Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parkinson's and Partnership

60 years! Now that is a partnership.

Today my in-laws celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Despite more than their fair share of challenges through life they have steadfastly remained partners. They readily acknowledge that they were far from ready for serious commitment. She was 16. He was 20. As is often the case, they were both seeking something from each other that their home life had not provided. It all started out as a bit of a fairytale. There was nothing traditional about their wedding. Few knew about the ceremony. In fact, most did not know that they were married until 5 months later when my father-in-law got a job out of town. He was not about to leave his bride behind. It was a different era.

While Parkinson's has not been among the challenges that my in-laws have dealt with (as did my parents), health challenges have been part of their struggle. But through all that they remain an example of partners persevering under pressure, caring for each other in spite of any inconvenience.

What inspires me about this accomplishment is that it seems so counterculture, even counterintuitive, to maintain a commitment in today's world. Today it seems that vows evaporate as quickly as the fog on a warm spring day. One cannot help but recognize the rarity of long-term relationships of significance. Loyalty and fidelity beyond convenience and convention are museum pieces that are not often replicated or even respected in our world anymore. Perhaps, like many other things, values such as these have become outdated, superseded by our pursuit of self-fulfillment.

A week from now my wife and I will celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary. Not quite 60, but still somewhat of an anomaly. At least in part, the longevity of our marriage is attributable to the example shown by our respective parents (were my Dad still alive my parents would be celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary this year). Of course, the most significant reason for our marriage standing strong is the extraordinary commitment of my wife. She is and has been the perfect partner for me, although I cannot say the reverse is always true.

In today's world, partnerships are more like joint ventures. When the commercial endeavor is no longer expedient, or runs into stormy seas, the relationship collapses or is unceremoniously wound up. While I know that the future may not be particularly rosy and carefree, I am confident in the durability of a partnership that has been made strong over the past three dozen years.

Good friends, my family, my fellow team members at work, and most significantly by my wife have blessed me with long lasting partnerships. Not quite 60 years, but worthy of celebration nonetheless. And when facing a future with Parkinson’s or any adversary there is comfort, community and security in those partnerships.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The End of an Adventure: Sadness or Celebration

No triumph. No bang. No rush of adrenaline. No danger causing your heart to pound. Most journeys end this way. Little remains in the way of drama. Real life is not like the adventures in books or movies where jubilation or tragedy fills the final moments, sometimes even foreshadowing future escapades. The thrill of travel is found in anticipation and along the way, rarely at the end. On arriving home one is left feeling flat somehow. Perhaps this is good or even necessary. But it is difficult for adventure addicts to return to the familiar, especially if one is present-oriented like me. The excitement of the past has evaporated and the future plans are too far away.

Why do I feel this way? Aboard the small turboprop, Alaska 5045, on the final leg of the journey, I felt forced to do some serious self-questioning. We were descending into the beauty of Vancouver that is framed by its mountains and water. Faced with that stunning, sunlit scene, and despite the haze of my sadness at the end of our extraordinary European adventure, I began to recognize a number of potential answers, none of which are particularly flattering.

I sensed that part of the letdown felt upon returning home to the "normal" is a betrayal of my failure to savour memories. I too easily move on, failing to explore in retrospect the scenes still clear in my mind's rearview mirror. Perhaps it is partly Parkinson's disease that is to blame, the desire, and even muted panic to experience as much of life as possible before the serious limits of PD set in. There is shame in the indictment as I recognize the failure to adequately appreciate the gift of the recent days. Taking time to remember the friendships formed or rekindled in countries many time zones away. Telling others about, or just mentally replaying, the dozens of scenes and stories gives our past adventures a depth, significance and life that will be lost if the lust for future travels or quests hijacks our thoughts.

Adventure in the form of a vacation is usually an escape or retreat from reality. Returning from that somewhat surreal and carefree time away is bound to present a regretful reentry. On the other hand, I need to appreciate that my holiday was only possible because fellow team members at work contributed extra effort and clients were patient with my work being delayed to some extent. In effect, others need to be recognized for their contribution to my adventure, which cannot be done without acknowledging what an extraordinary experience I enjoyed.

