Between the 2nd and 4th of July 2010, those of us who are descended from the family of Charles and Katie Fish met in Montreal for a weekend of celebration, remembrance and renewal. Having moved away from Montreal in the 1970s, I had lost contact with much of the extended family, particularly those that had become scattered throughout the States. Reconnecting with these relatives, some of whom I hadn't seen in decades, meeting their children, grandchildren and in some cases, great-grandchildren, was like picking up a conversation that had been interrupted minutes earlier. There was an instant feeling of connection, and an ease and flow to our interactions.
I was struck by the parallels in our lives. A large number of us had gone into the teaching and helping professions, becoming professors, psychotherapists, lawyers and doctors. Others had followed a more creative spirit, becoming musicians, photographers and writers. This made sense, based on what we knew about our ancestors. My grandmother was a bright and powerful woman, who spoke several languages. She was creative and inventive and years ahead of her time. My grandfather was a considerate and generous man, devoted to family and community. He co-founded and served on the board of a charitable organization; as the owner of a grocery store, he donated food to the poor in his community; and during the war, he brought his niece to Canada, rescuing her from certain death.
There were many meals shared over the weekend, during which old memories were revived and unknown histories revealed. Tragic circumstances had brought my grandparents together, but the life they built in Canada over more than 50 years was filled with much happiness and hope.
The hope was evident in many of the great-grandchildren that I met. As a group, I found them intelligent, curious, creative and passionate about what they were doing in their lives. A few had faced obstacles, but having confronted them, were stronger for it. One of them was Jonah Berger, son of my cousin Martin and his wife Marilyn, and grandson to the niece who had been rescued during the war, all of Silver Spring, Maryland. On the last day of the reunion, he presented me with a book that he had written about growing up with Muscular Dystrophy, entitled "He Walks Like a Cowboy: One Man's Journey Through Life with a Disability," and asked if I would comment on it. I told him that I would be happy and honoured to do so. I knew instantly that I would love the book without having to read a word of content. Having spent the last few days with him, I had witnessed how his optimism and energy had such a positive influence on everyone he came in contact with. And having listened to him share his evolved way of looking at and living life, I knew his memoir would resonate with me.
And so it did. As the blurb on the back jacket describes it, "He Walks Like a Cowboy" takes an in-depth look at one man's journey to accept his limitations, redefine his abilities, and discover the life he was meant to live." From the shame he felt growing up as 'different,' to the sense of accomplishment and pride that he developed when meeting the most incredible of challenges that he set for himself (climbing mountains, biking across Iowa), Jonah shares his most intimate and profound moments with us. Open, honest, sensitive and funny, his writing is filled with poignant moments and numerous life lessons.
Jonah is the director of The Rhythm Within (www.therhythmwithin.net), in Denver, Colorado, a therapeutic mentoring service for children with special needs. He had written the book to share his perspective and provide the reader with some insights into what it's like to live life with a disability. As he states in his introduction, he hoped that "in reading this story, some greater understanding, sensitivity and empathy can be achieved."
He also says, "The story is mine; the theme is universal." And I would agree. While our struggles may not be the same, all of us have faced obstacles at different points in our lives that have filled us with shame or insecurities or feelings of defeat. In fact, many of us may be experiencing some of these feelings right now. If so, I encourage you to read this book. I hope it will inspire and motivate you to reframe your thoughts, challenge yourself to face your fears, accept your limitations and possibly even see the good in the challenges that we are presented with just as Jonah has done.
My family, probably like yours, has had its share of challenges and tragedies. During our family reunion, I learned much about how our family has confronted its barriers and overcome its misfortunes and how strong it has become as a result.
If you would like to share it, I would love to hear about your family history and about any book that you have read that has served as a source of inspiration and enlightenment for you.
And finally, I would be remiss in talking about the reunion, without mentioning two people who made it happen: my Hartford, Connecticut cousin Martha Healy who initiated the idea and provided the impetus to get this going and my sister, Rhoda Fish of Montreal, Quebec, the consummate event planner, who tirelessly devoted her time, energy and love to the project. Thank you both again.
Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”
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