Photo credit: Casey Horan

Living with Parkinson's

My dad sees snakes everywhere. On the bed, on the walls, on his clothes, and in every nook, cranny, corner or shade. His snakes are sometimes small, sometimes long; some have small red heads, others black. There are even those with bright white heads. He calls me so I can see them. I would like to see them, but I can’t. He insists; I nod to pretend that I agree that in fact, yes, they are there. My sisters get angry. They tell him he’s crazy, that there’s nothing there, that he should stop this nonsense. He knows they’re out there, waiting for him to be alone to tease him, to ensnare him, to bite him.

“See that sting?” He asks as he shows me what looks like a mosquito bite on his arm. Then he points towards the dry patch of corn and gravel in the chicken coop. “There were lots of snakes right there just now, and they attacked me when I came in to feed the chickens. I had to leave because they would not let me be.”

Papi was never afraid of snakes. He was fearless, even recklessly so. He would grab them and allow them to coil their cool long bodies around his arm just to scare us and the neighborhood kids. He laughed when we showed fear or even flinched. We learned to pretend not to care so he wouldn’t attempt to throw one at us. When he was not around and a snake showed up, even the small ones we knew were harmless, we’d tiptoed away from it just in case it would suddenly turn deadly — imagination being a more powerful protection than logic. Today, Papi fears snakes. Two days ago he broke the sink skirt trying to kill one that was sliding through the cloth, or so he said. The woman who takes care of him called my sister to come and help her for he had a knife in his hand and was slashing the fabric trying to kill the dreaded, slithering creature. Last week he encountered them when he was about to sit on the toilet. He called my sister so she could see them. She looked down and shook her head. She then reached into the toilet bowl and even pulled the chain to convince him there was nothing there, but he still saw them. “He got mad when I said I couldn’t see them,” she told me. Yesterday, he said they were gliding through the folds of his t-shirt and spent a long time trying to pull them out from the hems; the reptile’s skin, he believed, was trapped within the fabric.

Dad has Parkinson’s disease. His snakes are probably the result of the medicines he is taking, some of which are, ironically, anti-psychotic drugs. His hallucinations may have also been produced by the multiple falls he’s had ever since his stiff and swollen legs began to betray him. My sister believes he may have fallen more times than he admits. Every other day we discover a new bump on his forehead or cheek, or a purple black bruise on his knees, arm or back.

When I asked him if it was true what they said that he had developed a special relationship with the floor, he smiled. He was always mischievous and still enjoys a good laugh at his expense, or that of others. He hasn’t stopped being himself, not yet. He still enjoys listening to music and occasionally I hear him humming a song though his voice is now a barely audible grunt or tremulous whisper. It’s becoming harder to strike a casual conversation with him. It doesn’t help that one can barely perceive changes in his facial expression. Still, he’s very much alive. He enjoys playing dominoes and wins more often than not. One day I tried to play cards with him, sure that now (he who never lost) would be at my mercy, but no. Although his mind may be distracted by hallucinations, he is still shrewd with numbers, cards and dominoes.

So, it breaks my heart when I see him battling invisible snakes. I wonder if he will ever be able to accept that the wretched snakes he now despises are not really there but are caused by his condition as does Dr. Pearce in the TV series Perception. Then I snap to and remember that Daniel Pierce is a fictional character, Dad is real. Separating truth from fiction, is at times, hard for us all, but for a sick person, no matter how lucid he may seem at times, or how smart he is or has been, it may just be a formidable feat.

Last night before leaving, I kissed him good night. Then I teased him by saying, “Don’t do anything crazy” and he replied with a crooked smile, “I don’t do crazy things, I’m just crazy.”