Meanwhile, deep in the pars compacta of the substantia nigra, something was killing the dopaminergic neurons. But what? Brady Kinesia knew, but he wasn’t talking….
What’s inside stays inside most of the time. The body’s goings on are as mysterious to me as the fine print in a pharmaceutical ad, or the workings of a computer. But sometimes messages surface, indicating that the norm has changed.
About a year and a half ago, I went to a neurologist in Cambridge with a narrative about my left hand. It didn’t seem to be as quick on the uptake as my right hand. For instance, after it finished setting down a bottle of seltzer, it didn’t seem to know it could let go of the bottle. It was sort of sweetly befuddled. At the keyboard, it tended to lie on the left-hand keys, occasionally causing unwanted commands, while righty moved way the hell past centerfield to take charge of most of the letters. Then there were these periods of general slowness, especially in the kitchen when Carol was zipping around getting dinner ready. I’ve always been on the slow side—the dreamy kid, the distracted ambler—but this was not the result of distraction, more of a disinclination.
The doctor looked me over, had me do a number of movement tests (touching my nose with eyes closed, flying out my fingers on command, etc.) and then said, a bit circumspectly, “What you’re describing is similar to the stories that people tell who have Parkinson’s disease.” Five months later, I came back to see him with the same stories. This time he was pretty sure that I was one of those people.
The average age when people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s is sixty, which was exactly my age at the time. I felt both consoled to be joining a statistical club, and pissed off that I had stepped in it. Interesting that the brain had the thing probably years before it became wise to itself, like finding a bill that had been buried in a pile of New Yorkers. Now it was just getting around to telling me (“Been meaning to give you this…”). And now I’m just getting around to telling some of you.
What does this have to do with an almanac, a blog of days? It is, I guess, the old thing. How surprising it is when it comes up. We baby boomers tend to take our nickname seriously. We’re a bunch of kids and always will be. (Maybe every generation feels that way, but I doubt it. We wear baseball caps; they wore fedoras.) This is not such a bad thing. I saw it at my college reunion: the 22-year-olds in the 62-year-old bodies, balancing dignity on a foundation of lunacy. But it means that owning one’s Parkinson’s disease (or other evidence of aging) is a slow process. I have it, they said. And I believe them. But it’s like accepting a house guest you don’t know very well, some distant cousin. You change the sheets, make up the guest room, and you can hear it snoring and it doesn’t put the milk away. But it’s not going to leave, despite the hints you might drop about it maybe visiting some other cousin. And gradually, somehow, you accept the fact that this bizarre guest is you, or at least yours. Which means it’s not so bizarre, because you’re not so bizarre. Not to yourself.
So you go about clothing that invisible thing, the diagnosis, in new habits and information. Like remembering to take the afternoon pill. And fitting a half hour of exercise into the day: riding the road of NPR on the Nordic Track; walking the hills of Arlington with no destination, but briskly; doing a minute of jumping jacks as if being pursued by the crewcut ghost of Coach Peasinelli. There are also newsletters people mail me, symposia every other month (Boston being the Center of the Medical Universe), and news of Encouraging Developments in the media, because this is a high-profile disease with two enormously popular and well-loved people who have it, Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox.
Of course the exercise, the seminars, even this post, are all on the outside looking in. It couldn’t be otherwise. I wouldn’t want to book space on an Elderhostel cruise through my body to follow the Carbodopa and Levodopa to my brain.
For now I will use my goofy left hand, Gaucho, as my chief informer and intermediary. And my right hand, Dexter, will, when necessary, give his brother a spontaneous hug.
In other news, our tree is looking particularly beautiful these days. We adopted it from the Town of Arlington in a plant-a-tree program about four years ago. Then it was just a skinny maple sapling with a ball of roots and bound branches. We chose a bare stretch of ground between the sidewalk and street in front of our neighbors’ house. Their son Lucas was four, and he helped water it. It needed a lot of watering that first year, and our neighbors took on that task way more than we did. So it’s at least as much their tree as it is ours. But I still feel a paternal pride when I walk by it. It’s got to be about twenty feet tall now, with a four-inch trunk and a big crown of seasonably red leaves spreading in all directions. That’s my tree, I think, even though I kind of know it’s its own tree now. A young adult tree, with birds in its branches and groundwater in its roots. I don’t think it knows me from any other passerby on Andrew Street. But I bet it knows Lucas.