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My life shattered in late 1996 when my husband, Tony Gorman, woke up one morning numb from the waist down. After several months of tests, Tony was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Until then, I had believed I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I encountered some difficulties but mostly enjoyed a fortunate existence. For example, I had broken through the gender barrier in music and established a solid career as a saxophonist and composer. I had the full support of my husband, who is also a saxophonist. We often worked together and enjoyed traveling the world, performing and expressing ourselves through music.
MS is a cruel and unpredictable illness that randomly attacks the central nervous system. It causes limb weakness; loss of coordination, balance and mobility; numbness; memory lapses; exhaustion; bladder problems; blurred vision; and difficulties with speech. The mental and emotional challenges of MS are even worse than the physical aspects. There is no cure, and people with MS often face a life of chronic illness with no respite.
I was heartbroken, fearful and completely disempowered by my husband's diagnosis. I watched the person closest to me struggle daily with simple tasks, manage pain and deal with the grief associated with losing his career, social life and income. At the same time, I had to deal with my own grief while trying to earn a living for both of us in a precarious and demanding profession.
I pressed on for a number of years, buoyed by close friends and family. One friend who helped me a lot during those years was fellow musician James Greening. I had watched James go through incredible developments in his own life and knew that his Buddhist practice was instrumental. James often explained Buddhist philosophy as it related to whatever challenge I was facing. This helped me a lot, even before I began practicing Buddhism.
But still I struggled. I was overwhelmed by my own inadequacies, angry about my circumstances, fearful about the future and inclined toward martyrdom.
One night in April 2004, I turned up for a gig with my friend Greg Johns, the general director of SGI-Australia. I was exhausted by my seemingly hopeless efforts to help my husband get through the day, let alone seek out my own happiness. On top of that, I had just finished writing music for a play and was completely drained. Greg had always inspired me with his inexhaustible energy. I shared with him that I didn't feel I was supporting Tony effectively. "But I don't know what else to do," I said.
He replied, "Why don't you chant for Tony's happiness?"
So I did--all the way home that night. For the first time in a very long time, I felt a glimmer of hope. That was the beginning of my Buddhist practice. I delved into the practice, reading many books about Nichiren Buddhism and taking in wonderful guidance from friends in faith.
This consistent study and practice of Buddhism helped me reflect on myself and take responsibility for my life, my relationships and my environment--something I had striven to do for years, but without a solid philosophy and practice to guide me.
I challenged myself to truly believe in the full potential of others and myself at every moment. This effort changed the way I reacted to situations and helped me to find hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances.
SGI President Ikeda has spoken of the Buddhist view of illness--how to approach it from the standpoint of hope: "[Second Soka Gakkai president Josei] Toda also said that people who have battled serious illness really understand the profundity of life. How true this is.... No one can avoid the four sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. Only the Mystic Law enables us to overcome them. Faith is of the essence."
In 2005, Tony's 50th birthday marked a positive turning point in our lives.
We both began to find the energy to get ourselves back on course. For one thing, Tony improved his physical fitness, which helped him to better cope with his illness. We both took up cycling and eventually completed the MS Gong Ride the following year. It was amazing to see Tony go from finding it hard to walk around the block to riding a bike from Sydney to Wollongong. We hope to do the ride again. related article Committed to Justice by Alvin Sykes, USA Civil rights activist, Alvin Sykes says his practice and study of Buddhism strengthened his determination to fight for justice and deepened his belief in the power of dialogue.
While my career as a musician continued to be both rewarding and fulfilling, Tony's was cut short. With our newfound energy, I determined to help him get his career back on track. He has developed a new style of playing that suits him and is profoundly beautiful and expressive. We found a fantastic manager, and Tony also found a fellow musician who is the perfect partner. They have recorded a CD, and things are looking up for Tony's career.
For the last two years I have worked on a major commission for a choir, six vocal soloists and a 25-piece band. One of my biggest challenges has been to balance my relationships with others with my tendency to become absorbed in my work.
President Ikeda's encouragement has been a guiding light. For example, he says, "To be strict with oneself but gentle with others--this is the spirit of one who has strong faith."
Not long after Tony became ill, he made a CD called Songs of Hope. In the sleeve note for the CD, Tony wrote of his reaction to his diagnosis: "I was sad, but I also have an irrepressible hopefulness in my nature. I think sadness and hope are, more or less, opposite sides of the same coin."
Because of this practice, I can honestly say that I am happier now than I have ever been. I look forward with hope to the future.
[Courtesy of World Tribune, SGI-USA, July 9, 2007]
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