Despite the emotional landing back into a world of deadlines, pressures and even the sometimes mundane, I am beginning to recognize the value of reminiscing and enjoying the memories of each slice of life. Since I cannot count on the existence or quality of tomorrow’s escapes, tantalizing and attractive though they may be, I need to value the adventures of yesterday. For life is comprised of the sum total of our yesterdays, which must be prized as treasure and shared as gifts.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Escaping the Volcano - PostScript

Having been a Boy Scout, I was trained to always "be prepared". But for a Volcano and airports shut down for a week?   Really?

Before I left, I was well aware of that I might require additional medication beyond that specifically designated for the 22 day scheduled vacation. I took another couple of day’s worth of pills, just in case. It turned out that I was a few days short.

After the Icelandic volcano blew its lid last Wednesday, our flights home were canceled less than 24 hours before we were to leave on Saturday from Marseille to Paris, then on to London, and finally Vancouver. I decided to wait for a day or 2 to see how the mess would be sorted out. No use becoming part of the panicky mob camping out at airports. Hedging my bets, I booked 2 alternative sets of flights departing Wednesday, one through London and the other through Barcelona. I was not sure how we were going to get to either, but felt some comfort that if anything was leaving Europe for North America we had the basics covered. Tuesday morning brought the moment of decision and, while some optimism was being expressed with respect to the London alternative, getting there from Provence and the risk of joining the throng of thousands of other desperate refugees seeking a flight, we elected Barcelona.

The kindness of our hosts knew no bounds and, after a five-hour car ride to Barcelona, we stayed at an extraordinarily nice hotel quite near to the airport. The reasonable price included a 6 course evening meal, plus breakfast. This allowed us a leisurely time on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before our flight was to depart and to say au revoir to our friends.

Of course, the best laid plans, and reservations, are prone to go awry. We were up at 5 AM on Wednesday morning to undertake the impossible; packing all of our European treasures and mementos, some of which were fragile, into already overstuffed bags, somehow magically ensuring that they weighed no more than 50 pounds each (so as to avoid an overweight luggage charge). Barely had we begun than we were greeted by an e-mail saying that our flight had been delayed over 2 hours. This, of course, totally eliminated the viability of our connecting flight through Atlanta, which was then to connect through to Vancouver. Wanting to face the problem head on and personally (you could wait hours on the phone and Internet changes were prohibited), I headed out to the airport to see what could be done. The lineups were astonishing! Fortunately, I had printed boarding passes, having checked in online, and was directed straight to the front of the line, where alternate arrangements were made getting us as far as Portland, Oregon, where we would have to overnight. This worked perfectly for us, given that Renae's family resides just across the Columbia River. In addition, given that we had planned to turn around and drive back to Vancouver, Washington, on a Thursday night for a wedding on Friday, this all began to make sense, as if it was planned from the beginning.

At 11 PM Wednesday, Portland time, some 27 hours after arising in Barcelona, Spain, we were picked up at the Portland airport and taken in by the kindness of others. While the details of the trip home, or almost home, went well (including lining up next to Morley Safer of "60 Minutes” fame) considering the debacle faced by many others with similar challenges, it proved to be a bit challenging for me due to my lack of medications for past several days. While I normally sleep anywhere, anytime, and easily on airplanes (usually before they have left the ground), I developed what was called Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), a rather unpleasant malady that can be related to Parkinson's disease. It is difficult to explain, but begins after you are sitting or lying down and begin to relax or attempt to sleep. Commencing with an uncomfortable series of twinges up and down your legs, there follows an irresistible urge to move them. This results in twisting and turning your legs, crossing, folding and changing their positions endlessly, or walking. Any of these are difficult to carry out for a long time anywhere, but on a crowded airplane at 30,000 feet it is virtually impossible. Try explaining this odd series of disruptive behaviors to your already frustrated fellow passengers.

