A Tribute to my Father (the Man who Fought with Life)

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2 years ago today, my Father died.

I don’t like looking back – I too much enjoy being present to this momentary NOW (and it took me a long time to get here!)

But sometimes it’s necessary to acknowledge (to recognize and to accept) that part of the present is our connection with the past. Sometimes it’s necessary to look back and reflect upon where we came from. Today feels like one of those times…

My Old Man died of a rare neurological disease called Motor Neurone Disease (or ALS if you’re American, or sometimes it’s known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – that’s how rare it is: no one can agree what to call it!)

It’s a particularly bad disease to get (in case you’re planning on getting a disease) because it’s basically a slow burning death sentence. Bit by bit, the body stops working. And the medical establishments have no idea what causes it, and less idea what to do about it.

My Dad’s disease first showed up in his throat – one day his speech started slurring. He told me about a phone call he’d had from an old work colleague – who asked him if he’d been drinking. He wasn’t a big drinker – actually, he was one of the most sober people you could ever meet. So this old work colleague was surprised!

But he hadn’t been drinking. It’s just that his vocal chords were wasting away.

In the end, his body packed in completely. I had a phone call one day from my Mother – if I wanted to see him again while he was still alive I should come home soon. So I got on a plane the next day, and spent the weekend with him. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in my life – the man who when I was a child, seemed super-human; my hero, reduced to a skeletal ‘bag of bones’.

I’ve seen footage of the American G.I.’s liberating Nazi concentration camps, crying like babies: those men who’d fought their way through the second world war crying their eyes out at the sight of the camp prisoners. That’s how I felt. But this was a man I knew.

My Father.

I spent the weekend with him. He couldn’t speak, so there wasn’t much communication. He couldn’t even hold eye contact, because his neck muscles wouldn’t support the weight of his head. He was very weak. But when the time came for me to leave, he made a huge effort to sit up, and we hugged. I whispered in his ear,

“I love you Pops”.

He looked at me for a long moment, and gave me a ‘gesture’, like a nod, that I’ll never forget. That simple gesture expressed – all at once – encouragement, love, and respect.

And in his eyes I saw that he was at peace.

We both knew, He and I, that we would never see each other again.

Seeing the peace in his eyes that day was one of the most beautiful moments of my life!

The saddest and most beautiful moments of my life, in one weekend. What a rollercoaster ride!

Why was that moment beautiful? Because for years he’d been fighting with life. He was quite a fighter too – he would fight on and on until the bitter end (which is exactly what he did then), and never admit defeat. There were only ever two choices for him – victory or defeat, success or failure.

In life, he couldn’t see another way – it was only in the manner of his death that he knew peace and acceptance.

I’d been trying for years to get him to see that sometimes we have to accept life on it’s own terms. Sometimes we have to bow down to a higher power: god; destiny; spirit; a deeper wisdom – call it what you will. Sometimes, LIFE has plans for us, and the only way to be happy and healthy is to YIELD to those plans. To ‘go with the flow’.

I’d been trying for years, and of course my trying mirrored his fighting! My Father’s son! So the more I tried, the more he fought, and the more frustrated I became. And we grew apart a little…

But in that moment, when he looked into my eyes and I saw that serenity, peace, acceptance… in that moment he taught me what I had been trying all along, in my vanity and ego, to teach him!

It’s not easy – to surrender control. To surrender. But it’s so important. I believe that the disease my Father had (MND / ALS / Lou Gehrig’s disease) is caused by that refusal to surrender. I believe that it probably happens mostly to people who want to control life, and can’t stand to admit defeat.

(I would love to have the opportunity to work with someone who has MND – I’m a healer – to see if I’m right: to see if I can heal them / facilitate their healing. I believe I could. If you know anyone who has it, and has the courage to fight it in an alternative way, to try something new, point them in my direction please. Distance is not a problem – I work via skype.)

Nothing is incurable if you know the cause.

So here’s my tribute to my Father: my first hero, and a wonderful man. He taught me (in life) the importance of honesty and integrity. And in his death he taught me the importance of surrender and acceptance.

What a great teacher!

He died two years ago today, he lives on in my heart.

Read the story of what happened after I hugged my Father goodbye, got in a taxi, and went to the airport. The story of the longest, hardest day of my life, and probably also the single biggest lesson I ever learnt.

Before you go! –  please spread the love: share via FB, Tweet, Stumbleupon, etc… and I’ll be very happy if you leave a comment!

