To the cowboy who taught me to only fight when you have to, on the first anniversary of Southwest Parkinson’s Fitness

OPINION — While my dad spent the majority of his professional years as an educator, in my eyes, he’s always been a cowboy. Maybe it was because he taught animal science. Or maybe it goes back to the time he sold cattle for a company in Oregon.

The author and his dad, riding Mr. Bill, somewhere on the range, circa January 1981 | Photo by Jill Dail, St. George News / Cedar City News

I still remember in my early elementary years when he would go on his trips to various parts of the West, and I would envision him riding wild ranges on his horse, Mr. Bill. I drew pictures of him and stuck them to the door for him to find when he would return, usually late at night.

And then there’s the man today, almost 40 years later, the man who just showed my 8-year-old daughter how to build a small wooden picture frame for a picture she had drawn for her Nana.

They were using power tools. But I trust him. Because cowboys are sometimes a little wild and a little crazy, but they usually know what they’re doing.

Even when they have Parkinson’s disease.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing from the beginning. When things started going bad for my dad about 15 years ago, he and my mom searched for one answer on which to pin the pain and frustration. But it turned out to be two different things, maybe related, maybe not.

One was just chronic pain, possibly something about those wild and crazy cowboy days – and a refusal to slow down much as he grew older – that finally flared up.

Or maybe the pain had been an early indicator of what was ultimately diagnosed after five years as Parkinson’s, the point when my father joined nearly 1 million other Americans diagnosed with the second most common neurological disorder after Alzheimer’s.

While Parkinson’s is identified physiologically speaking as a progressive nervous system disorder, alternative medicine practitioners have also linked it to our more figurative minds. Some say Parkinson’s can result from fears of not being in control of your surroundings. And others say it could be guilt or regret.

On more than one occasion, my dad has talked about some things in his life for which he felt bad, like being gone all that time on those trips when I was young. I hope he knows that while the 8-year-old me probably missed his dad, the only memories I have these days are of that cowboy riding home.

And before it was Mr. Bill, my dad was riding that other old horse, the Ford Bronco we had in upstate New York. I was young enough at the time that this may just be one memory I have or a dozen occasions all run together, but when you’re talking about the impact of a person, I guess it doesn’t much matter. And when it comes to my dad and that old Bronco, I remember riding around on sunny days with the windows open and country music blaring – this is maybe due in part to my dad being deaf on the right side, which I didn’t know at the time.

My dad listened to a lot of outlaw country. Waylon and Willie and Johnny were mainstays in that Bronco. While Kenny Rogers is only at the fringes of that genre at best, we listened to a lot of him too. And there was one song in particular that imprinted in my memories.

In “Coward of the County,” a dying father tells his son Tommy not to live the life he had lived.

“It won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek.
I hope you’re old enough to understand.
Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.”

I was never raised to fight. Although I think my dad was in a scuffle or two in his younger years, he never bragged about it, and I’ve never been in a fight in my life. My older brother says that as opposed to Tommy, I just looked mean enough. Whatever it was, while I’ve had to stand up for what I believed, I’ve never had to raise a fist against an enemy.

But since my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, there have been times – a lot of them – when I’ve wanted to punch something, even someone, if I thought it could change the injustice of watching my dad, the cowboy, a man who lived by the rough strength of his body, losing control of that very body.

At the end of “Coward of the County,” Tommy has no other choice. Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man. And then you fight like hell.

My father could’ve thrown in the towel, but that’s never been his style. While he admits that at the beginning he languished “in denial … trying to prove that I was the one person who could continue to do everything I did before,” he never stopped exploring his options and opening his mind to trying new things.

Dan Dail pummels the heavy bag at Snap Fitness, Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Southwest Parkinson’s Fitness, St. George News / Cedar City News

In 2017, he learned about Rock Steady Boxing, an international program using noncontact boxing to combat the effects of Parkinson’s. Thus was born the seeds of the Southwest Parkinson’s Fitness, which launched in September 2017. One year later, the program has doubled in participation and includes not only boxing three days a week but also two days of balance and flexibility, including yoga and physical therapy.

Read more: New ‘Rock Steady Boxing’ program fights Parkinson’s Disease better than medication

There is no stopping Parkinson’s – at least for now – but my dad is beating it back every step of the way. After a year on this new journey, he has been able to cut back his medication by 25 percent and has the energy he needs to get through the day.

I don’t know if it is entirely a result of the boxing. As I said, he opened his mind and is trying a mix of some different schools of thought on healing, both Eastern and Western. And with his new “diet” of making knuckle sandwiches, he and my mom have also largely switched to eating more Mediterranean cuisine. Much less red meat than I grew up on.

These are things you might not expect from an old cowboy. But like I said, they may be wild and crazy, but they usually know what they’re doing.

And when it comes to Parkinson’s, the cowboy I remember from being a young kid, riding those wild ranges on Mr. Bill, is fighting back.

About Southwest Parkinson’s Fitness

The Rock Steady Boxing program is managed by the Southwest Parkinson’s Fitness Alliance, Southern Utah University’s Rural Health Scholars program and student volunteers, four of which are Rock Steady Boxing certified instructors. Boxing classes are held three days a week, and in addition, balance and flexibility classes are held twice a week.

For more information on Southwest Parkinson’s Fitness, visit its website or call Dan Dail at 435-463-7285.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Christina September 18, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    This article was beautiful, Paul. We all know someone with this condition and your father is a shining example of how it doesn’t have to take you before your time. You can use your life as the gift that it is… to bless others! I hope I get to meet your dad one day and I know that he is proud to have you for a son. Thank you both for sharing this!

  • Striker4 September 19, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    Great article..well written

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