Carnett: On this flight, Parkinson's is an unruly passenger

Have you ever flown a commercial airline that offers open seating?

You print your ticket early so you can get into boarding group A. You board with the first passengers and pick a window seat near the front. Life is sweet.

Moments later, a gentleman takes the aisle seat in your row. It's all good!

Now comes the nervous part. For the next 10 minutes you hope against hope that your row's center seat will remain open. That possibility becomes dicey as the plane fills up. Finally, you reconcile yourself to the fact that you'll likely acquire a seatmate.

You look intently at people boarding the plane, and they glance expectantly at your empty center seat as they approach your row. You avoid eye contact so as not to provide encouragement, and you feel relief as each passes by.

Then you spot him coming down the aisle: a scruffy character with a 5-o'clock shadow. He wears a soiled wool ski cap. Three or four rows ahead of you he commences a depraved gawking at your middle seat.

"Not that guy!" you bleat under your breath. "Anyone but him!"

That's how I approached things a number of years ago as I observed my father struggling with — and suffering many indignities from — Parkinson's disease.

Would I inherit dad's affliction like I'd acquired his blue eyes and taste for the arts?

I watched "Mr. Parkinson's" walk down the center aisle of my life and ogle the seat next to me.

"Not that! God, not Parkinson's!" I bargained. "I'll accept anything, just not that."

The choice wasn't mine.

Despite my wishes, Parkinson's stopped at my row. It crammed its oversized carry-on into the bulkhead above my head and slid into the seat next to me. Rotten-toothed and rancid of breath, it flashed a chilling grin.

Four months before my father died of complications from his 10-year struggle with the disease, I received my diagnosis.

Yessir, it's Parkinson's! The very thing I'd dreaded became my new 24/7 companion.

I've lived with Parkinson's for more than six years now. I've grown accustomed to it, but, as this flight has continued, my seatmate has become belligerent. Not content to sit quietly, Mr. Parkinson's demands more and more space and continually nails me with razor-sharp elbows. He drools disgustingly while snoring on my shoulder.

I exhibit several symptoms and they seem to be gradually worsening, though I battle daily to keep them at bay. My regimen includes exercise, medications, support group meetings and education.

I'm handling the physical aspects of this disease fairly well. It's the mental part — the fears that assail one in the night — that gets to me. The uncertainty of what lies ahead.

The final three years of my dad's life were a nightmare. He developed a steadily advancing dementia. Bright and inquisitive for 80-plus years, he faded into oblivion. I no longer knew him.

My neurologist says 30% of Parkinson's patients develop dementia. That's alarming. The other side of the coin, however, is that 70% don't.

But, at 2 a.m., those odds aren't reassuring. Want to load two bullets into a six-chamber revolver, spin the cylinder and take your chances pulling the trigger?

Neither do I.

I've noticed some diminishment in my mental faculties. I am, though, 67 years old. How many of those subtle retrogrades (maybe not picked up by others, but certainly known to me) are a natural consequence of age? Do they presage approaching dementia?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, I'm placing my trust in my family, my doctor and my friends. Most of all, I trust the one who put me here. He's promised to remain by my side.

I cling to that promise.

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

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