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anonymous Aug 31, 2011 8:20am

Hi Ben
One of my neighbours died of Motor Neurone Disease. He had been a champion athlete. He was a very high achiever in his field (when diagnosed he was Head of the University's Human Movement Department), and he had a very driven and competitive personality (he insisted on fathering a second child even after being diagnosed). I'm sure you could have helped him but I somehow doubt that he would have been open to the type of help you could offer.
I love your writing… and I also love Elephant Journal … thank you!

    anonymous Jun 11, 2012 1:46am

    Thanks Sandy – only just saw your comment, 40 weeks later!
    It's interesting that most people with MND are high (over?) achievers. I think that a part of the disease's metaphysical cause – sometimes – is that they are too competitive. They compete with themselves perhaps.

anonymous Aug 30, 2011 5:56am

Why am I not friends with you on facebook?
Your article made me cry. You write beautifully. I know that ALS is a horrible disease, although thankfully I do not know anyone personally that has suffered with it. I am sorry you had to witness your father go through something so horrible. I think wanting to try and heal someone with the same affliction is a "normal" response…giving the fact that you are drawn to healing and watched your father suffer so much. Even if you were unsuccessful what would it hurt by trying? It could be very comforting to the person regardless of whether they were healed or not. Just my opinion…

    anonymous Aug 30, 2011 11:04am

    Hi Tammy,
    I don't know… invite me!
    And the healing – I became a healer after my Dad's death. So at the time I had no idea what I was talking about… and it only made sense later.
    Thank you for your opinion 🙂

anonymous Aug 30, 2011 3:58am

This wonderful comment is from Cynthia on facebook:

Cynthia Beard My mother died from ALS, and I spent almost 4 years as her main caregiver. For many years, I subscribed to the Louise Hay line of thinking that every dis-ease has a psychological component as the cause/root, but during our journey together, I was forced to confront my own beliefs and biases. I now believe that some things just happen. Biology is as biology does. Although Mom was a Christian, she regularly practiced transcendental meditation and yoga starting in the early 1980s…at a time when those practices were virtually unknown in small Texas towns such as the one that we lived in…I think of her as a Christian Buddhist, or a Buddhist Christian. A few years before the onset of her disease, she completed a master's degree in counseling, and her primary interest was Jungian psychoanalysis, mainly archetypes and the collective subconscious. She was a big proponent of mindfulness, and she found that her disease allowed her to explore her interest in mindfulness in a way that she had never been able to when she was mobile. From my earliest memories, she was never one who seemed to struggle with the desire to exert control over herself and her situation, at least not to a greater degree than the average person. She seems like she would be exactly the sort of person whom you would expect *not* to be afflicted with this particular disease.

I think it's important for us to face the possibility that some diseases defy our ways of reconciling our spiritual beliefs with science. That was the lesson that her disease taught me–that there are limitations to my way of understanding the world–that *I* needed to give up *my* tendency to control and "fix" things, situations, and people. We tried everything imaginable. Affirmations. Mantras. Alternative medicine. Daily readings from the Bible and the Dalai Lama. And when I say "try," I mean consistently–every day–for several years–with the genuine belief that it would help. Nutrition modifications (vegan + gluten-free, organic produce, spices such as cinnamon and turmeric upon the recommendation of a doctor from India)…cured her of MRSA for over a year. After almost a year, we finally added yogurt with live bacterial cultures to balance out her GI tract, but a lot of it was yogurt that I made myself in our kitchen. Other than that, she had no animal-based food in her diet for almost 4 years. I made the vast majority of her food and supplemented it only with organic juices such as carrot juice, berry juice (including açai), and cranberry juice. I even sought out a black Madonna in the Czech Republic–I learned of its location from a Czech nun without understanding a single word that she said to me–I intuitively guessed the information that she was attempting to convey to me and managed to show up just as mass was ending, at a cathedral where the painting had recently been relocated, and no travel guide or internet site had documented the relocation. I would massage her shoulders while praying…hoping…that somehow, healing touch would reinvigorate her motor neurons. I really did everything that I'd ever believed could heal a person. None of it worked, but I'm not sure it was ever supposed to…

    anonymous Aug 30, 2011 3:58am

    In the end, Mom's journey (and our journey living together in the same home) was one in which we both grew spiritually by pushing the boundaries of the mind/body/spirit connection. When the body fails, the mind and spirit have the opportunity to accomplish a level of understanding that is almost impossible for those of us who are freely moving about. While I hope and pray that someday a cure will be discovered for ALS, perhaps the universe has given us this disease in order to teach us something, instead of for (or in addition to) us trying to conquer it. I don't know. There is so much I don't understand about it, in spite of living with it under my roof for so long and becoming such an expert that Mom's medical history was full of statements such as "Patient's daughter says…." When her doctors didn't understand something, they would call *me* to ask questions and learn more about her disease.

