The year was 1982, and I was about to enter my first year of college. My parents, divorced for many years, put aside their differences and escorted me to school. When we hugged goodbye and I watched them walk to the car, I noticed a strange hitch in my father's step. "Hey, Daddy, why are you walking like Fred Sanford?" I hollered, half-jokingly. "Oh, don't worry about me," he called back. "Just go to your classes or you'll be living in a junkyard, too."
By Christmas I was homesick and couldn't wait to see my parents. But the moment my father answered the door, I knew something was wrong. The left side of his face was slack, his limbs trembled, and that slight limp had turned into a dragging leg.
Like a lot of women, I worshiped my father. He had always been my rock and my protector. He told me that day he had been diagnosed—at the young age of 46—with Parkinson's disease, which I'd never heard of. He described it to me as a "debilitating neurological disease for which there is no cure." For more than a decade, I felt helpless as I watched my father become more debilitated, unable to perform simple tasks like buttoning his shirt or holding a fork. Sometimes his medication made him confused; sometimes he couldn't move or communicate. He wasn't yet 60 years old.
In 1996 I watched on television as Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, undaunted by his Parkinsonian tremors. I called my father to see if he was watching. He was, and we talked about how proud and hopeful Ali made us feel. He lit a fire under me that day. Along with my wonderful husband, Rodney Peete, a quarterback for the NFL's Carolina Panthers, I founded the HollyRod Foundation in 1997 to help people with Parkinson's.
Early last summer, Mr. Ali accepted our foundation's Matthew T. Robinson Award of Courage, named in honor of my father, who never lost his spirit or sense of humor through pain, the awful side effects of his medicine and intrusive procedures. Like Ali, he was a fierce fighter, and that memory empowers me to keep battling to help people become active in the fight against Parkinson's disease. I see each day as another opportunity to get off my butt and make a difference in someone's life. Hey—thanks, Champ.