The diagnosis had the ring of a prison sentence: Life with Parkinson's disease
Patricia Forestell, a Grade 10 student at Fredericton High School, wrote a "turning point essay" about her father's Parkinson's diagnosis. It won the provincial turning point competition for Grade 9 and 10. (Harry Forestell)
There comes a point as a parent when you realize your children sometimes have as much to teach you, as you have to teach them.
That revelation came to me recently when I was confronted with a personal health crisis. The diagnosis, when it was pronounced, had the ring of a prison sentence: Life with Parkinson's disease.
It was a conclusion I had been dreading.
The lightest of trembles
For months I'd been meeting with doctors, undergoing a bevy of scans, 'grams and diagnostic tests.
I had walked straight lines down hospital hallways under the discerning eye of a neurologist. With outstretched arms and closed eyes, I repeatedly touched my nose with my finger — done everything short of patting my head and rubbing my tummy.
My sobriety was unquestioned, but what was the source of the flutter I'd first felt in my hand months before? It was the lightest of trembles, little more than a shiver really.
'It was the lightest of trembles, little more than a shiver really. But it wouldn't go away.'- Harry Forestell
But it wouldn't go away.
Over the ensuing months it crept up my arm making writing a struggle, turning my normally graceful, looping script into a scribble of repeated w's.
Typing became a test of two-finger endurance. Fastening shirt-cuff buttons was like wrestling with an octopus. Even walking became a self-conscious act in which I had to think of how to swing my arms.
My body was rebelling, refusing to do what it had done obediently, unconsciously, for a lifetime.
I felt betrayed.
A degenerative disorder
Parkinson's disease is a long-term degenerative neurological disorder.
The cells that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter crucial for the brain to get messages to the muscles, die off.
Over time, movements — from walking to swallowing — become more difficult, while undesired movements, tremors, become more pronounced. A host of other symptoms appear as the disease progresses with age.
At home, it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the tremors.
My daughters, 10-year old Erin and 12-year old Patricia, could see when I was tired or stressed that my hands would shake.
With a diagnosis inescapably confirmed, the time came for a family huddle to explain what was happening.
'We explained it all to Erin and Patricia who, though worried, seemed to accept this new wrinkle in their lives with good grace.'- Harry Forestell
We keep no secrets in our house, but the challenge here was to explain, in hopeful terms, a threatening medical condition that would only get worse.
My doctors had assured me my prognosis was good but that over time, the symptoms would inevitably worsen.
We explained it all to Erin and Patricia who, though worried, seemed to accept this new wrinkle in their lives with good grace. They asked a few questions, appeared thoughtful, offered hugs, and life in our household carried on.
"Awesome job," I thought. "We're great parents!"
It was only months later that I understood just how deeply affected both girls were by the news.
It dawned on me when Patricia asked if she could use my diagnosis as the subject of an essay about life's turning points.
Weeks later she handed me her essay. Listen :
Patricia's writing captures her shock and ensuing struggle to process the sudden uncertainty of the future. My diagnosis rocked her world, and her struggle to process it mapped almost perfectly my own struggle to come to terms with it in the preceding months.
'My tremors were an earthquake for us all, but her optimism was the very tonic I needed. '- Harry Forestell
Reading her essay was a revelation that what was happening to me was also happening to us, to our whole family.
My tremors were an earthquake for us all, but her optimism was the very tonic I needed. Patricia could see past the threat to what lay beyond — a relationship that could weather any storm.
Suddenly Parkinson's doesn't seem so scary.