Very few people on earth embody resilience, humor, and grace the way my friend Phil Young does. He continues to overcome the human challenges thrown at him in the form of prostate cancer, secondary-progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS), and a broken hip. Yet somehow they seem to tax little of his radiant spirit.
Above all, Phil is a jokester. His relentless joke-telling keeps our little multiple sclerosis (MS) support group fighting back the tears that lie just beneath the laughter for many of us.
As a college art professor, Phil gave his students money to make sure he didn’t stand for too long while teaching, given his MS and compromised leg function. Of course, he had a rapport with his students just the way he does with everyone else he encounters.
Just looking at him makes me wonder how productive many of us would be in society if only our worlds had been free of tragedy like multiple sclerosis (MS).
Phil and I have made a safe space for many with MS since the 1980s. While some people have left the support group we inherited in 1987 and continue to keep alive, many new people have joined and continue to attend. Phil is now my cofacilitator, as we keep our support group churning with new energy.
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Does Phil’s Energy Come From Having a Sense of Purpose?
I have always wondered about Phil’s jack-in-the-box type of energy, when nothing seems to keep him down for long. Is it a sense of purpose?
If anyone has a sense of purpose in life, it’s Phil. He has an affinity toward water color and will travel to places like Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Jersey to paint intriguing scenes. His curiosity includes different types of rock formations, paper making, and red dirt in Oklahoma, where he cherishes his Cherokee grandparents and the Native American culture. His art is a tapestry of his life.
Phil just had an impressive art opening at the prestigious Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Some of us from the support group went to the museum last weekend, where Phil explained his work and artistic process to us.
The gleam in his eye was unmistakable as he explained the different pieces in the room. His life purpose could not have been clearer to the support group. Art definitely fuels his being, and his Native American heritage, in addition to his Scots-Irish ancestry, fuel his curiosity as to how art and culture come together. The collective pride in the room just swelled.
Phil’s MS Journey Is Unique, Yet Familiar to Many of Us
Phil, of course, is his own person, but he is also one of us.
I have watched Phil from the day he first came to the support group in the mid-1980s until now, as he’s made a very impressive journey through a perplexing labyrinth. Just like many others before him, Phil negotiated his relapsing-remitting MS years admirably, while working full-time as a professor of art at a small, local private college.
He then transitioned to secondary-progressive MS, but eased into retirement without taking disability. He molded his artistic nature to fit current trends and even adopted a rescue dog from Syria. During this time, Phil was also in the throes of prostate cancer. That beating on top of the unpredictability of MS only seemed to make him stronger. Falls in between and a hip replacement was more beating that never got the better of him.
In the 1990s, Phil took an injection for his MS every day for years. His release once again was through his art. He depicted the scorpion as the monster that plagued him with MS and used syringes in his art to represent what he was experiencing. With all this in the background, his cascade of dry wit in the form of joking and tears of a clown dominated the foreground.
From Anger at MS to Acceptance and Grace
When Phil first attended the support group meeting, when we were a small intimate group with a handful of members. We were all early on in the MS process; all I had at the time was a limp.
Phil, as I recall, walked without a visible impediment. Today, he can still stand but shuffles along without a walking aid, showing the insults his body has endured.
He fit right into the group more than two decades ago, allowing us to welcome him into the fold. Like all of us Phil was in a safe space undergoing his process of a lifelong journey with chronic illness.
I know the feelings and disbelief of what faced him was expressed through his art. I recall seeing different pieces and expression over his years with MS. I remember one show that showed his vulnerability and feeling vindicated over having to constantly inject himself with medication. He built his show around needles and myelin destruction.
Now Phil’s anger seems to have turned into acceptance and grace. It is almost as if he is less on autopilot and goes more with the flow. My point is, the more that disability and challenge increase as with Phil, so do resilience and grace.
Phil is unmistakably a role model and a warrior.