Please Note: effective immediately, new rules for old ex-Boy Scouts: ALWAYS take double the amount of medication you think you will need when traveling.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Living With Uncertainty

In Provence, in the south of France, we have been left in awe by construction dating back centuries, or even millennia. It is not guarded, or even roped off, in many cases. The sight, feel and even smell of it create mental images of extraordinary labouring by large numbers of virtual slaves who quarried and then hauled hand-hewn rocks for miles before hoisting them up precipitous cliffs to heady, even lethal, heights. There craftsmen chiseled and chipped away until the stones fit perfectly into an arch or wall, all without mortar. In many cases those who began the project did not live to see it finished. But in spite of the crude tools and technology, the construction remained and, despite bombardment, abuse and disregard from time-to-time, they served their purpose well beyond redundancy. It is not just awe-inspiring, but sad.

Our North American society creates little that lasts more than a decade, let alone a lifetime. We claim some sort of societal supremacy simply because we have the means to toss our possessions away before they go out of fashion, whether they work or not, and pull down perfectly useful construction to improve functionality or property values. No wonder we have a “waste” disposal problem.
Today, thanks to the volcanic-enabled vacation extension, we explored more of the historic and picturesque sites within a few miles of our home base. Our dear, longsuffering hosts have graciously extended our welcome, which we have so much enjoyed. And some of our new friends, English and Canadian, Bill, Jenny, Meeta and Gerald, took pity on us, given our refugee status, and extended their hospitality yet again. But before we engaged in a delightful culinary 3-hour leisurely “lunch” put on by Bill and Jenny, Bill took us on a pre-lunch walk amid the nearby French Colorados. There ochre was flushed from the iron rich soil to be used for tainting tiles and ladies’ faces. Later, a post-lunch stroll through the nearby village of Rustrel (pop. 672) was enjoyed by all, except me who took full advantage of a particularly comfy recliner Bill offered for my afternoon nap.
Throughout these warm spring days in Provence I have been repeatedly reminded of a much earlier era when little changed for generations, and the greatest uncertainty faced by the rural population was the weather. To say life was simpler would be a gross understatement. “Progress” was made over many years and was limited in most cases to an improved wall to keep the wild boars out of the gardens or an aqueduct to serve the village or supply water to crops. We measure “progress” in the seconds it takes for scientific or other discoveries to circumnavigate the globe electronically, after which they becomes old news. We lust after change, and clamour for it to happen instantly, falling into anxiety and depression when it does not magically and momentarily materialize on our mobile devices.
I may be unpopular in saying this, but might it not be better if we abandoned our impatience and super-charged expectations of an immediate panacea for the problems that plague us, like volcano dust and Parkinson’s? I do not mean give up hope, or slow down the gallant efforts of those seeking solutions to natural or neurological tragedies. But can we not try to curb our annoyance at the slow, our demand for the instant, our appetite for speed. Perhaps we might take up the outdated and unpopular view of our predecessors, who naively contended with uncertainty without blame or short attention spans, and who measured progress based on the long view and not short life spans. Perhaps we need to spend more energy on how to cope well with the uncertainty of PD and not knowing the departure date of the next flight home.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Volcanoes and Parkinson’s

Like the devastation wreaked by Mount Etna’s fury, Europe, and especially its airline industry, is suffering the wrath of yet another volcanic temper. And Renae and I are being affected by its aftermath as well. This is not my first experience with an erupting volcano. I remember driving down Interstate 5 from Vancouver, Canada, to Portland, Oregon, in May of 1980 watching plumes of smoke and ash spew from Mount St. Helens, only a few miles away. But we easily endured the minor consequences; gray, flour-like dust covering the car, and debris plugging rivers causing highway flooding and diversions. But my latest volcanic experience, while physically much farther away, has been far less forgiving.

We were supposed to be seeing the Rocky Mountains outside the British Airways 747 window right about now. Instead, we are stuck in Europe, albeit in a beautiful part of France where we remain overstaying guests of good friends. We are likely to remain grounded and somewhat helpless for at least 5 days. The prognosis is uncertain. Any response to the situation simply deals with the symptoms of the eruption, not the cause.

