This letter was originally published in Newsday on November 29, 2003.
A letter to all our readers from Msgr. Thomas Hartman:
I want to share with you something very personal. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. For the first three years, I told only my family and Marc. Now, I'm telling everyone who knows me. I wish I could say I'm telling you because I wanted to, but the truth is: Since I am visibly disabled now, I could no longer keep it a secret.
I have learned how often we see illness as weakness, and we do not want to appear weak in this fast-paced, competitive society. However much I avoided facing this disease and sharing the fact that I was afflicted with it, I feel much better having shared it.
I've also learned to face my fear of dying, although Parkinson's is not itself fatal. Clergy spend lots of time telling people how to cope with their impending death or the death of someone they love more than life itself.
What I now understand is that my advice was not as deep and real as it should have been. I know this now because I am afraid of dying. I am sustained by the death and resurrection of my Lord Jesus Christ, but I must find a way to find more courage, more hope, more love, in order to face this protracted and debilitating disease.
Now, I understand that the best thing I ever did for dying people was just to come into their presence, sit down, smile and not say a word. Marc did that with me, and it was wonderful and shocking to see him tongue-tied for once in his life.
I also have learned not to sweat the small stuff - and almost everything is small stuff. I read the headlines more than the articles. Because I'm forced to take naps to keep up my strength, I can't return all my calls or work at the pace I have kept for the past 30 years as a priest. I don't mind the change, and I don't feel guilty about what I cannot do.
I'm just thankful to God for the things he still allows me to do. My brother died of AIDS, and the strength we found as a family is helping me fight for my spiritual and physical strength.
My bishop, Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre Diocese, has been supportive and understanding in accepting my new limitations and in helping me accept them. I thank him for his kindness and wisdom.
When I got this disease, I was tempted to lie down and accept it and suffer like Jesus to death and beyond.
I thank Marc for smacking me around and telling me it is God's will that I fight this disease, so I could serve God as long as possible and as powerfully as possible. Seeing my best friend fighting so hard to save my life made me want to save my life, too. I love him for that, even though he can really be a pain in the butt!
Another disorienting truth I've learned is that it is hard for me to put myself first. I've been used to praying for the lady who had a stroke, the family who couldn't pay the mortgage, the teenager who got into trouble. I willingly did this as my job and my calling. I'm used to asking God to help others, but now, I need to ask God to help me - to quiet the anxiety, to direct me to good doctors, to find peace.
I don't want to be a burden to anybody, and I pray I can continue to help others and be honest with God as he leads me down this new path.
I wanted to tell you this because, even at a distance, I feel you have a special relationship with Marc and with me. So I'm writing to ask all of you, my new friends, to pray for me now.
When the time comes, I will be ready to commit myself to God's eternal care, but I am not ready now, and I am not willing now.
I want to live and serve God with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength. Thank you all, and may the God who is our healer heal us all. God bless you!
Contact the God Squad, c/o Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747- 4250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.