Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My Father's Hands

I received an email from my father the other day.  Normally, this is not such a rare event that it bears mentioning; in fact email is my father's preferred method of communication as he'd rather lick the keypad at a WalMart ATM than have a lengthy conversation with. . .well, anyone.  But this one was different.  It was less of an email and more of an admission and an acceptance.

"Dear Jennifer,"  it began.  "Please excuse the emailed thank you note for your Christmas gift as I know those are considered impolite.  I tried to write you a thank you note but it was illegible. . ."

This email was difficult for my father to write, of that I am sure.  First of all, he is a man of the greatest propriety and to not follow the proper etiquette vis-a-vis thank you cards is troubling to him.  And secondly, he had to openly admit to his child that he was incapable of performing a basic task because of the Parkinson's Disease that is slowly ravaging his body.

Dad started having mild hand shakes around the time I was in high school.  "Familial Tremors" the doctor called them.  Basically, a warehouse term for "You're one shaky dude but we don't really know why".  My grandmother had had tremulous hands as well, so we really didn't think much of it.  As time passed, dad's shaking hands grew worse, but much to his glee, he found that a martini in the evening tended to settle them down.  Of course, being a member of my family, Dad joked about his tremors, holding out his shaking hands and saying "I should have been a gynecologist.  I'd be the most popular one in town!"*

*The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, y'all.

A few years ago, my father's shaking hands became uncontrollable.  He began dropping things, his handwriting was erratic, and worst of all (to him) his golf game began to suffer.*

*My dad loves him some golf.  My mom tried to learn twice in the past and both times she took lessons she got pregnant.  Dad thinks it had something to do with her grip.

He was finally diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease; a condition also suffered by a family friend, Jay, the father of my sister's closest friend.  Jay had recently had a revolutionary surgery where small electrodes were attached to his brain and activated by a small "power pack" and when my father saw how well Jay reacted to the surgery, he immediately signed on to be the next subject of this experimental trial.

Have you ever tried to explain medical procedures to a child without freaking them out?  Yeah.  My son M. lost his  damned mind when I had mono, so explaining that his beloved "Poppo" would not be able to go to Cub Scouts that week because he was having electrodes implanted in his brain went about as well as could be expected.  After I convinced one hysterical short person that they were not, in fact, "electrocuting Poppo's brain", and sternly told the other, more morbid, short person that no, he could not "watch them cut Poppo's brain open" I felt they were adequately prepared for my dad's transformation.

Dad's surgery was a success. For several weeks he had long bald patches in the front of his scalp (think Jack Nicholson in 'Witches of Eastwick') and there were two, small, visible extrusions where the electrodes had been embedded.  From then on, it was like he was a different man.  The shakes, the tremors, the erratic motions -- gone.  Once again my father was back on the golf course with a spring in his step and an unspilled drink in his hand.  The surgery worked!

Until. . .it didn't.

A few months ago, the shakes came back.  They tried adjusting his power pack, they discussed medications, but ultimately, the Parkinson's Disease was stronger than the technology.  Ultimately, there was no way to fight it.

My dad is still able to golf.  He can still carry most things using two hands.  But lately. . .lately, I've noticed little things.  His thumb twitches in a way I've never seen.  There is just the slightest sway in his gait.  And every so often there is a gentle slur in his speech; not discernible to anyone else I'm sure, but to a daughter who knows him like I know my own heart, I can see it.  It is there.

Recently, a college friend lost her father when, affected by his Parkinson's, he fell down the stairs and suffered a fatal head injury.*

*You were a great man, Gary.  This planet is better for you having been in it.

And just yesterday, a friend of mine attended a memorial service for a 56-year-old father of three who died of ALS.  All around me I see men and women being slowly torn apart my degenerative diseases and it terrifies me.  These were both good men.  Strong men.  Men who loved their wives and children and worked hard and made a difference in the world.  But Parkinson's doesn't care about that.  ALS doesn't care about that.  Neither one of these conditions give a rat's ass that there are people on this planet that need their husbands. . .and fathers. . .and friends.  And I do.  I need my dad.  I don't care if I'm 43 and a parent and have a good job and am all grown up and shit. . .I want my daddy.

My father is pretty philosophical about his Parkinson's. . .*

*Actually, my father is pretty philosophical about everything.  That's just how he rolls.

He basically has a "well, everything will keep working until it stops working and then there you have it" mentality which, in honesty, is not a bad philosophy for life in general.  But I know it bothers him.  I saw how frustrated he was when he was unable to carry the popcorn when we went to the movies.  I see that look of disappointment on his stoic face when the water he is pouring splashes onto the table top.  I feel the resignation in his email, and the regret that he can no longer present his daughter with a handwritten note.  But that's OK.  What he doesn't know. . .what I hope he now knows. . .is that I've saved every card, letter, and note from both of my parents throughout my life.  I look at those missives, written in my father's strong, steady hand, and I realize that although it will be nice to have those notes to show my children later on, I don't really need them.  Because I don't need a clearly scribed letter to see my father's strength and stability.  I see it in his eyes each and every time my family is together.  Parkinson's may eventually chip away at his body, but it will never touch his heart, or his gentle spirit.

I love you, Daddy.  You will always be the strongest man I know.




TheChickIsRight said...

Holy fucking shit, Jen. You just broke me. But in a good way.

I hurt for you. I weep for you.

You are so epic on so many levels and I love it.

Positive thoughts, prayers and mad, mad love from the Couve.


Angel The Alien said...

Thats so sad... Parkinsons runs in my family so it is particularly scary to me. My uncle has it now but it is pretty mild. He just has difficulties with balance.

One of the Sarahs said...

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, indeed. You are amazing--both you and your dad. What an incredible post--thank you!

Kari said...

That was beautiful and heartfelt. My mom (who has a degenerative spinal disease) just spent two weeks with her best friend who is extremely depressed because her Parkinson's has finally robbed her of her lifelong playing of golf and tennis. Hopefully, your dad will have a very slowed progression of the disease and be able to continue golfing...it's lovely that you are such a supportive family!

Kat said...

It's hard to see the screen through the liquid emotions that are running out of my eyes. My grandpop had Parkinson's for 15+ years (no one knows for sure when it began) before he died. It was extremely difficult to watch my mom and her sisters and brothers trying so hard to keep him out of the nursing home, but eventually they couldn't care for him any more in their homes.There is so much tech available now that would have enabled him to keep his dignity for much longer than he did. Between the special spoons and the brain electrode treatment, and the robots, if he'd only gotten it later, I think it would have been a slightly less horrible journey.

Mandy said...

Oh, twin. :( I feel for you. As an only child, I'm particularly close to my parents. For the longest time it was my mom I was closest to, but lately my daddy and I are becoming closer than ever.

Both of my mom's parents are still here, but my grandmother is about to pass on and my grandpa will be 99 in March. I watch my mom with them and cry, not only because they're my grandparents, but because I see me taking care of MY parents that way and it breaks my heart.

We're so lucky to be Daddy's girls :)

RemarkableMonkey said...

Beautifully said!

Although it's hard, the best thing you can do (and this is probably what your dad does) is not focus on the abilities that he's lost and/or is losing, but focus on what your dad CAN still do, and enjoy all of those things as much as you can! Wring every bit of happiness and pleasure out of your time together, and forget about the parts lost to Parkinson's... nothing you can do about that anyway. Cherish what you still have! Here's hoping the progression of the disease is as slow as possible (or a miraculous cure is discovered soon!).

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Suniverse said...


It's hard to see your loved ones become someone else. We have Alzheimers in my family - and it is depressing to watch.