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Ginnie Graham: Dying man with Parkinson’s gets rare gift — a surge of forgotten memories

Richard Roby is dying. Parkinson’s disease is robbing him of movement. Lewy body dementia has been slowly stealing his thoughts.
But luckily, that part of his diagnosis has been the last to spread. He still reads three newspapers a day and says hello to everyone by their first names.
“My doctor tells me I’m in the final, final stages,” he said. “I’m dying. I know I am. I’m ready. I will fight it, but I can’t stop it.”
He’s happy, though. It takes only five minutes with the 76-year-old to laugh at one of his stories. And he has great stories. He has an infectious optimism and vitality, even while staring down death.
Eventually, those stories will slip. Some already have. He recently moved into the 24-hour nursing care part of the Jewish Retirement and Health Care facility and cannot walk unassisted.
Last week, he received a shock at about 1:30 in the morning.
“All of a sudden, names of people in my life started going through my mind. People I hadn’t thought of in 50 years. The memories just kept coming, all these people parading across my mind.”
Roby grabbed notebooks and bits of paper surrounding his bed. It was an old writer’s habit of jotting down important thoughts.
By morning, he had more than 100 memories. Not all of them were close friends or family.
People come into our lives at points in time when we need them. Sometimes we never see them again. Seeing the names of his past — from mentors to busboys — Roby’s face lights up.
“I think my brain is gearing down, but it’s fighting to resurface again. My brain is saying ‘You’re not through.’ ”
It’s not unheard of for this to happen, but it’s rare. A cause might be a recent change in his medication, but no one is sure what prompted that flood of reflections.
“I’m so grateful to God this happened. Not about the Parkinson’s, though; I’m still mad at him for that,” he said, only half joking.
Roby treats this burst from his past like a kid’s favorite blanket, keeping those slips of paper close for comfort.
“In the midst of that surge, it gives me insight — the tapestry of people who together make my life what it is today,” he said.
“Some people die miserable. I won’t die in misery. I have a host of family and friends. I still believe in a power greater than us who helps us through the toughest of times.”
‘Lived on the tracks’: Roby is an only child of a single mother who raised him in Oklahoma City. He says his mother and some teachers pushed him to be greater than his circumstances.
“I didn’t live on the other side of the tracks — I lived on the tracks.”
He had moxie, like walking into the Daily Oklahoman at age 16 and asking for work. A crusty editor took him on and mercilessly edited his copy with a red ink pen.
At age 17, he talked his way into a club where Mel Torme was singing and ended up with an interview. Later in life, as an owner of his public relations company, he cold-called Art Linkletter to pitch an inspirational show. That led to a friendship of more than 25 years, as well as projects with actors including Randolph Scott and Betty Furness.
Since 1972, he taught classes in public relations at Oklahoma City University, University of Central Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, becoming a popular instructor.
Along the way, there were characters who made an impression, like “toothless Tom,” who bused tables at a hamburger shack decades ago in downtown Oklahoma City. Tom never showed his mouth, talking with a hand over his face because he had no teeth.
Roby decided to hit up the regulars and buy a full set of dentures for him. One day, toothless Tom opened his mouth.
“I remember that grin as plain as yesterday. There was that smile and the unspoken gratitude that he was unable to articulate.”
That morning memory rush captured the name Joanie, who was the gatekeeper to the Daily Oklahoman editors about 60 years ago.
“My gosh, I hadn’t thought about her in years,” he said. “These are the kinds of people who have helped me so much professionally and personally. … I also want to make an impact in the lives of others and in the most quiet of ways.”
An example for others: Four years ago, Roby kept falling out of his bed after having fits in his sleep. It took awhile for doctors to agree on what was wrong, but the progression has been swift.
He tried to stay in his home with the help of his wife of 31 years, Cathy Kass, who was also caring for her elderly mother and commuting to a teaching job at Bacone College in Muskogee. One day, she asked him to try a retirement community with a step up to assisted living.
“I couldn’t turn her down,” he said. “We love each other dearly, but even love changes over time. Love becomes a lot more. It’s not just about physical, but love is a connection. That doesn’t mean it isn’t without a lot of hurdles and frustrations along the way.
“Love is bigger and better than you ever imagined.”
The public relations man isn’t far from the surface. Now, he is touting the American Parkinson Disease Association and the 16,000 Oklahomans with the diagnosis. He wants to be a positive example for them.
“Don’t be defined by it. Don’t be embarrassed by the tremors,” he said. “I want to live the maximum life.”
His Jewish faith has always been his cornerstone. We talk of our different faiths and religions but also of shared values and hopes.
In our conversation, he is curious about my thoughts whether “spirits” may abound in the world. If I think his experience is more than just a physical kink of medication and biology.
It’s a heavy question. I fall back on the quote from Shakespeare in “Hamlet”: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Why discount anything, I tell him. Life’s mysteries are what make the afterlife so exciting. He nods and smiles.
“It’s cathartic. Very cathartic,” he said. “It’s given me hope for peace.”

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