    I say all of this because, in reading your thoughtful essay (which I really appreciate and find a lot of value in), it seems as if you might be trying to control and/or conquer the disease because of your own preconceived notions about how disease processes operate. But what if the purpose of your father's disease was to teach *you* to let go of *your* need to heal others as part of your attempt to formulate your own structural order? What if it was as much *your* disease as it was *his* disease, inasmuch as we as individuals are connected to those around us? What if it wasn't so much about him personally but about the two of you and your relationship together?

    I said goodbye to my mother in June and sat with her as she left this world. I still have so much to learn, and I'm not sure that I have any answers at this point, other than to say that everything that I thought I knew has been turned on its head. I had spent years genuinely believing that all dis-eases are healable, and Mom believed the same thing as well. The irony in it all was that she finally achieved her goal of focusing on mindfulness. As her body failed, her mind remained intact, and she was able to explore meditation in ways that she had previously only dreamed of. I'm not trying to glorify the disease because I still believe it's one of the most cruel, brutal things that a person can experience. But I still find value in it, and I hope that you will as well. Maybe ask yourself how your father's disease represented your own desire to control him and/or his situation/beliefs/attitudes. Perhaps that's the beginning to the answers that you seek.

    Peace, and my condolences for your loss.

      anonymous Aug 30, 2011 3:59am

      Hello Cynthia! Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful, intelligent, and wise comment 🙂
      I must say, I agree with 100% everything you say. I also don't believe – like you- that everything is meant to be cured. However, I do believe that sometimes death's lessons need not be learned in death. My Father could have (and actually, I believe not only that we *all* can, but that it is our very purpose here on this planet) found that peace which he found in death, in life. And it is, I know, very presumptuous of me, but I hope you won't mind too much… I wonder if your mother could have explored "her interest in mindfulness in a way that she had never been able to when she was mobile" – why did she not explore that interest *fully* when she was mobile?
      You are of course right – I do want to understand *everything*, and you are also right in stating that there is much that we cannot understand.
      For me, the only thing that is important (really, the only thing) is to connect within to the peace / love /pure consciousness of each present moment. We judge death and disease as both final and 'bad', when in reality, they are just steps on the path, and wonderful learning opportunities.
      I wish you peace also. And again, thank you so much for an insightful comment. With love, Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston Sep 18, 2010 4:58pm

Absolutely, thank you Natalie for really understanding so deeply what I was communicating, and for loving yourself enough to put it into practice.

Someone once told me that walking a spiritual path is like walking on the edge of a razor, and your comment (somehow) reminds me of that… it takes discipline, and patience, and perseverance, and constant mindfulness… but nothing is more rewarding when the balance is right!


anonymous Sep 10, 2010 5:53am

My good friend of 15 years lost her father to ALS and she asked me to go see him with her on one of her last visits with him. It was a frightening, eye-opening and humbling experience for me. My greatest fear is losing control over myself, my life…and that was the most surrendered state I'd ever seen anyone in. An infant might have had more control. It's very interesting what you say about a disease bringing you what you most lack…or what we most need? Something to spin us in a different direction? It's a novel concept to us all because we see disease as something that just happens, or that happens because we obviously brought it on (you know, big gulps, fast food and anger)…but something subtle and unseen like that, based on very deep energy and personality issues…Very insightful and it reminds me that keeping myself well isn't just about getting in some asana and sitting 20 minutes a night. There are many layers to the 'self', seen and unseen and all the more reason to be well, to eat well, to be kind, to let go, to observe one's own mind and patterns and root out that which needds work.

anonymous Sep 8, 2010 7:59pm


I read your blog! I have to say I disagree with you. I realize that you had never actually spent any prolonged amount of time with your father. My sister and I saw our mother die of this diease in only a year after she was diagonsed. You however, have only witnessed your father for a breif weekend. I don't think it is appropiate for you to use your fathers disease to promote your yoga business. Our mother was a very happy person and she was not the person in which you have discribed.

If you think that "Nothing is incurable if you know the cause" then become a freaking Doctor and figure it out for yourself.
God Bless your sorry self!

    anonymous Sep 9, 2010 2:05am

    Hello Alison,
    You make a few assumptions that are false:
    1 – that I spent only a brief weekend with my Father during his illness; he was ill for two years, and I spent more than that weekend with him during that time.
    2 – that I am 'using my Father's disease to promote my yoga business'; this is so far from the truth that I won't say any more about it!
    3 – that my comments about my Father had something to do with happiness, or that your Mother's happiness precludes her from my observations; I don't think happiness has anything to do with it. My article had precisely nothing to do with your Mother – even if she had MND, I said that it affects MOSTLY certain people; not all.
    4 – that only by becoming a 'freaking doctor' could I figure something out; again, this is as far from the truth as you can get.
    5 – that I am a 'sorry self'! And again, I really don't know what to say to that!
    With love, Ben

      anonymous Sep 9, 2010 1:07pm

      I thought what you wrote was beautiful and compassionate. I sometimes find it so difficult to understand why some people are so felled with anger and rage and assume the worst in others….

