Friday, September 9, 2022

I let 15 strangers grill me about my Parkinson's

(895 words)

It was last week and I was concluding my first of 30 news gathering classes. I was just about to say the part about remembering to please get your pet spayed or neutered when an afterthought floated to the front of my mind.

“Oh, and if you see me limping or my left arm shaking, it’s because I have Parkinson’s Disease.”

I didn’t say it to gain pity or deference. It’s just a matter of fact and it suddenly occurred to me these budding journalists — all curious and observant undergrads — might notice and have some questions.

Then I thanked them and mumbled my Bob Barker tribute — and don’t you just love that a man named Barker (still alive, 98!) chose as his pet cause a cause that involves pets who bark?

(That entire last sentence could one day be used to disqualify me as a professor having anything to do with the future of journalism).

And we all went along on our merry way, one of us with a slight limp that may be symptomatic of a for-now incurable progressive neurological disorder that strikes 60,000 Americans each year.

I spent much of the intervening day trying my damnedest to think of something interesting to say that’ll consume the 90-minutes I’m obligated to justify the peanuts they’re paying. And it is truly peanuts. Given my bent for extravagant Pittsburgh lunches, I calculate I’ll eventually tip more than I earn.

And just about as we were to start class No. 2, it hit me. I’d stumbled, almost literally, into a topic sure to consume a solid 15 minutes of class time.

“We broke news here the other day,” I said. “Can anyone tell me what it was?”

One kid said it was something about Ukraine, Another meekly wondered if it involved Trump.

“No! No! No! The news we broke is that your professor has Parkinson’s. You’re news reporters. You should have responded with 10 shouted questions about my condition. You should have at least out of self-preservation asked if it’s catchy (it’s not).”

I scolded them for failing on the human level, too. Sure, we’d just met an hour ago, but the trajectory of our relationship bends toward friendship. There’s zero chance of a guy like me spending nearly 45 hours — almost two whole days — in the same room with fellow English speakers and us not emerging chums.

I’d revealed something deeply personal and got no reaction.

I told them I forgave them the slight.

“Now, I want you to fire off questions — any question — about me and my condition. I promise to be totally honest. Ask me anything.”

What I was hoping would result in 15 minutes of chat wound up taking five times that.

We started out talking about my body. We wound up talking about our souls.

How long did I have to live? (Parkinson’s does not alter life expectancy, but motor skills can deteriorate to the point where the patient loses the ability to talk, walk or even blink.)

“Know what that means?” I asked. “Kiss pickleball goodbye!”

I told them my brain doctor tells me I’m beating Parkinson’s. I said I feel like I’m distracting it. I feel like I’m standing on a trap door with a rusty hinge.

“But, guess what? You’re all right there with me. Life is perilous. They oughta give us each a medal every time we make it home alive.”

If I am beating it, I told them the experts say a lot of the success is due to exercise and attitude. I remain upbeat about my prospects. Diagnosed in 2018, I told them my goal is to appear symptom-free for so long that the people who know me best suspect I made it all up to satisfy my need for attention.

I choked up when one girl asked me how I told my family. I love them so much. It was tough, I said. I’d summoned them to the back porch and laid it all out there.

“When it was over, I put my arm around the 12 year old and asked what she’d thought the purpose of the meeting was going to be. She said she thought I was going to be funny.”

I like to think I have since at least a time or two.

I was surprised but pleased when this roomful of strangers began asking me if I was afraid of dying, if I believed I was going to heaven, and how I’d like to be remembered.

I’m much more comfortable with these topics than ones that involve where you’re supposed to put the commas.

I have no way of knowing what kind of impact I made on how many, if any, of the students. But I sensed in their questions an embrace of the rare opportunity to have an honest exchange with an experienced adult about the things that really matter.

It’s something for which even experienced adults yearn. 

We stumble through life bewildered by pain, fear, injustice and the profound suspicion we’re doomed to die ignorant of just what the hell it all meant. 

And now I’m stuck with 26 more 90-minute classes to find a way to top the one that could have the greatest impact.

Thanks for reading. Please help control the pet population and get your pets spayed or neutered.

Class dismissed.

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