I first saw him one Sunday morning as I exited church.
A man in his early 50s, he was carrying boxes to an information table at the back of the church. His hands were trembling in a way that was familiar to me.
My heart went out to him.
“Look,” I whispered to my wife, Hedy. “That fellow has Parkinson’s.”
I know something about the disease. My dad had it. I have it.
Parkinson’s is a degenerative brain 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, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gait, cognitive problems or muffled speech.
Hedy squeezed my arm.
“Why don’t you go over and speak to him,” she urged.
I’ve lived with this disease in my family for nearly two decades. I was first diagnosed seven years ago. My father died of complications from Parkinson’s in 2006.
My instinct was not to interfere in the life of the gentleman carrying the boxes. I’m far more comfortable being unobtrusive. I took the easy way out and turned and headed for the door. I promptly forgot about him.
The following Sunday I was similarly convicted. I again saw him at the back of the church, lugging materials to an information table. This time I was silent and said nary a word to my spouse.
We chatted with friends, then beat a hasty retreat. We had lunch plans.
The third week Hedy made a beeline for a friend at the end of the service. I stood alone for a few moments in the back of the church, absentmindedly shuffling my sermon notes.
I saw him again.
This time I was compelled by some internal force to walk over to him. I did so impulsively and without a strategy.
“Excuse me, do you have Parkinson’s?” was my ham-fisted approach.
I knew by his expression that I’d taken too direct a tact. He seemed put-off by my inquiry, and I can’t say I blame him.
How would I have felt, had someone approached me in the same manner? I’d surely have thought, “Is my Parkinson’s so obvious that a perfect stranger can spot it from across a room?” I’d have been hurt.
He nodded silently.
“I have Parkinson’s too,” I said. “I know what you’re going through.”
He seemed to relax a bit, and we chatted for a good 15 minutes.
I learned that his name is David and that he was diagnosed just four months ago. He told me about his doctor and the medications he’s taking.
We shared our common experiences. In addition to tremors in both hands, David has gait and balance issues.
Until our conversation at church, he’d not talked to another person with the disease. He’d also not attended a support group meeting, though his doctor had recommended he do so.
I invited David to visit the Parkinson’s support group that I attend.
We hugged at the end of our conversation and he looked decidedly relieved.
“This was a God-thing,” he assured me. “This was no accident. We were meant to talk this morning.”
I took him at his word. I didn’t want to admit that we should have talked weeks earlier but that I had wimped out. I’d seriously neglected my responsibilities.
That day, I think, I was able to put a human face to the disease for my new friend. I suspect he thought something like, “This guy’s had Parkinson’s for seven years. He seems to be doing reasonably well. No reason I can’t too.”
I can’t tell you how many Parkinson’s role models I’ve had over the last seven years, and they’ve helped me get through this. Their example has been an inspiration.
We “Parkies,” as a good friend of mine and fellow sufferer labels us, gain strength from one another. We can’t allow ourselves to hesitate in reaching out. We need each other, and we’re definitely better together.
It’s a God-thing.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.