Resilience is a major theme in Gary Jackson’s life story.
He recently turned 60, but he looks half that age. People who don’t know the soft-spoken Forest Parker would never guess that he suffered a stroke at 10 years old and was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis at 50.
Call it grit, call it determination, Jackson refused to sit on a pity pot. At 10, the stroke paralyzed his entire left side, but it didn’t paralyze his spirit. As a student at Whitney Young High School, he signed up for a dance class.
“I wasn’t very good,” he acknowledged, “but I took the class to get my coordination back. I also worked out with the football team. It took me 20 years to get the full use of my arms and legs back.”
He said that physical fitness became his “full time job.” He worked out to the point where he was running marathons and acquired a “ripped” body worthy of a picture in a Charles Atlas advertisement.
He went to college, earned a degree in electronical engineering and got a job in Silicon Valley making microprocessors and memory chips.
“I was also selling an average of 10 pieces a day of a fitness machine I had invented and making $8,400 a week just on sales of the machine,” he recalled. “I would do a 100- mile bike ride every week and would burn 1,000 calories a day working out.”
Life seemed to be back to normal until the shoe dropped in 2013. He had accepted a new position in Florida, sold his house and was driving through Oklahoma when he started losing his sight.
“Late in the evening’” he said, “everything got really blurry, and I couldn’t see how to get off the freeway. I followed some brake lights and made it to a hotel. When I woke up the next morning, everything was fine. I jumped on I-55, and I drove to Chicago to stay with family and see what was going on.”
Three days after arriving in Chicago, he was rushed to an emergency room, because he couldn’t see and was shaking badly.
“I ended up in the hospital,” he said, “because my body shut down. They had to put me in a coma and gave me blood transfusions for seven days.”
It took the staff at the hospital two weeks to make the diagnosis of myasthenia gravis, because he was in such good shape—only 3% body fat. “They couldn’t believe it,” he said, until they did an EMG, which gave the docs the answer to the question they had not been asking. Myasthenia gravis, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is a chronic autoimmune, neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles.
That resilience and grit he exhibited 40 years earlier disappeared.
“The first four years after I was diagnosed, I was very depressed,” he said. “I was thinking of all the things I couldn’t do anymore. I was tired of fighting, and I didn’t want to live. I got my affairs in order. I told my kids where everything was and took out a $100,000 life insurance policy.”
During the pandemic, people often said, “I just want to get back to normal,” but “normal,” or the way things used to be, was no longer possible for the overachiever. Resilience could no longer be defined as “bouncing back to normal.” Lately, it has been “bouncing forward to something new.”
Part of bouncing forward has been learning to live with limitations. He has had to learn to live in what he refers to as a “box of restricted possibilities.”
Another part had to do with an experience which, as the Bible says, “turned his mourning into dancing.”
Jackson explained: “One day I woke up and God said to me ‘you’ve spent your entire life fighting and overcoming things, so now you’re ready to give up?’ He said, ‘Stop worrying about what you can’t do and focus on what you can. Stop worrying about what was taken away from you and deal with what is left. Learn how to make that the best part of your life.’”
“So now I see life differently,” he said. “I don’t worry about what I used to do anymore, because I’m doing things now that I couldn’t do then.”