The series of unfortunate events that led me to feel prematurely old began the week before Christmas last year, when I bit down too hard on a Kalamata olive (hence those ubiquitous warnings: “May contain pits”!). That’s always a busy time, so I put off going to the dentist, even though my tooth hurt more and more every day. But two days before Christmas, the pain became nearly unbearable. I knew I needed to call my dentist if I was going to catch her before the holiday.
Unfortunately, I called too late–she had already left for far-off lands, but her assistant gave me the name of the dentist who was covering for her. I counted myself extremely lucky to get an appointment the next day, which was Christmas Eve.
My appointment was in the afternoon. I suffered through my breakfast of yogurt and my lunch of applesauce, hoping my trials would soon be over. But my dentist’s backup dentist’s X-rays revealed that the olive pit had caused a crack that extended into the root. The tooth was infected and would need to be extracted by a specialist–but she did not offer much hope that I would find one late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. She gamely called every endodontist in town on my behalf, and all the ones she knew nearby–but to no avail.
“But do not despair!” she said at last. “When I was a dental student I had to do a residency in the emergency room. You can go to the emergency room this afternoon, and I’m sure there’s a resident endodontist on call who can remove your tooth in time for you to enjoy Christmas dinner.” She started me on a regimen of antibiotics.
The waiting area at the U-M emergency room was overflowing, but luckily I made it through triage quickly since my case was so straightforward. I was given a seat in the hallway outside the curtained examining rooms, and the endodontist resident was paged. I listened to the moans and groans of patients who were in much worse condition and tried to remain stoic as the minutes turned to hours.
Finally, about two hours later, the resident showed up–a young woman in her twenties carrying a box of dental tools. She ordered a second set of X-rays, examined them, and agreed that the tooth was infected and would need to be extracted.
“Well, are you going to do it right here in this hallway?” I asked with trepidation.
“I’m sorry you waited so long, but I can’t do it,” she said. “It’s the one thing I can’t do without faculty supervision, and there’s no faculty on call tonight.”
Luckily my vegetarian daughter was able to prepare something tasty and soft enough for me to eat for Christmas dinner, and a resident at the U-M extracted my tooth the day after Christmas–with faculty supervision.
The relationship between getting old and losing one’s teeth is widely accepted, but I did not make that association yet. I was a relatively healthy fifty-four-year-old woman who had a bad run-in with a Kalamata olive–no cause for alarm.
But then I fell down the basement stairs a few weeks later. Not all the basement stairs–just enough to matter. I fractured my left foot and had to wear a brace and use crutches for a couple of weeks. Then I was in physical therapy for about three months to learn how to walk again and get back my confidence and balance.
It was an eye-opening experience in how isolating it is to have a physical disability. I looked into A-Ride, but was told just processing an application for the service for people with disabilities might take six months. That left me totally dependent on my husband and friends for rides to my twice-a-week physical therapy, doctor appointments, etc. While I saw a few young people whenever I went to physical therapy–a dancer who had sprained a tendon, a man who had been working for a year to recover from a life-threatening motorcycle accident–most of the people I saw were in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. I started to feel more like those people than my younger friends.
During this period I became depressed. A psychiatrist gave me a medicine I had never taken before, assuring me it had few side effects. I asked him if it could cause tremors, and he said very rarely. I already had tremors from another medication, but on the new medicine they became worse. In fact, within two weeks of starting the new medication, my tremors became so bad that I could no longer type, write in my journal, floss my teeth, or cook. Even simple tasks like shampooing my hair were very difficult, as if my muscles could not understand the commands my brain was sending to them. I woke up several times a night with terrible spasms in my legs and back.
Most frighteningly, my face had become an emotionless mask. Thinking I was just depressed, my friends kept saying: “Smile! Things aren’t all that bad!” But I simply could not smile–the muscles in my mouth were not capable of it. I looked in the mirror, and the woman who looked back did not look like me. Something was very wrong.
Luckily I had seen a neurologist within the past two years, so I was able to get an appointment as an existing patient–but not for three months, and my condition was becoming worse every day. I began calling the appointment desk nearly every day to ask if there had been any cancellations, and I managed to get in to see the neurologist within a month.
The neurologist asked me to do a few simple tests for motor control and balance. When he asked me to walk with one foot right in front of the other, I almost fell over on the second step. “You have Parkinsonism,” he said without hesitation. “It’s a side effect of your new medication. We’ll slowly take you off the medication, and you should be better in five months.”
“Five months!” I exclaimed. “Are you telling me a pill gave me Parkinson’s?”
“Parkinsonism,” he emphasized. “It’s only a temporary condition. It will be gone by the time I see you again.”
And so began five more months of no driving, no writing, no typing, no working. My adult children came home for the summer from far-flung places, but I could not cook their favorite meals. Even when we sat down to eat together, I couldn’t sit for more than ten or twenty minutes before the muscles in my back seized and I had to lie on the floor and stretch for relief. When the family went on the short hikes around town we always enjoyed, I stayed home, knowing I could barely manage to walk six blocks.
As the months passed without much progress, I became terrified that the neurologist had made a mistake, and I really had Parkinson’s. I was in a different regime of physical therapy now, again surrounded by people who were in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Slowly, without even realizing it, I again began to think of them as my peers, while my friends who were my biological age seemed to inhabit a world I might never return to.
Just as I was about to lose hope, a friend told me about the “Moving for Better Balance” class for senior citizens at the YMCA. Three times a week, Ken Fogel leads a group of seniors through forty-five minutes of slow, gentle warm-up exercises then teaches eight basic Tai Chi poses through the course of eight weeks. We learned to stand in place and shift our weight around in a circle, first centering most of our weight in our toes; then mindfully swaying around the edges of our feet until our weight was centered in our heels. The bodies of some participants are so compromised by medical conditions that their loved ones stand behind them in case they start to fall. Others must remain seated and can make only the arm movements of such Tai Chi poses as “peacock’s tail,” “cloud hands,” and “part the horse’s mane.”
At first I could take part for only twenty minutes at a time before my back hurt so much I would have to leave to stretch. I continued to be terrified that I had real Parkinson’s, that my symptoms would never go away. But one day I had an epiphany while watching a woman who was making extremely graceful “cloud” movements with her hands while confined to a chair.
“Even if my symptoms don’t go away, even if I have real Parkinson’s, I will find a way to make it all right,” I said to myself. “I will find the space that’s available to me where I can work and work to improve my condition, and I will find the way to live inside that space. I will find dignity and peace and make beautiful clouds with my hands, just like that woman in the chair.”
Shortly after I accepted that worst-case scenario, my friends started commenting that I was smiling more and starting to look more like myself. Almost every day over the next few weeks, I could do more things. Although I write for a living, I had written only one article in six months–until one day I wrote this essay about everything I had been through.
It was almost exactly five months since I had seen the neurologist. At first I had thought it would be impossible to get through those months. Now the end was here.
And my tremors had calmed down enough that I could sit still in a dentist’s chair for two hours and get a new tooth.
And that’s exactly what I did.