Few have ever heard of Eyjafjallajokull, and fewer still can pronounce it. But the Icelandic volcano has erupted into the public awareness by spewing its ash and atmospheric consequences into the air, and in the process made aeronautic history. The resulting costs are enormous, yet the events of the last few days were predictable, as seismic activity began months ago. We just did not take them seriously, as we were generally unaware of what it all meant. Of course the threat that this sleeping dragon would awake and breathe fire and molten destruction has been there for many years, hinting of its power at times . But we in our media managed world rarely notice the subtle, the simmering, and the slow moving. We prefer, and are happily fed, the brash, brazen and bold headline stories that are the stuff of show biz sound bites and political photo ops.

This all led me to see volcanoes as a metaphor for Parkinson’s disease. It remains hidden for a long time, with people often ignoring its presenting symptoms. Even minor symptomatic eruptions don’t necessarily attract the attention of those living closest to this menace. Its presence is growing, disruptive and expensive, both personally and societally, but apart from a few who can generate Hollywood hoopla, it is a disease that few know or care much about. When it happens, we need a plan. For those of us caught in its destructive power it can be a anxiety-producing, lonely and life-changing experience.

April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. Maybe the PD tulip should be shown growing on the slope of a volcano.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Siege Mentality

Some hilltop towns and villages of Provence, such as Baux, which we visited today, Goult, where we are staying, and Gordes, a town we visited Tuesday that figured prominently in the Russell Crowe movie, "A Good Year", have remained marvels of painstaking engineering effort and protective retreat since the 12th century. They provided an early warning system with their extraordinary views of approaching enemies, giving time to prepare for battle. They were built as unbreachable fortresses to which those who feared attack retreated. Within their walls was found safety and security, the ability to remain self-sustaining to a large extent in order to withstand lengthy sieges. Inevitably, sieges fell out of favour as domination of the countryside left the surrounded military compounds somewhat powerless and cut off from necessary supplies. Why climb a mountain to fight the foe when you could remain out of range of arrows and other medieval tools of war, safe in the valley eating their food and making off with the livestock. Warfare became more mobile and static targets subject to devastating and sustained “long distance” attack by cannon. Many of the precariously perched walled castles fell into disuse and disrepair, as there were limited reasons to live on the top of a windy crag.

The fortress villages provide a metaphor for the way I am tempted at times to respond to my Parkinson's disease. While a view is now more related to property value than personal preparation against attack, I sometimes feel the necessity to look into the distance for ways to respond to the enemy's assault. I have learned about the weapons of the PD war, such as the endless tremours and stiffness that plague days and nights and pour like sheets of arrows over the walls of my best defences. Then there are the unexpected events, like sporadic insomnia, anxiety or depression, like catapulted missiles raining into life from time to time. The siege of PD has begun and I sense what it must have felt like to hold up in a castle under attack. We cower out of fear of what the future may hold unless help arrives from those who would find a way to defeat our opponent. Life is becoming slowly more difficult each day as the situation worsens with no end in sight. Those with Parkinson’s can easily feel trapped within the walls of this disease, increasingly helpless to fight back. We can easily feel caught in a siege mentality, "an attitude or state of mind in which one feels surrounded or under attack by enemies, opposition, etc".

While there is a time to retreat to places of distance perception, safety and security, this is no place for people with PD to remain. Our rival will ultimately defeat us there. We must take the fight to the enemy. Be proactive. To me this means doing what I can and want to do while I can; the “bucket list”, pursuing dreams, taking risks, undertaking adventure. To others it is raising awareness of PD and engaging support for its cure and the alleviation of its effects. Still others fight back by focusing on less fortunate and their needs, encouraging others, and maintaining as positive an attitude as possible.

We can survive a battle by effective defence, but to win a war we must attack the enemy.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons Learned From Lunch in Provence

Lunch is too abrupt a word for the two midday meals we have experienced since arriving in Provence. "Dejeuner", the French equivalent, seems more appropriate in length and refinement.

