November 17, 2009 by David Gillaspie
IT ALWAYS MATTERS
The man in the hospital bed was not the man who gave his step-daughter to me at our wedding. The man I shared family caregiving with was not the Commodore of Marina del Rey. But he used to be.
No, the man I saw every day was a Parkinson’s patient with dementia and stomach cancer.
If I was a regular caregiver I might not see beyond the afflictions. I wouldn’t know if the sick man in bed was any different than any other sick man in a bed. But the sick man in the room was Kenny. He’s not a regular man and I am not a regular caregiver.
To the dismay of all reasonable people I was Ultimate Caregiver. Why ultimate?
Because of wrestling.
I have Wrestling Powers. I see a trips and falls before they happen. I find balance lost before it’s lost. Wrestling Power is strong in the victims of trips, falls, and losing balance on the mats. Those are the wrestlers who’ve seen it first hand and know what it looks like, feels like, and sounds like. It’s a learning process.
Taking a dive on a mat is not so bad, but it would be for an eighty year old. Eighty year old men shouldn’t have to review trips, falls, and balance. Keeping a wrestler handy is always the safest move.
Family caregiving can be the hardest work in the world and it’s not because of the job. It’s the weight of the bags that come with the job. A stranger wouldn’t tell you what he said to his future son in law on the first visit to future in-law turf.
A stranger wouldn’t say, “You may sleep with her up in Portland but you won’t sleep with her here because that would make her a whore, me a pimp, and her mother a madam. This is no whore house. Are we square on that?”
Kenny told me that on my first trip to Los Angeles. It was refreshing. No wiggle room. I wanted to sleep in the garage.
I learned more about people from Ken than I have from anyone. During that first visit I learned that he rebuilt an airplane in a barn as a kid and flew it. I learned that he joined the service at sixteen and went into the Marine Air Wing.
Ken flew in the Pacific during WWII and was shot down. He ditched in the ocean and got picked up by the Japanese before the sharks found him. As an American flyer he was held prisoner on a Japanese controlled island where he escaped and swam to other islands.
After the war he was an all-American football player at Michigan and played in the Rose Bowl before getting recalled to fly Marine jets in Korea. He was again shot down, held prisoner, and escaped. Ken had the urge for more football after Korea so he joined the NFL with the Detroit Lions.
I listened intently on my first visit. You do that when the man talking is so big-boned he needs one and a half watch bands to fit around his wrist. His arms were the size of legs. I asked him why he wore a big belt buckle. He whipped his belt off and swung it buckle out.
“People usually think twice when they see this.”
I thought twice about asking any more questions.
I married his step-daughter. I said I do after he gave her away.
The sick man in bed is not that man. Not the Marine. Not the pilot. Not the all-American. Parkinson’s made him someone else. It took all of my Wrestling Power to make him more than Parkinson’s.
“Who do you want to be?” I asked.
He didn’t always answer right away, but looked like he listened.
“I’ll tell you who you want to be. You want to be the underdog. You want to come in under the radar. You’re ready to kick ass but no one knows it but you.”
His hand twitched under the covers. If I got any movement from him I knew he was listening.
“You’ve trained hard, trained right. You’ve done the laps and turned the miles. You’re good on your feet and on the mat. You’ve got a chance here.”
His other hand twitched. Once I got the double twitch going I knew I was on the right track.
“You know your opponent. Parkinson’s never loses, but we don’t care. We know all about this guy. He wears you down, makes you feel like quitting. Most do. Not you. I’m over here with the towel to cool you off between rounds. Parkinson’s doesn’t even go to their corner. It doesn’t need coaching up.”
His eyes tracked me.
“Parkinson’s laughs from the center of the mat. They think you’re afraid, so afraid that you won’t even show up. They think you’ll stay in bed, stay down. They’ll pin you with a fierce look. Huh? Is that who you are? Is that who you want to be today? I don’t think so. That’s not you, brother. That’s not what we do.”
Ken’s foot gives a kick under the sheets. A good sign.
“We’re going in there against Parkinson’s. We’re stepping up and backing it down. We post on Parkinson’s face and arm drag them when they reach up. We hook an arm and step in close when they back up. Then we take them down. We squeeze the life out of Parkinson’s like a loaf of white bread. You can do it. You can win this one. If we get out of this bed, we win. Are you ready? Are you ready to go?”
Ken was in the stage of Parkinson’s where reasonable people said he should have permanent bed rest, that he was too fragile to get up.
“If you’re not ready, get ready. We don’t want Parkinson’s coming any closer.”
Ken was set for comfort care, the maintenance section on the road of life. All he had to do was lie in bed and wait it out. Why didn’t he?
“Here’s the match, old man. Parkinson’s thinks you won’t get out of bed. I think you will. That’s who you are. That’s who you want to be. Let’s go. Raise your arms up and let’s get started.”
His elbows stayed on the bed, but he got his hands up. I took one hand and raised it higher.
“This is what it feels like, Kenny. This is what happens when you win a match against Parkinson’s. You want it? You want this one?”
He lifted his head off his pillow and held it there.
Score: Kenny – 1, Parkinson’s – 0
If you’ve got someone in the family who needs a spark, you know what to do. Use the Wrestling Powers.