Mesa Musings: Conway's comedy not so funny anymore

I inherited an appreciation for slapstick humor from my father.

Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, he and I enjoyed watching "The Carol Burnett Show" on TV.

We roared at comedy sketches featuring Carol, Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, but our favorite cast member was Tim Conway. We particularly loved Conway's character The Old Man.

Remember him? Possessor of a disheveled gray mane, he had an expressionless facial mask, spoke with a mumble and walked with a shuffling gate. He was hilarious. It took him an eternity to walk across a room, and in one sidesplitting episode he was unable to extricate himself from a runaway electric wheelchair.

What irony!

Dad and I did not anticipate that within a few decades we'd both exhibit some of The Old Man's distinctive physical characteristics.

Though never explicitly divulged on the TV program, it's obvious to me Conway's character had Parkinson's disease.

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 gate, cognitive problems or muffled speech.

Those are qualities that made Conway's character so endearing.

My dad began exhibiting Parkinson's symptoms in his early 70s, during the mid-1990s.

We weren't certain what was happening at first, but we knew he was slowing down. Rigidity set in, and he developed an expressionless facial mask. In hindsight, it was so obvious.

He talked with his doctor about the condition, but nothing was determined. Mom finally took him to a neurologist.

"Dad has Parkinson's," she told me one memorable evening. I'd heard of the disease but knew nothing about it.

"Is he alright?" I asked. "Is he going to die?"

My father lived another decade. He died in 2006 at the age of 84.

A few years into the disease, Dad began exhibiting Conway's shuffling gate. He seemed not to be aware of it, but, sadly, he reminded me of The Old Man. I watched, but didn't laugh. It wasn't funny.

One day, during a regular check-up with my doctor, I mentioned my father's diagnosis and asked if I should be alert to the possibility of developing the disease.

"I don't think so," he assured. "It doesn't seem to have genetic links."

Au contraire.

I've since discovered that genetics can play a role. I began noticing subtle physiological changes years later — slight tremors of the hands, a hitch in my giddy-up and vocal issues. I was 60, 15 years younger than my father at the time of his diagnosis.

I felt a sense of dread. Is this Parkinson's?

At the time, my dad was in the throes of the disease's later stages, and it wasn't a pretty sight. He shuffled badly, fell frequently, couldn't get himself in or out of bed, had difficulty speaking and swallowing, and had dementia.

"I'll accept almost anything, God, but not Parkinson's," I wheedled. "I don't want this!"

I made an appointment with a neurologist, and my suspicions were confirmed. My father passed away four months later.

I'm now six years into this journey and have learned a lot.

It took time, but I came to accept my predicament and, to this point, it hasn't devastated me. I have wonderful people around me. I don't ignore symptoms, but neither do I obsess about them.

I live a life of expectation. I'm grateful that I can still enjoy time with my wife, my kids and my grandkids. Thankfully, my mind seems to function normally.

I regularly take medication, exercise and keep my mind alert with reading and writing projects, and crossword puzzles. My Kindle is fully loaded, and I polish off a couple of novels or nonfiction books every week.

My doctor told me that my disease won't necessarily follow the same path as my father's. But I harbor no illusions. I have no right to expect better than what Dad endured.

My days are in God's hands.

One thing is certain. I'll never laugh at a person who shuffles again.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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