Sunday around 1 PM found us in the town of L’Isle Sur La Sorge (literally, “the island on the Sorge” river) in the Luberon Valley of Provence. We are guests of our longtime Vancouver friends, the Taylors, who are temporarily residing in Goult, a nearby small hilltop village. The narrow streets were jammed with a potpourri of carts and makeshift stalls selling everything from antiques to lavender, cheese to clothing and crafts. The shoppers among us, read females, and those skulking after them with no particular purpose than to carry brightly coloured bags bursting with bargains, read males, were hungry from the morning’s pursuits. The long lost warmth of spring had brought out the townsfolk and tourists, and thus the diners, in droves, all of whom seemed to want the sun-drenched sidewalk tables by the river. After choosing our favourite restaurant, Le Bellevue, and waiting a short while, we were shown our table. Voila, it was perfect. Right on the river, ducks making amorous advances in the fast moving water adjacent to our table, we also had a view of the crowds surging past in both directions as if engaged in some synchronized dance. Three hours skipped by before we left our seats, and the itinerant merchants were packing their wares into vans that carefully navigated through impossibly narrow lanes. It was a glorious time of fully relaxed friendship. No agenda. Simply enjoyment.

Monday at 12:30 PM found us on the doorstep of La Bastide, with a history preceding the discovery of Vancouver. Although once a bed and breakfast, it is now the home of Meta and Gerald, new friends of the Taylors. We four had been invited to share a meal together with a neighbour couple. The 8 of us sat down together, some of us virtual strangers, and rose from our places at the table 5 hours later as friends. Yes, the meal was very good, but it was the laughter and stories, discovery of common interests and tastes, the easy camaraderie that made this repast a remarkably memorable time.

Eating in France is a passionate confluence of the senses unrelated to North American dining. Laced with laughter, fueled in part I am sure by liberal application of excellent yet inexpensive wines, it is more a tribute to friendships formed than an indulgence in decadence. Whether simple or elegant the food and drink are not really the focus of attention so much as a means of transportation to a table around which relationships flourish. A meal, no matter how delectable, is simple sustenance when eaten alone. As the Arab proverb goes, “He who eats alone chokes alone.” The speed with which we normally eat betrays the pace of our lives. Often lacking in depth, our relationships are becoming more like fast food as we exchange velocity for the virtue of savouring time well spent together.

Perhaps the necessity of slowing down as a result of Parkinson’s is teaching me, somewhat belatedly, a valuable lesson: real living and relating is less like lunch and more like le dejeuner.

"Sadder than destitution, sadder than a beggar is the man who eats alone…”
Jean Baudrillard, French philosopher

Sunday, April 11, 2010

April in Paris with Parkinson's

Normality disappears when you travel. The last 14 days remind me of being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Everything changes. Denial of the new reality is possible for a short time but is ultimately overwhelmed. There is no normal (at least not for very long).

Weather also becomes a major factor in determining the events of each day, whereas in a normal day at home, weather it is little more than a sidebar to the established routines. For the first 10 days of our European adventure, the weather had been a significant deterrent to most, if not all, venturing into the unknown territory of each country and locale we visited. This limited outdoor activity was further deterred by our sneezing and wheezing, all of which made for a less busy time and, perhaps, less enjoyable sightseeing than might otherwise have been experienced. Our time with family and friends, together with the odd experience or daytrip explained in other postings, became our saving grace. It proved to be providential that we did not come to Europe for the sightseeing!

Leaving Antwerp's beautiful train station, the weather finally broke when we entered Paris and found a cab outside the Gare du Nord. The sunnier skies were welcome, as these were the only days that we were without relational support from friends and family.  Further, we were obliged to make it on our own with me translating a language where my competence is questionable. Having taken no French since grade 12, you can imagine how rusty it has become when only used, like my old dusty high school dictionary, every few years when I had the occasion to visit Québec or France.

