Carnett: Parkinson's isn't the end of the line

Irish musician Shay Healy is candid when it comes to discussing the illness that has robbed him of his golden years.

He was diagnosed 10 years ago with Parkinson's disease. In recent years the degenerative brain disorder has stolen the 71-year-old singer-songwriter's energy and impeded his career aspirations.

Healy harbors a persistent fear of developing a particular side effect of the disease: dementia. He approaches that possibility with trepidation, as do I.

I'm a fellow Parkinson's traveler.

Parkinson's is a progressive neurological disorder with no known cure. It causes nerve cells to die or become impaired, and patients exhibit such symptoms as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, loss of facial mobility, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gait, cognitive problems and muffled speech.

I'm not certain how advanced Healy's symptoms are, but I'd guess that he and I are within a stop or two of one another on the Parkinson's Blue Line. I'm two years younger, and he's been diagnosed two years longer than I.

"I haven't degenerated as fast as other people," the musician told a reporter, "but I know that will change. [Parkinson's] is degenerative. It will keep going."

He added later in the online story: "My one concern is that I might eventually arrive at the doorstep of dementia, which wouldn't be nice."

I share that apprehension. My father had Parkinson's and ultimately suffered from dementia. I'm told roughly 30% of patients reach that state.

Parkinson's has impaired Healy's ability to walk. That's a particularly grievous assault upon his physical being since he has employed that form of exercise for years to combat the effects of the disease. Staying physically active is crucial.

He recently told a reporter that he suffers from hallucinations.

"I might come down to the kitchen at 3 o'clock in the morning and the couch would have three people sitting on it, and there'll be two more over at the window, chatting," he said in another online article. "Where these people come from I don't know but they're all well dressed .... They're not giving me any hassle but it's kind of stupid, I treat them like a cat — I say 'scat' and they're gone."

I have yet to encounter such apparitions, but that's perhaps an adventure awaiting me just around the corner.

Shay doesn't harbor illusions that a magic bullet will soon be uncovered to remedy his medical condition. He doesn't feel a miracle cure is in the offing. Neither do I, certainly not one that would affect me in any meaningful way.

"I think about death all the time," Healy said in the first report.

Certainly a Parkinson's diagnosis causes one to consider one's mortality. The fragility of life is made painfully palpable, though future outcomes remain murky. I can't know what I can't know, and that's often frustrating. Perhaps some things, however, are better not known.

"I'm kind of resigned to the fact that I'm turned for home," he says. That word choice would seem to indicate a belief in an afterlife. Not so. Healy's acceptance of atheism precludes existence beyond the grave.

So, after Parkinson's, what? As a Christian, I choose to put my trust in the resurrection.

I've never met Shay, but I've read his comments and I completely relate to his predicament. He and I are brothers sharing the same foxhole.

Shay and I choose different means, however, to cope with what Welsh poet Dylan Thomas characterized as that "good night." Each person faces that eventuality, but for us, Parkinson's brings undeniable urgency.

I believe in life after death. Shay does not. That's his choice, of course, but it makes me sad. For him, Parkinson's will have the final say. It needn't.

"I'm just a bit of stardust and that's what I'll return to being," he wrote in a piece for the Daily Mail. "Besides, the notion of eternity doesn't appeal to me. It sounds a bit like being a civil servant for a very long time."

Seriously? You really mean that?

Don't trust your future, Shay, to shallow musings. You and I are able to turn toward "home" with assurance — God's got more in store for us than stardust.

I'll be praying for you, old friend.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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