By Thomas Orton
When you live with a chronic disease, keeping perspective requires will power and imagination… and sometimes a reminder of the unseen burdens that others are carrying.
Heading out the front door of my building on a drizzling early spring morning four years ago, I spotted a street person named Harper who had been panhandling in my neighborhood for about two months.
He had been terrorizing everyone who crossed his path, bullying, hurling insults and demanding money. I had managed to avoid him – until that morning. I remember thinking, I can’t deal with this. Meeting with Harper was the last thing I needed – I had enough on my mind.
“I need to talk to you,” Harper said. It was less a request than a demand.
I tried ignoring him, but he stepped in my way. He began a rambling narrative of one disaster following another – and in all of which Harper himself figured as the ultimate victim, trodden and oppressed by people he imagined were just like me, wealthy, shallow, thoughtlessly free of worry.
Little do you know, I thought.
Two months earlier, I had received what I thought was a death sentence: I’d been diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease. As I listened to Harper’s rant, I began to grow angry.
“I can’t listen to this,” I said loudly.
I dug into my jeans pocket, pulled out a fistful of change and held it out to him.
“Here, take it,” I said impatiently. When he didn’t move I said defiantly, “Come on. I don’t have all day.” My voice quaked. Harper reached out slowly. Instead of taking the money, he suddenly batted my hand hard. The coins flew everywhere, smacking a nearby window and ringing wildly on the pavement. Startled, I took a step back. Harper moved forward, brought his face within inches of mine and shouted, “My head is full of trains, and they are always on time!”
Shaken, frightened, I made my way awkwardly around him, got in my car and got out of there.
By the time I reached the grocery store, the fright had begun to wear off. I was fuming. Harper’s rage, and the humiliating dramas he created from it, seemed rehearsed. I was convinced that he got perverse pleasure from trampling on the dignity of people he considered more fortunate than he. I didn’t deserve it: I had a dread disease. The unfairness made me angry. I began rehearsing a scenario of my own, taking the wind out of Harper’s sails by telling him what I was up against – the constant dread, the deepening depression, the hopelessness. You can do something about what’s wrong with you, I imagined shouting back at him. Try walking a mile in my shoes!
But as I drove home, I realized that shouting wouldn’t have done anything but make me look stupid. It wouldn’t have made any difference to Harper.
Harper was nowhere to be seen when I reached home again. I parked and walked along the sidewalk where our confrontation had taken place, replaying the scene in my head, and hearing again his strange declaration about the trains. What if trains actually were actually were roaring through his head, always “on time?” Suppose he never got relief from that merciless schedule? Would I trade my fate for screaming locomotives and panhandling? Not on your life.
I felt a wave of pity for the man. I hadn’t worked through the self-hatred that Parkinson’s visits on you, not by a long shot. But for the first time in weeks, I didn’t envy someone just because he or she didn’t have what I had. I actually felt fortunate to be who I was. If there was one person who made me feel that way, chances are that there were others, perhaps crowds of them, people whom the world called “normal” – people certainly more normal than either Harper or me, and who, snug and safe inside lives they believed to be bulletproof, would be surprised to learn they weren’t as lucky as they thought.
Thomas Orton is a professional novelist and freelance writer. He is author of the blog Rogue Rhythm: Parkinson’s and the Rest of Life. His novel, The Lost Glass Plates of Wilfred Eng, earned critical praise nationwide. He is also the author of Kenneth Callahan, an art book about the renowned Northwest painter. As a freelance writer, Orton has worked extensively in the medical and health care fields. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009.