However, Paris was a very pleasant surprise. Our accommodation, L'Hotel de l'Empereur was nothing short of enchanting. What our room lacked in size, it more than made up for in terms of the view. Two large French windows swung open from both the bedroom and bathroom of our 3nd floor, room 23. This revealed a Parisien streetscape filled with the mysterious activity of everyday life during the day and early evening, while proudly displaying the newly bursting chestnut blossoms just like in the old Doris Day song from the movie of the same name,"April in Paris". At sunset the shimmering reflection off the Dome of Napoleon's tomb shone into our windows as if to betray the brilliance and splendor of the historic events this city has seen. At night the streets became quiet, except for a few late nighters strolling home, and the same golden dome lit up the sky in our full view.

Nearby Rue Cler became our daily haunt for its popular restaurants and friendly shopkeepers. We experienced some of the best French food, café au lait, croissants, cheese of every variety, and simply drank in the French daily life. While this was not our "normal", it was clearly that of the French denizens of this upscale neighborhood. It would take too many words to describe (even inadequately) the many images and experiences. Yes, we saw the incredible Versailles, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Champs Elysees, and Sacre Coeur, but it was the everyday adventures of getting places, meeting people, struggling with my French, and just enjoying being together that made our 5 days in Paris so enjoyable.

While there were more than a few occasions when my Parkinson's disease caused me to slow down the pace, fumble even more than usual with figuring out the foreign currency, and shake excessively when seeking to use my high school French in conversation, I never did have to explain in French that "J'ai le maladie Parkinson's", although I practiced the phrase from time to time just in case, without knowing whether that was an accurate description. Having a nap each day helped, including one where I tucked into a corner of the Louvre and slept for an hour while Renae visited a few sections that I had seen before and felt too tired to visit again.

As wonderful as our time was in the French capital city, we were looking forward to our week in beautiful Provence.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Languages, Laughter and Love

Traveling highlights the differences between people. Brits drive on the wrong side of the road, or at least not the right side. And they have several markedly different adaptations of the English language. One that purports to be "proper" (but drops the "r" in that word in the process). And another, spoken by the "ordinary" folk, that arbitrarily shortens that word and others (like "strawberry"). They seem to have mastered the art of developing more idioms than most other cultures (who else has "sticky wickets" and “water closets”).

The Dutch are wired to be stubborn, at least when it comes to protecting their little land from, and expanding it into, the sea. Someday the English Channel may be filled in by a Dutch dike to support the 83rd phase of Rotterdam's Europort. And they speak a guttural language that sounds like they are ready to spit at any time and cannot be spoken with a dry mouth. I will leave French out of the discussion for now. More about them in days to come.

But as I look back on the last 10 days of our European adventure I realize that some things transcend our cultural and language differences. Take our last night in Holland for instance. Before this trip, the last time Wim, Ans, Theo, my wife and I had enjoyed a meal (or anything else) together was almost 10 years ago in our home. Despite this long time apart, and the differences of culture and language, one apparent feature characterized our times together; laughter. Whether it was Theo cooking a culinary feast in his crimson red chef's jacket and hat or Wim picking up lines from our conversation and matching them to his encyclopedic knowledge of rock-n-roll hits (naming the group, year and sometimes writer - did you know the Byrd's 1965 hit "Turn, Turn, Turn" was written by Pete Seeger in 1959?). We laughed until our facial muscles and extended stomachs hurt. It was as if we were a family, sharing a meal, always delicious, and laughing endlessly. It needs no translator and overcomes some of the most serious difficulties.

And then there is love. There is no stronger bond. Like Paul the Apostle wrote to distant friends long ago, some of whom were hurting, "These things shall endure, faith, hope and love, but the greatest is love." It is the tie that binds us together over years and miles, as has been so apparent in our European adventure. Being picked up and dropped off, often at the most inconvenient times and places for them, changing their schedules to fit ours so that we could spend time together, being fed continually from waking until we retired, giving up their bed and bath, and always accommodating us (colds and all) at some personal cost but with no complaint. We have been loved by those we came to see, and we are the richer for it.

