I remember seeing the hallway light creep into my bedroom. It was 3:30 in the morning and I knew it meant my Dad was up again.
It wasn’t anything new, I had seen that light turn on a lot overnight in recent weeks. I was 13-years-old and sometimes as teenagers, we don’t always catch on when something is wrong.
What I didn’t fully understand at the time was that my dad, Joe Civale, was in the other room bent over in pain, dealing with the beginning stages of rheumatoid arthritis, (RA) a painful musculoskeletal disease that attacks the joints, muscles and bones in the body.
“It was extremely painful,” he said. “It was like somebody was stabbing you in the body with an ice pick.”
I first noticed changes in my Dad when we played baseball in the front yard. Afterwards his shoulder would hurt, some days it was his hand or knee that flared up on him and he would use a heating pad or a warm bag of sand to deal with the pain. I always remember that distinct smell of sports creme as he walked by.
It wasn’t until a doctor’s visit and a blood test revealed the news was bad.
“The doctor told me it was rheumatoid arthritis, there was no cure, it was a shock to my system,” my Dad said.
“You are used to going to the doctors your whole life and they say you need this to get better, but this time, there was no cure.”
Being told you have a crippling disease can be frightening words for anyone, especially for a man who’s entire livelihood was dependent on manual labor.
My Dad is not the tallest man. But back then, he was built like a boxer, with broad shoulders and was very strong. It’s what a life of construction work will do.
He had these tough calloused hands, and even a tougher sense of pride.
For years, that pride kept him from telling me and my sister how bad things really were. “It was not something I chose to do, I didn’t want to show you (kids) that this was a painful life,” he later told me.
While he tried to hide the pain, there was no hiding the dramatic impact the arthritis was having.
The first years were pretty tough, having to see this Superhero figure in my life reduced to a limping, and at times, frail man was very sobering.
You take for granted simple things, like opening a jar, or walking up stairs, things my Dad now had a hard time doing. He missed close to eight months of work.
When medicines and pain killers had little effect, he turned to ayurvedic medicine. The ancient alternative methods helped cleanse his body and mind. He completely overhauled his diet, canceling out all the foods that he learned he was allergic to. He cut out all things like sugar, wheat and tomato sauce—which for an Italian guy, wasn’t easy.
“Lifestyle has a huge impact on every chronic inflammatory disease,” says Carolyn Matthews, MD, Director of the Integrated Medicine Program at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.
“The foods we eat on a daily basis provide immediate information to our DNA on which genes to turn on or off,” she added.
He stuck with the diet.
It was religious.
“It’s medicine, meditation, prayer, eating correctly—it’s everything,” he said.
Years later, he has now learned to manage the disease. There are still flare ups, but my dad’s body has more mobility and less pain than it did 20 years ago.
German poet Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
In many ways, my Dad’s RA has made him a better, stronger person too.
“Rheumatoid arthritis is the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me, I probably would not have put the dedication into living a healthy good life unless something like this happened,” he said.
Our fathers teach us so much in life. Mine taught me to be honest, the value of hard work and respect.
And whether he knows it or not, my Dad also taught me about strength.
The incredible strength and dedication it takes to overcome the greatest hardships in life and succeed.
Happy Father’s Day Dad, and thanks to all the wonderful fathers out there who have made a lasting impression on our lives.
We love you.