I was walking down a road at a family reunion some years ago when my left leg buckled. In the months that followed, I experienced occasional involuntary left leg tremors. I went to a chiropractic clinic. “You don't need a chiropractor,” the doctor said, “you need a sports medicine doctor." A sports medicine doctor said, "You need a neurologist."
After a series of exams, a neurologist diagnosed me with Parkinson’s disease. I was age 62, 14 trombones short of the music man. It did not affect me much at first. There were slight leg tremors, but that’s all. Yet every now and then something profound rattled me.
But that's not why I write you. I'm here to say that having led a fairly healthy life into my early sixties, to suddenly learn that the rest of my time would be spent with a disease from which I couldn’t get better, only retard the getting worse, well, that put me in a funk. Funquísimo. The only good news was that the disease does not affect life expectancy.
Except for telling my wife and a couple of others, I concealed the disease for more than a year. I barely acknowledged the Parkinson's to myself, much less to others. I noticed a slight limp; did anyone else? When friends asked about my slowness afoot I said I'm seeing a doctor about it and left it at that. Would a publisher want to contract a travel writer with limited mobility? Parkinson’s took the travel out of travel writing.
Symptoms surfaced. I froze up on occasion, unable to move. I lightly touched tables and chairbacks as I walked by them to maintain balance. I tended to nod out for a few seconds, then resume full consciousness.
I was in such denial that when I set up a file on the disease, I called it PARKING LOT. I admitted having Parkinson's to very few friends. Having the disease, named slightly more than two centuries ago for an Englishman named James Parkinson, still made me nervous. When I ran into another Parkinson's patient chatting up her illness at a neighborhood coffee house, I slithered into a corner. I didn’t want to be identified as having Parkinson’s, at least not yet.
I enrolled in a physical therapy class at the local Parkinson’s gym — a facility dedicated to Parkinson’s patients and their condition — when a newspaper photographer came to shoot a feature on the place. “Is there’s anyone here who would prefer not to have their picture taken?” I alone raised my hand. I wasn’t ready to come out, not just yet.
Soon I confessed my malady to what I called the first circle of friendship. I told friend Mike first. He had spent most of his life in a wheelchair — childhood spina bifida — and would understand. He did.
As I broke through the barrier ending my pretext, the circle of friends I confessed to expanded. I became more accustomed to the malady. Finally, I became used to its overt symptoms. I continued with physical therapy. When I am standing alone, just me and my walker it is with distressing frequency that a stranger will sympathetically approach, asking if I need help. I no longer dream of winning the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.
"Parkinson's is fashionable these days," writes Michael Kinsley in Old Age: A Beginner's Guide. Still, on entering my último tercio de mi vida, the final third of my life, I've broken through denial and now accepted the unknown.
Newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s? You are not alone. Learn more at Parkinson.org/NewlyDiagnosed or call our Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (1-800-473-4636).