This is a memoir of two tales separated by ten years, yet linked by a single powerful quality.
1958: McLoughlin Junior High School. Pasco, Washington. Age twelve.
When the quarterback called the play, I cinched up my helmet strap and took in a deep breath. The ball was coming to me. I stood — butt down, my hands cupping my knees — just behind and right of the field general.
“Ready, set, hut, hut, HUT.”
The ball was snapped. The QB turned and jammed the pigskin into my gut. I took two steps, maybe three, when a defensive lineman the size of a Buick slammed me to the ground like a bag of wet cement. Certain that my ribs were splintered and my teeth reshuffled, I tried to recall what planet I was on.
At that moment, my world changed. Before then, I considered myself an athlete. After that single play — even before the stars stopped swirling around my head — I decided to become a scholar.
1968: Kelso, Washington. Age twenty-two
After graduating from college, I taught English, drama and speech at Kelso High School. It was where I wanted to be, but the nights were lonely. I loved teaching, but I wanted a soul mate.
In the beginning of the school year, I spotted a stunning blond at an all-district faculty meeting and instantly felt woozy. She wore a lemon-yellow mini-dress over fishnet tights. Her name was Nita, and she was drop-dead gorgeous.
And — miraculously, divinely — when I introduced myself to her, she smiled at me as though we were old friends. Our first date was in mid-October; a first kiss sealed our love; and on Christmas Eve, we were married. I still remember our vows: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
The link: Commitment
We all have had pivotal moments in our lives: the times when the very next decision changes our destiny. Those moments are simple. What is hard is preserving our commitment.
When I was flattened on the gridiron, I decided to become a scholar. At that age there was nothing scholarly about me. I was a C- student who had never read a book. I never quite understood fractions, not to mention algebra. And I rarely did homework.
All that changed. I had a new routine. Right after school, I rushed home, walked directly to my bedroom and started studying — night after night. By the time I graduated from high school, I was an A student. At my college commencement, I graduated with honors. I was like the skinny kid who wins the spirit award in football: not particularly gifted, but enthusiastic.
Then, in 1968, I was married. Once again, my commitment was on the line. How loyal would I be? Let me put it this way:
A year ago, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable neurological disorder that touches 60,000 Americans each year.
At times, friends ask me how Nita and I are dealing with the disease. My answer is always the same.
“My wife and I see Parkinson’s as part of the natural cycle of life. There are challenges that come and go — and, yes, some linger. But despite the adversities, we never choose to be victims; we move on.
“But there is something else that is even more important. Nearly fifty years ago, we made a covenant to love each other in sickness and in health. That covenant is as real and dear as the day it was pledged. Our love will never change. That is sacred, immutable ground.
“And when days become more difficult — as they likely will — love will anchor us. Love will carry us through.”
Why am I saying all this? I have learned that a few crucial, pivotal moments in our lives are transformational and not to be taken lightly. Those who are sloppy about their personal missions are not living; they are sleepwalking. And, to make things worse, they become easy prey for imposters seeking feckless followers. As the adage goes, those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.
I could never be a true athlete. I never had the strength, the agility and, more importantly, the passion. But I could be a scholar. I could buckle down and dedicate myself to lifelong learning.
Nor could I ever be a loner. I am, by nature, too social — one who longs for community and craves intimacy. But I can commit to the woman who has been my life’s partner. I can wake up in the morning, see the sunlight streaming across her beautiful face, and say, “Nita, I will always love you — in sickness and in health, now and forevermore.”
And to those who think that, like Delilah, my wife has sheared my hair, you may be right, but it is so much sweeter than having my teeth reshuffled.
Allen Johnson is a guest columnist for the Tri-City Herald and the author of Pardon My French and the novel, The Awakening. His column, “Mindfulness,” appears on the first Sunday of every month.