When we decided to make the trip to the UK and Europe it was not to see the sights or even enjoy the cultural experiences, although we accomplished some of that also. No, without doubt or hesitation we realized the sites and experiences stood a distant second to family and friends. And laughter and love built bridges that will stand the test of time and even tragedy.

As with traveling, Parkinson's disease can leave us feeling estranged, even isolated. Others do not seem to understand us and the result is alienation. This trip to Europe has convinced me that PD and travel have two secret, common allies: laughter and love. They transport us beyond the bounds of our disease and touch our very souls. They are mystical healers for what would otherwise be a cold and sad drifting into despair.

Inspired by this trip, I, for one, intend to invest more time laughing and loving, knowing it does pay dividends across time, language and culture.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Parkinson's, Planes and Promises

Being positive, whether with Parkinson's or airlines, has its downsides. Sometimes you set yourself up for failure by believing in what you want to believe in without doing the necessary "due diligence" in advance.

By the time I knew there was trouble it was past 10 p.m., London time, on April 1. I was staring at a computer screen wondering whether this was a time delayed April Fools' Day joke. Before me were two completely different pieces of key information. A phone call would disclose a third inconsistent "fact". I was on the Transavia Airlines website. Having stated that, most of you will already guess at the beginning of my problems. Who or what is Transavia Airlines? Up until that night, the only thing I knew was that it flew the cheapest flight available from London Gatwick Airport to Rotterdam, our next destination on our European adventure.

Our departure time for Transavia flight HV 5196, according to the reservation I had made before we left home, was 7:55 AM, April 2. That was still the time shown as scheduled on the website. However, upon checking in online, and printing out our boarding passes, the departure time showed as 6:55 AM. Given that we needed to be at the airport approximately 2 hours beforehand, and the fact that we were about an hour away from the airport, this minor computerized difference of opinion meant a significantly different waking time. Upon trying to telephone to determine the truth, the only information that was given indicated an HV 5196 departure time of 8:10 AM. Of course, given that our friends were going to meet us in the Rotterdam airport, we could not afford to miss the flight and therefore chose the only reasonable alternative, arising before 4 AM to get there in time for the 6:55 AM departure.

The next problem, was it Gatwick North or South terminal? Nothing on any website disclosed the secret departure point. Okay, leaving a little earlier would allow us time to check out both terminals before we would be late.

We arrived at the airport after a very short, and virtually sleepless, night at just before 5 AM. Luckily, our first choice of the North terminal proved correct. After 10 minutes of searching, we were rewarded with information on one small departure board that indicated there was indeed, apparently, a flight HV 5196 leaving at 7:55 AM. However, the terminal check-in location was not identified, although the check-in counter (wherever it may have been) was declared as not open until 5:30 AM. So we sat, watching the sign like a kettle waiting to boil, for some evidence as to where to lug to our suitcases for check-in and confirmation that we did indeed have seats on the mystery plane.

At the appointed hour the electronic departure board gave up the secret check-in counter location as being in "Section H". Relieved, we arrived at the specified single desk check-in where we were greeted by a pair of tired women, with tired lime green uniforms, who were examining passports and asking typical questions like, "Are you a terrorist?" Let us just say that if I described the two Transavia airline representatives as automobile tires, there was not a lot of tread left on them. My first mistake (okay, so it may not have been my "first") was to try and explain the difficulty we had encountered with the confusing departure time information. One airline appointee, Dorothy, simply stated, "Oh yes, I keep telling them about that mistake." My "second" mistake was to innocently ask, "Is the plane leaving on time? Before I was finished the question, she fired back as if I had just asked her age, "We are always on time." I was tempted to ask, but did not for fear of being taken off the flight manifest as a potential subversive, "Do you want to tell me what the departure time is now or wait until the plane leaves?" Instead, I asked the number of the departure gate. She said to watch the departure board and the gate would be announced shortly. I wondered whether that meant that my flight did not have a departure gate because: (a) there was none and this was all a cleverly disguised front to cause me to believe that there was in fact a departure; (b) Transavia had not paid for it yet but was hoping the check would clear the bank "shortly"; or (c) our plane was waiting in some "pay as you go" lineup for a nod and wink from "someone" so that it could slip in, load its passengers and slip out before the real airlines noticed. Being an optimist, I was counting on the latter. In any event, I was beginning to speculate as to whether this was someone's idea of a European Easter egg hunt.

