A couple of weeks ago, at 83 years old, my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It was a diagnosis we were all practically anxious for, as odd as that sounds. We just knew something was wrong – the trembling, slowness, faltering. We — my siblings and I — are lucky that my parents are proactive with their health, looking up symptoms and drug interactions online, emailing their doctors, having opinions. I would think that these things keep them young, in that they participate in their own life rather than handing the responsibility over to their grown up kids like so many older people seem to do. And they are lucky to have each other, too. They are the coolest couple I know, still in love after 54 years…and not just love, but respect and partnership all wrapped up and set to glowing with that oh-you-crazy-kids kind of love. Each brightens when the other enters the room, and when trouble comes knocking – as it does in every life – they first each think of the other. My brother and sister and I love them dearly, and each of us has acknowledged in one way or another that we are honored to have a first-row seat to that unique kind of marriage, and lucky for the influences of it.
So, back to this day. To be anxious for the Parkinson’s tag felt odd…of course we didn’t wish that he had it, but we wanted to know that it was something, an actual thing, with tangible steps and expectations and maybe a few answers. We went to the appointment together, an early morning drive through Portland rush hour to make sure we were there on time to make the most of the opportunity to ask questions. As my dad went to the front desk to check in, I asked my mom how he was doing. “Oh, we’ve been talking and we’re just fine”, she answered, and I pictured them sitting together, first with questions in their eyes, then a few tears, and then the only answers that mattered: yes, I will be there for you, yes, we can do this, yes, there is no place else I want to be.
We walked through hospital halls painted in soothing colors, past framed landscapes and windows onto rock gardens open to squares of gray sky a few stories above. In the thick, still air of the neurology department waiting room we located the doctor’s photo on the wall in another frame, and then leafed through ragged magazines until a woman in quiet shoes called my dad’s name. We followed her to an examination room. After a few minutes the doctor came in smiling and wearing an awkward outfit — a bright sweater with ruffles and clunky jewelry that seemed very un-doctor-like — and I immediately thought she would be quirky and funny and a little outside the box. The kind of movie-doctor who partners with you to overcome challenges with a winning combination of warmth and chipper resolve and heroic, cutting edge medical knowledge. But no. Her manner was no-nonsense, almost brusque.
She popped his knees and ankles with a little hammer, asked about symptoms and why he suspected Parkinson’s. She told my dad to walk down the hall as fast as he could, turning at the end and returning to us. As I watched him bobble, working hard to pick up his feet, I feared he would fall. He was doing his very best, and it took all my instincts to stand back and not walk next to him. You know, just in case.
As we sat back down in the examination room, she announced: “Yes, you do have Parkinson’s. A mild case.” And without skipping a beat, while I sucked in my breath and flashed into debilitating fear for him, she went on to summarize medication, diet and exercise suggestions. I struggled to hear them, struggled to not show that the blow we all knew was coming – words that would define a new stage in our lives; I mean, after all, we knew it was coming– had hit me like a sucker punch. Before I recovered, she had left the room with all of us sitting there, wondering if that really just happened. My dad put on his socks, and we went back home.