      shannon Belkin

        anonymous Sep 9, 2010 3:08pm

        Thank you so much Shannon. I also am amazed at the way in which people often completely misread what I write! I think the truth is that as you say, sometimes the filters of anger and rage get in the way…
        Thanks for your support, I appreciate it, and I'm glad you saw what was really going on.
        Love, Ben

anonymous Sep 7, 2010 4:48pm

[…] the corporate world provided. I wouldn’t say I sold my soul, but I definitely leased it. After a few years I was completely numb. […]

anonymous Sep 7, 2010 5:59am

What a beautiful tribute, Ben.

anonymous Sep 7, 2010 1:34am

From Grounded Spirituality:
Anonymous said…
Hi Ben,

I could relate to you and i hope past loving memories give you strength to carry on. My mom is doubted with MND. Doctors will confirm it after 3 months. As of now She has a little problem with her speech nothing more. I would really appreciate if you could throw some light in this regard.
I'll keep checking your blog. Thanks 🙂

Ben Ralston said…
Hi anonymous,
Yes, I can throw some light on it, but I am not sure what you would like to know?
I'll tell you what I feel is important, and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask.
First of all, the doctors know next to nothing about MND. They cannot even give a positive diagnosis: the way they diagnose MND is by ruling out everything else, which is why it will take them 3 months.
Secondly, the average life expectancy of someone after diagnosis is 2 years. I'm afraid that's the good news.
The bad news is that there is a steady decline during that time. So it's not a good 2 years – in the end, it's often very bad.
Here is my advice to anyone who is finally diagnosed with MND: forget about the doctors, they cannot help you. If you want to survive MND you must have the courage to make BIG changes in your life, and you must do it now.
Come and see me. I believe I can help, and I will do everything in my power.
You must act soon (NOW), because with every day the chances get less, and you will lose more hope.
I hope this is helpful to you anonymous, and I'm sorry that it's not a more uplifting message. But it's better to be very realistic about MND, because it can happen fast.
With love,

Anonymous said…
Hi Ben,
Thanks for the prompt reply. I understand what you said. My mother lives in India and i in US.So i don't know practically if its possible to meet you or not. She's doing breathing exercises like pranayam etc and taking the medicine(Riluzole) prescribed by doctors. I hope you understand my situation …Can you give some suggestions to slow the process.

Ben Ralston said…
MND is a disease relating to the brain. The brain is the organ of control.
So your mothers disease is almost certainly related to control issues. the best thing she can do is to work on herself in this respect. If she can understand herself better, and let go of her need to control… this is her best chance.
As for suggestions to slow the process, pranayama and other yoga techniques can only help -especially Anuloma Viloma (alternate nostril breathing). Headstand would be very good if she is able. Also one litre of water through the nose with a neti pot every day, and a long fast. Doctors will tell her to eat more. I say try a long fast. Anything which drastically changes her perspective on life is a good thing. Moving house, city, travelling etc.
I work with people over skype or phone just as easily as in person. Let me know if she is interested.

anonymous Sep 7, 2010 1:10am

I originally wrote and published this article to my facebook page and blog back in May 2010.
I republish it here on EJ now, after reading this from Waylon (editor of EJ):
"A great good man, my Grandpa Ferd, just passed away after 94 years. I looked for articles on elephant that honor and speak to death, but didn't find much. Seems like we're focusing on life mostly, which is good but not the whole picture. Anyone out there who wants to send us a personal story about letting go, living and dying, honoring a loved one, mindful funerals that honestly honor the loved one…"

I am still interested in using my skills to see if MND is curable.

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Ben Ralston

Ben Ralston has been practising personal development—necessity being the Mother of invention—since he was about six years old. He’s been teaching and sharing what he’s learnt along the way for a couple of decades. His main thing is Heart of Tribe retreats—whose very purpose is to help you fall back in love with life, no less. Leading these retreats alongside his woman Kara-Leah Grant—also an elephant journal writer (that’s how they met!)—they combine a deep well of lineage-based yoga teaching experience, with expertise in healing trauma and various other methods of personal development. Ben also works with clients one-on-one via Skype, writes, makes videos from time to time, and is passionate about parenting.
He lives in an intentional, tribal community in the hills of Croatia, where you might find him gardening barefoot and talking to the rocks. Connect with Ben on Facebook or YouTube or check out his website for more info.