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".

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