A Spirit Undefeated
A SON IS SUPPOSED to learn about life from his father so he will eventually become a better man and reach his prime while his father's imposing strength fades. A son is not supposed to live a life dictated by a debilitating disease and die well before 30. Ron Brook died at 27 from cystic fibrosis, a devastating genetic disease. Though he persevered all those years, he could never break free. In the months before his death, a hospital psychologist asked him to describe his old man in one word. Ron didn't hesitate: "healthy."
If you don't believe in the power of a single word or the strength of a father's love, consider what happened to Ray Brook. The aging, physically awkward, go-go corporate executive Ray Brook set off on a mission to live two lives. Through physical challenges, he believes he is honoring his son by taking opportunities at the health Ron never had. A former agnostic, Ray Brook believes God is willing him through it. Since his son's premature death in 1989, Brook, now 62, has backpacked 2,656 miles from Mexico to Canada, ridden a bicycle 17,171 miles around the U.S., and established a nonprofit, youth-leadership program called Summit Seekers.
"Even though I knew Ron had cystic fibrosis since he was 4 months old, I was devastated when he died," says Brook. "It's through grieving that I found my passion. In my mind, I have two lives to live."
Health, he said, was what his son wanted more than anything. While many of us have a choice to be fit or not, Ron's disease had the authority.
When Brook told me about his life's purpose, he had just returned from a 40-day, 1,000-mile solo kayak trip down the Baja Coast in memory of his longtime wife, Patty, who died last year. Four days into the excursion, he lost his kayak. Scrambling back to civilization and returning home safe to Mercer Island seemed adventure enough. After all, he had kayaked only once before.
"What a wonderful legacy my son left me," Brook says. "He helped me realize that we all have free will and choice, the things he never had. Every day, we can decide what to eat, whether to drink, smoke and exercise. And it goes farther. Why turn the channel? Pick up a book. There is emotional health. Is there love in your heart? It goes beyond health to well-being."
Brook calls himself the most uncoordinated kid in his high school, and a physical specimen he still is not.
"I'm no more an athlete than the average person," he says. "I went out for every sport in high school. I lettered in one and I was second string. I tried out for track and never got a ribbon. I went out for wrestling and didn't make the team. The only way I can do this is because of the love I have for my son and because God is with me."
He is achieving and helping others achieve, he insists, only because of God's prodding. When we met, he had just finished mentoring a kid at Cleveland High School following the Summit Seekers' mission to help young people realize what a gift life is, something you'd be foolish to waste. I told him his story seemed to be one of mind over matter.
He told me I was missing the point. It's not about an old guy who does amazing things. To him, it's about heart over limits, about God showing the way as father and son hit the trail.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine reporter. Barry Wong is a magazine staff photographer.
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