The volunteer who checked me in at the hospital was a woman in her upper seventies. Two things struck me about her. One was that she was impeccably dressed and groomed. The other was that she had Parkinson’s so bad that it was only with the greatest difficulty that she succeeded in checking off my name. I thought about how much work it must have been for her to dress herself and come to the hospital to help other people, this against the hopelessness of her illness. “May God bless you for the work you do,” I said.
I seek out books by people who survived disabling injuries and became mentally stronger for the experience, but never have I seen one sitting before me on a day I was going to have surgery. I grew up thinking of young valorous men as heroic, not old ladies with Parkinson’s. Yet, the heroic acts of the young—soldiers in battle for instance—are often over in a moment, and might not have been done at all had there been time for reflection. That woman has to get out of bed everyday of her life knowing that she is facing a protracted and fatal disease that will make her every movement—her every breath—a little more difficult. As I lie around the house feeling sorry for myself, I think about her, and I think that, if God has a face, it must look like hers. In the quiet way in which she placed an X by my name, I saw all the courage and all the nobility to which I could ever hope to aspire.