At exactly 20 minutes before the supposed scheduled departure time, the departure board blinked its clandestine code beside flight HV 5196, “Gate 16”. We hurried to the departure lounge along with a ragtag group of other "budget" travelers who could best be described as looking like an international gathering of gypsies. Upon arriving at the gate we were greeted by the same two semi-retired, lime green clad airline agents, barring the runway to the plane door. Amazingly, the wait at the departure gate was short as a disheveled young fellow wearing a vest with reflective stripes poked his head through the runway door and announced, "Okay, let’s board everyone." None of this, "Would all disabled persons, women and children go first please." There was a less than dignified rush towards the plane entry door as if everyone was trying to get into an open seating rock concert.

Getting seated in 6A, I was about to admit that the Dorothy had been right about the departure time, when the captain announced in Dutch, and then in Anglicized Dutch, our flight would be late in pushing back due to…. This announcement was made several times until 8:25 AM when the plane actually left the runway. I wondered whether there was a money back guarantee on any one of the three website departure times.

With discount airlines, as with cures for Parkinson's disease, it may pay to be a little skeptical and ask some serious questions before pinning your hopes on them getting you to your desired destination, on time that is.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Auntie Betty - Parkinson's Disease in Perspective

A shy, almost mischievous grin sets off bright, caring eyes in her face, but her storied life is written in wrinkles like those on a lone apple left on the tree into winter, whether by mistake or intention. Auntie Betty could have been a much different woman.

Losing her mother at two would cause damage enough for most us to require years of psychotherapy. Spending the next four years in a sanitarium due to tuberculosis would qualify us for a life of inevitable fragility. Returning home to a stepmother who had no affection and harsh words for the young girl seeking acceptance would mar us deeply with resentment roiling in our gut. Going to “cripple school”, where little other than basic life endurance skills were taught, followed by regular school in a back brace where daily teasing and rejection were as penetrating as the recess bell, would justify anyone suffering chronic and debilitating depression with recurring night terrors. Then leaving school, skill-less at 14, to become a domestic servant for a family that would desert her in their panicked flight to safety at the declaration of war could easily lead to drug or drink induced escapism. But swept up in wartime fervour and falling for and marrying a soldier she barely knew, moving to a place where she understood little of the language, only to end up divorced within two years, returning home to a twice-widowed father who had no understanding of, or much compassion for, a "boomerang" child would leave most of us angry beyond explanation, capable of heinous crimes or suicide. But not my Auntie Betty. Visiting in the sitting room for much of the afternoon she recalled in crisp detail episodes of her life, smiling all the while, repeating numerous times the sentence, "You see, I was really very lucky."

She sincerely believed she was still lucky, despite having lived life alone in a rough part of London for most her 88 years. Over the past few years she has endured the insult and injuries of being violently mugged for £30. She has fallen in her bedroom late at night while on her way to the "Loo" (you know, WC, facilities, or toilet) where her fragile frame lay helpless for two days until a neighbour alerted the ambulance. She has withstood a litany of medical challenges from ulcerous sores on her legs to cataracts. Even so, she rarely complains and remains stubbornly independent, sometimes frustratingly so, managing with walker or cane.

I love Auntie Betty, despite only having seen her a half dozen times or so over 45 years. I love hearing her repeat her life stories that almost always conclude on a positive note and "I have been lucky". She encourages me when she asks how I am handling my "ailment" while understating her own tremour, which makes it difficult to manage a cup of tea or bowl of tomato soup without spilling.

I am inspired by Auntie Betty, and find myself committing to do my best to honour her pursuit of the positive perspective. To build on the title of Michael J. Fox's first book, the legacy passed on to me and many others by Auntie Betty will be the reminder: “I am a Lucky Man".