Through the voice of Agatha McGee, a fictional character created by Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler, Hassler tells us how he's doing after his Parkinson's disease was made public.
"Speak up!" I tell him when he mumbles.
"Swing your arms," I have to remind him when we're out walking.
"Stand up straight," I whisper, waiting with him in the checkout line at the grocery store.
Although a year has passed since the Star Tribune alarmed its readership with front-page headlines about the declining health of a certain Minnesota novelist who is a particularly dear friend of mine, I find I still can't step out my front door without being asked about his Parkinson's, and 57 of my 80 Christmas cards made mention of his disability. Therefore, with his permission, I hereby put pen to paper in order to satisfy public curiosity.
First of all, I should say that his is the less common form of Parkinson's, marked not so much by shaking and trembling as by muscle rigidity. Watch him drink coffee without spilling a drop and you'd never guess he had a problem -- until you notice that sometimes, not always, swallowing requires a bit of effort, and he has to pry his fingers off the handle of the cup. Because Parkinson's in either form disrupts the signals sent from the brain to the muscles throughout the body, a good bit of what the rest of us do without thinking -- turning over in bed, blinking our eyes - requires an act of will on the part of the Parkinsonian.
My friend the novelist will assure you that except for the occasional leg cramp, he suffers no pain. Ask him exactly what effects the disease has had on him and he will give you one of three answers, depending on how much you want to know. "I'm stiffening up and slowing down" is his first answer. This seems to satisfy most people, but if you are among those who want to hear more, he'll say he has a dozen symptoms, none of which are as yet very pronounced. Then there's a nosy one in every crowd who insists that he enumerate those symptoms: loss of balance inability to step sideways difficulty rising from a low seat vocal problems -- froggy throat, weakened volume dry or burning eyes as a result of infrequent blinking dry mouth, perhaps caused by medication a restless left leg difficulty bending over slowness in climbing stairs change in posture: head forward, shoulders stooped insomnia
"Well, there's 11 anyhow," he'll say quite happily, as if his inability to think of a 12th somehow makes for a milder disability. (His stoicism, a quality I admire in most people, seems in him to border on denial.)
There is one symptom common to early Parkinson's which he has avoided, thank the Lord, and that is depression. I contend there are two reasons for this, one being his chronically optimistic spirit, the other being the fictional world he steals into the minute he's out of bed in the morning - he doesn't spend enough time in the real world to work up a decent case of depression. He disagrees with me. Having been taken in by the nature-over-nurture argument he holds that depression is purely a chemical imbalance in the brain, and he is grateful for (as he puts it) "whatever mixture God has stirred together in my skull."
I find this attitude very irksome. If everything is predetermined from birth, I tell him, then why have the two of us wasted a total of 88 years in the classroom trying to make moral people out of the younger generation? His answer: "Not everything is predetermined, Agatha." And then he'll add, to get my goat, "We aren't born with the multiplication tables imprinted in our brains." He knows full well that to my way of thinking math is the least of it, that all our efforts for the betterment of humankind are done for the honor and glory of God.
Sometimes I wonder if the man even believes in God anymore. He's become much less devout, less pious, over the years. But occasionally he will come out with a statement so spiritual, so full of faith, that it seems like a miracle. Last winter, for example, stopping by my house after Mass one Sunday, he casually said, "God spoke to me this morning, Agatha."
I checked his facial expression for guile, then remembered that his face isn't very expressive anymore. (Face of stone: symptom No. 12.)
He went on to explain that he was kneeling in church and fretting about his gradual loss of motor functions - he calls it "fretting" when he actually means "praying" -- when suddenly God put him at ease by saying, "Listen, Hassler, this affliction is bigger and stronger than you are, and there's nothing you can do about it, so just relax and leave everything to me. Your current and future symptoms, their increasing intensity, the terminal quality of it all -- leave all that in my hands."
In preparation for this article, I asked him yesterday if God had ever reiterated this statement he found so consoling.
"Nope," he said.
We were out walking in the loveliest snowfall of the winter, and because his natural pace has slowed down, I had to keep reminding him to swing his arms and walk briskly and to straighten up and take in lungfuls of the bracing air. I said to him, "I expect God will repeat himself one of these days, don't you?"
His answer was expressed in a breathless mumble I couldn't understand. "Speak up," I said. "Quit swallowing your words."
"No, Agatha, I don't expect it. I've never known God to be a nag."
Tetchiness -- symptom No. 13.
Agatha McGee, a retired elementary teacher, lives in Staggerford, Minn.