Monday, September 29, 2014

O Captain, My Captain

Last month, Susan Schneider, wife of Robin Williams, released a brief statement about her husband's tragic death. In the statement, Schneider revealed that Williams was struggling against depression, anxiety, and the early stages of Parkinson's Disease when his life was cut short.

Many of us were moved to tears remembering truths revealed to us through the art of Williams's career.  For me, it was Dead Poets Society. A close friend recommended the movie to me in a letter she mailed two days before she was hit by a car and killed. We were fifteen. I will forever associate Williams's performance as a teacher attempting to wake his students from the haze of conformity and complacency with the legacy of her innocence preserved and mine lost. "Carpe Diem" became my reminder that not everyone has the luxury of procrastination when it comes to living.
Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

The news flow and social media torrent that followed Williams's death carried with it supportive messages for those held in the grip of the most insidious of diseases, depression and anxiety. But it was the Parkinson's revelation that most filled my heart with empathy for a man I never met but admired from afar. And for his family. Who knew we had so much in common?

Our family, too, is watching someone struggle against depression, anxiety, and the early stages of Parkinson's Disease. My father-in-law.  Before Parkinson's, he was an incredibly skilled wood carver (see samples of his work in a previous post), so let's call him Gepetto. And while I started this blog in the hopes that it would help me sort through the emotions his condition stirs up and perhaps even gain enough perspective to laugh about some of the resulting baloney, it hasn't really worked out that way. While laughter may be one of the best ways for members of the Sandwich Generation to keep perspective on a day-to-day basis, the jokes--when printed in black and white--seem cruel and self-serving. As a result, I'm not posting as much on this topic as I thought I would.

Sometimes, I'm not even tempted to try humor because there is too much at stake. Since Gepetto was diagnosed a little more than a year ago, I've thought about all the preceding physical diagnoses that, with the wisdom of hindsight, should have given us a clue about what was coming down the pipeline: peripheral neuropathy, chronic light-headedness and imbalance, constant dry mouth and hoarseness, and an increasing stiffness in his legs. All signs of PD. But it wasn't until Schneider's statement that I made the connection between Parkinson's and his preexisting depression and anxiety (to which we attributed the dry mouth). These conditions, which he had battled for years, could have also been precursors.

It turns out there are studies on the subject. One case-control study published in 2000 found a significant association with anxiety disorders 5, 10, or 20 years before the onset of Parkinson's motor symptoms. And a more recent article notes that these psychological disorders "occur at a high frequency" in Parkinson's patients. Accompanying factors, definitely. Causal factors, possibly. No matter which is the chicken and which is the egg, the correlation exists.

If we are all made of mind, body, and soul, it is only natural that an illness that ravages the first two would wreak havoc on the third as well.  It also follows that the soul, because it is sometimes ignored in both mental and physical health regimens, may even suffer more.

These days, Gepetto can no longer hold his hands steady enough to carve--or even draw--and struggles to remember how to play messages on the answering machine.  My husband and I feel somewhat helpless on these fronts.

The only thing left for us to do is to try and help soothe his soul.

I'm not gonna lie to you.  It's hard.  It's hard when Gepetto comes to my daughter's birthday dinner and doesn't speak for the entire meal.  It's hard when he calls in a panic at 7am on a Sunday because he's down to one box of raisin bran.  It's hard when I have to remind him what to write on which line of a check and then watch him struggle to hold the pen in place.

Thank goodness they have free coffee in the lobby of his building or I'd never bring myself to go. (See what I mean? The jokes just don't work.)

Jesus's apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians that we are more easily taken down by darkness than anything of the flesh… right after reminding them to maintain honor, peace, goodwill, and sincerity in both familial and societal relationships. I don't believe it is coincidental that the instructions on bringing together parents and children are juxtaposed with those on battling spiritual gloom.

So my family and I focus on treating Gepetto honorably and with sincere goodwill, and we attempt to light small candles in the dark of his gloom--by calling as often as possible to say we're thinking about him, dropping by with groceries before he calls to ask, encouraging him to attend events within his retirement community and with us in the greater community, and reminding him that he is still a priority in our lives.

Not because of who he used to be but because of who he is today.

It isn't a perfect solution. I'm sure Robin Williams's family and friends did the same. But it is the best we know how to do.

And I'll be the first to admit I'm no saint.  Sometimes it drives me to sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. (That one was for you, Robin.) But sometimes it reminds me of the fleeting nature of life itself and the fact that in the end, we may no longer have use of talents, resumes, the minds we work so hard to fill, or the bodies we work so hard to maintain. But we will have our relationships. We will have our souls. And, if we're lucky, we will find truths and peace within both.

The wisdom of the Dead Poets