by Paula Susan~From a shepherd on his father’s farm in Idaho, to hero in the Gulf of Tonken, to being a respected and sought after Marriage Therapist in Medford, New Jersey, Greg McGreer is a man of contradiction. He is a maverick and a gracious man of strong faith.
His journey speaks to the duality in all things, and certainly to the duality in himself. He was born in 1947, a healthy bouncing boy. He grew up with a brother and a sister.
At 19, he married the sweetheart he had met at 16, having converted to her faith, Latter-Day Saints, in order to be accepted by her family. He continues to value his religion as he lives the circumstances of his life.
It was clear early on that this human being would set his sights on what needed to be done, and then do it. He marks his fifth grade teacher as the inspiration for his challenging and interesting journey.
What he loved most was her teaching history and geography. He found himself caught up in the romance of the French, Spanish, and English explorers who sailed their vessels to the new world, where they discovered their fortunes. It impressed him, sounded like fun, and he knew that one day he would be ready for his adventure.
“Okay,” he said to himself, “First you find your treasure, and once you get that then you can live.” So he knew he would join the Navy because, from that little boy fantasy, he needed a ship and then most assuredly he would find his treasure.
He survived horrors in Vietnam. Even then he remained okay as bombs went off around him, and, as the result of a terrible accident on his ship, planes were blowing up, filled with their own bombs and the ship was on fire. While in all his life he had never been closer to death, he found that when things were really hot and heavy he was well-focused. He was able to calm people and give the orders. He was clear when he had to be. Crises seemed to be what he handled best.
Home from the service, he experienced many varied physical complaints. They were always explained in isolation. No doctor ever considered the possibility that they were related.
Tingling in his limbs, numbed thinking, blurred vision, problems with his gait… Each sympton was attributed to something different such as working too hard, stress, aging.
From around 1974 until the advent of the MRI, he was frustrated by his body ‘s signals. Finally in 1990, at age 43, Greg was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – the progressive kind. While in many ways it was a death sentence to the life he had envisioned, he remembers feeling relief. He finally knew what was wrong with him.
At this point, he made a decision to give up his counseling practice and rely on his Navy pension and Social Security. He felt that since he had done his duty, he would accept the available benefits. The VA had opened up many resources for which he remains grateful.
At the time, however, his marriage had ceased to be fullfilling. After many attempts to heal it, he finally made the decision to move on. One of the things that stood out about his wife’s connection to him was that when he was having trouble walking or had a high fever, she was “as nice as she could be”. But “other times were not so pleasant.” The implications were frightening to him. In order to have closeness with her, he would need to give in to his illness. He refused to do that.
Moving on took the form of three months traveling east from Idaho, having many adventures with three of his clients from the Adult Developmental Disabilities Program he had run. These young men had never been anywhere, so they jumped at the chance to “go swimming” in the ocean.
Greg’s attitude towards his MS was greatly inspired by these three men – each with his own disabilities. The one with Cerebral Palsy fulfilled his dream by jumping out of an airplane. Greg supported him in every aspect of his preparation and was there as he landed triumphantly. Another fellow, having been trained in the use of buses, transfers, and change, made his way from a hotel in San Francisco to the Wharf and back – all on his own.
When they reached the east coast, Greg stayed with a friend from the war who knew his present wife, Karen. She was the “treasure” that Greg was seeking. He had to beg for her phone number many times, and after yielding to a promise not to marry her he got it. He knew, having met her twelve years before at a conference, that she was someone very special. He knew right. And he broke his promise.
Karen Brash McGreer has been a nurse and is a Sex and Marriage Therapist. Together they have been compatible in many ways, including working together. She has been the nurturer he needed who could give him loving care while, at the same time, expect him to take as much responsibility for himself as he was capable of.
He had no idea what was ahead. Intermittent pain, chronic pain, meds that created other problems for his liver, his heart, his kidneys, his mind. So generally he just tolerates the pain. Occasionally he gives in to taking something. Yes, he applauds the legalizing of medical marijuana. It is a distraction from the awful pain he is forced to endure, and unlike the other meds, it is short-lived and then out of his system. Other meds often leave him groggy and non-functioning.
The indignities – oh there are so many. There are the constantly recurring urinary tract infections, high fevers which require speedy hospitalizations, falls from the bed in the middle of the night, soiled sheets, non-functioning Hoyer lift, myriad aides coming, going, not showing up, bowel training, sexual challenges, and more.
He says he has never wondered “Why me?” When asked, he says, “Why not me?” It’s just the role of the dice. I don’t like the illness and the problems it presents. Then there is this: without them, I would not have left Idaho. The disease has provided me with the impetus to do what I have done.
“My love for Karen and my time with her has just been my pot of gold. My fifth-grade dream could not have been more fulfilled. I don’t have everything I want, but I don’t think I should have everything I want.” I believe he is a happy man.
How many of us can say that we are really satisfied with the way our lives have turned out? His children all did well for themselves. His daughter has been with him through everything, and has been one of his many blessings. Together with Karen, they share fourteen grandchildren and another one on the way.
Even his first wife seems happy. She moved to California, where she always wanted to be. So all is right with the world.
When he speaks of how he helps his clients grieve as they move from one stage of life to the next, I ask him about his own grieving. He acknowledges that he has one loss after another to grieve, and that he has learned, when you say “goodbye” to something, it helps to have something to say “hello” to.
He points to the motorized airplane he is working on. That may not be an adequate replacement for golf and the community of people he lost when he had to give it up. It may not replace dancing, which he loved. (Learning to dance in his wheelchair was not an equivalent experience.) However, with his bright mind, he finds things to keep him busy, mentally stimulated, and deeply connected to the life around him.
He’s the guy I go to when I want honest, direct wisdom, which he delivers with a mischevious gleam in his eyes. When I first met him more than twenty years ago, we had created a community of psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers for peer supervision. We brought our tough cases and found a wealth of creativity and comradery in that group. Greg was our out-of-the-box thinker. His ideas were profound and provocative.
One of the harder realities of this disease are the lesions in his brain. His judgment is not what it might have been. (However, we can’t be sure, because we are talking about a natural maverick.) Some of the chances he has taken when in denial, which he calls healthy, have created much worry for the people who love him.
This has been a major struggle for Karen, who wants to see him maintain as much agency in his life as possible, and also wants him to keep himself safe. Many have been the times search parties were sent out, only to find Greg in his overturned motorized wheelchair on some path in the woods – without his cell phone.
Growing up being taught not to be angry, he does admit that he finally can be. He can find himself angry at the illness, angry at Karen, or angry with himself, and that doesn’t help. He has been forced to learn to accept the reality of “No, I can’t do that”.
When I ask what he would have been doing with his life had it not been for the MS, he says, “I think that MS has turned out to be a good thing. Take my legs. I can’t walk, which keeps me from walking to places I probably should not walk to. I’m not sure I would have walked in the right places. I am where I am supposed to be, and I am “happy”.
As I leave the interview, I look back at this strikingly handsome man I have called my brother, my friend for over twenty years. His boyish face, full head of hair, his soft-spoken words often filled with wisdom, and the grace with which he lives his life; I almost don’t notice the wheelchair that holds him up at the same time it holds him prisoner.
Greg McGreer is a man who embraces what is. He could have bemoaned his fate and railed against the disease, thinking of himself as cursed. Instead, he has made his life with MS a blessing. How many of us could do that?