of victory. His death in 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville effectively ended the last vestiges of hope.
Despite his tactical mastery, it was Jackson's courage, and that of his troops, at the first battle of Manassas, standing firm in the face of a heavy Union assault, that earned him the nickname by which he is most commonly known. "Stonewall" Jackson.
Jackson acknowledged throughout his life that his army was never as strong as needed. But he never complained, and used his tactical brilliance with the limited resources at his disposal to wage war on his enemy. He believed that the best form of defence was attack and his ability to strike fast and hard at the enemy won many a battle against overwhelming odds.
Two men with very different ideas. Twain the inspirational thinker and Jackson the decisive doer. Between them they have taught me that this battle, this war even, will be won by brilliant ideas efficiently executed. They have taught me that it is vital to think in depth and equally essential to act swiftly, decisively and with purpose. I am no Twain or Stonewall but I recognize in them the qualities I must try to bring to the fight. I see the ground on which I will stand and fight.
I can't speak for other chronic illnesses with any authority, and it's probably wrong to generalise, but there seems to me to be a special bond among people with Parkinson's. In many ways this is surprising, especially so when you consider how heterogeneous a bunch we are. Some freeze, some shake, some stumble, some mumble. My Parkinson's is not your Parkinson's. I may quiver and shake while you may be a frozen statue. It's hard to believe that so different a group of symptoms can still be part of the same illness. But despite these variations on the theme, we recognise each other as soldiers in the same army.
We are fighting a war on Parkinson’s and, though it may often feel different at the battlefront, as our comrades fall around us, it is a war our enemy cannot win. We will slow our retreat. We will draw a line and we will stand and fight, shoulder to shoulder. Scientist, physician and patient will link arms and say “Enough”. We will stand like a stone wall against our enemy. We owe it to all the fallen.
We will hold the line.
And when we have won and lie exhausted on the field of battle, in the last words spoken by Stonewall, “Let us cross the river and rest under the shade of the trees”.