Pals With Parkinson’s

We are now as good as we will ever be. And so, there is a sadness we all share.

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By David Bergman

Every Wednesday, I drive out to the suburbs on Baltimore to attend a session of Rock Steady Boxing. Don’t imagine a sweat-stained ring, guys in dirty satin trunks sitting on stools and leaning back on the ropes, spitting out mouth protectors, listen to the gravel-throated managers as they wait for the bell to announce another round. Rock Steady Boxing is a program for people with Parkinson’s Disease, and my group meets in a nursing home in a room next to physical therapy. The room comfortably fits the ten men and women who are part of the group, add to it spouses, aides, and visitors, the room is quite full.

Parkinson’s Disease occurs when the cells in the brain that produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter related to movement, die off. DP is associated with trembling, but not everyone with PD shakes. We also slow down, tilt to one side, stoop over, have difficulty starting movements, suffer from sleep disorders, hallucinations, and seeing double, to name only a few symptoms. None of us have the same symptoms, and there is no test for PD. But we’re mostly on the same medicine, and one day when I forgot to take my pills to the session, three people offered me some of theirs. We were taking the same thing, only at varying strengths.

But that’s not the only thing we share. We all have a progressive disease, which means things will only get worse. Exercise may slow the progression, but it won’t stop it. We are now as good as we will ever be. And so, there is a sadness we all share. Depression is a common factor in PD. Researchers postulate a connection between dopamine and serotonin (another neurotransmitter), but I haven’t seen any clear connection yet.

We don’t do much boxing, to tell you the truth. More than half of the time is spent on strength and stretching exercises. Then we rotate from one task to another: heavy bag, speed bag, a dummy, another dummy, weight exercises, balance exercises, etc. The only person we ever get to punch is the instructor, Ryan, who holds up two baffled for protection. He’s big and young and encourages us to hit him as hard as we can. Stuart, a retired car salesman, used to force him round and round while furiously jabbing Ryan. One day they stayed in place, and I asked Stuart whether he was tired. “No, I’m getting better, I can stand in one place now.” And I realized rather than an example of his skill in boxing, the constant circling was a symptom of the disease.

No one stars. One of the men I’m closest to has enormous difficulty initiating movement. He was a basketball player, and now he freezes on the court. One of the rotations we move through involves throwing balls at a target. I never had very good hand/eye coordination. I never have hit the bullseye, but my friend’s smoothness and grace were extraordinary to watch as one ball after another hit the mark.

The boxers are in all different stages of the disease. Howard can hardly speak and arrives in a wheelchair with an aide. He doesn’t throw punches; at best he taps his glove against Ryan’s mitt in painstaking slowness. But that is enough. It keeps him in the game. And that’s all that counts. We’re there to keep each other in the game. We are the opposite of personal trainers who yell at the clients, egging them on to do one more repetition. There is a total avoidance of competition. It’s always great to see someone do something he or she hasn’t done before. Usually, there’s been a change in medication.

I have had friends throughout my life. I have a husband. But I have never had pals. Do people talk about palling around anymore? The musical Pal Joey opened in 1940, and in “Can You Spare A Dime,” the theme song of the Depression, the unemployed worker asks “Don’t you remember, I’m your pal?” Palhood reigned until the fifties, I suspect, another victim of American prosperity and homophobia.

A pal is not quite a friend, it seems to me, it doesn’t require the same intimacy as friendship. Guys, buddies, pals are terms to describe a relationship forged by outside forces — the Great Depression, the Second World War. One has an extreme closeness with a pal as you’re thrown into the same obstacles, but once those obstacles are over, the glue that cements you vanishes. For over forty years, I was a college professor. I had my share of colleagues. But only a few became pals, and even fewer remain friends.

It seems to me that “pal-hood” is a relationship best developed by straight men, an intense non-sexual bonding by men subject to the same experience. I think of it in team sport, and team sports have been the hardest area for gay men to enter. One is supposed to have an intense protective feeling toward the men on your team, but once the game is over there doesn’t have to be any great depth of intimacy. Palhood is the perfect example of the homosocial.

The Cambridge Dictionary says that pal is used “when talking to a man, sometimes in a friendly way but more often to a man who is annoying you,” as in “Look, pal, you’re asking for trouble.” Palhood enforces distance. If you want to be my pal, don’t ask for trouble. Yet things have changed. Everyone at Rock Steady Boxing knows I’m gay, but it seems to make no difference. Perhaps it is because we’re older. Perhaps because we’re all faced by handicaps. But for the first time, I feel like one of the guys, I have pals.

One thing the coronavirus has done is suspended the sessions of Rock Steady Bowing. The nursing home in which we met is, of course, closed to outsiders. And we’re all of an age when the virus strikes in its deadliest form. No one knows whether Parkinson’s Disease is an underlying condition for the coronavirus, a comorbidity factor — probably not, I’ve been told — but it certainly isn’t an advantage. We’re sending email messages to each other discussing how to stay active when staying at home. But it isn’t the same thing.

I miss my pals, and now I know how easy it is to lose them.

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