Leibo At Large: Watching a ruthless disease steal my father

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By david leibowitz

The end of my father’s life is fast approaching, and if I am being completely honest, his last breath will be a blessing.

Parkinson’s disease, a ruthless bastard, has robbed him of his body: the ability to walk without falling, to use the bathroom by himself, to get out of bed under his own power.

My father’s mind lasted longer, but now dementia has eclipsed virtually everything that made him him.

Mostly what’s left now is anger. It has come to be my dad’s defining characteristic, at least when he is not faded into oblivion by morphine. Anyone who tries to help him is met by a fist, a kick, a shove.

All we can do is tell ourselves it isn’t him doing the fighting. It’s the disease.

One million Americans are living with Parkinson’s. Worldwide, the number is 10 million. Every year, 60,000 more people are diagnosed with the disease.

There is no cure. I am writing this to let you know what’s in store should you ever hear those sickening words.

Born in the Bronx in 1945, my father was the middle child of three. His older brother, a pharmacist by trade, was the first to manifest Parkinson’s. My uncle Mel died in May 2016. If my dad was nervous he was next, you never would have known it.

He played racquetball like a madman until age 70. When my mother’s health failed, he cared for her 24/7. Their love affair, a marriage that lasted 52 years, ended when my mother passed away two days after Christmas 2017.

My father has never taken off his gold wedding band.

The tremors became more noticeable a few months later. His decline was slow at first — no more racquetball, no more driving himself to CVS. His walk, strides that once gobbled up ground, dwindled to a plodding shuffle. 2019 felt like a rock rolling downhill.

And 2020, a horrible year for so many, was for my father apocalyptic: 52 weeks of handfuls of pills, vivid hallucinations, emotional doldrums and electric fury.

My brother and my nephew have been on the front lines for all of it: the vitriol, the wild mood swings, the swinging fists. Care around the clock by home health aides did little except chew up money and present new targets for abuse.

Again, as we have told ourselves a few thousand times: This was the disease acting out, not my father.

Now he’s in a hospital bed, zoned out on morphine to manage his physical and emotional symptoms. The doctors claim they are trying to “get him stabilized,” whatever that means at this point.

Someday soon I will board a Florida-bound plane for perhaps the 10th time in the last year, except this time the destination is goodbye.

Here’s the thing, though: The man who taught me how to ride a bike, dribble a basketball, swing a bat, balance a chemistry equation, change the oil in a car, he’s been gone for a long time now.

That’s what diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia do — they don’t kill their victims all at once, they kill by degrees. The person you love disappears day by day, gradually subtracted from your life and the world.

Long before they take their final shallow breaths, your heart has been replaced by an empty space where comfort and joy once lived.

Hug everyone you love tighter is all I can tell you. Make sure your long-term care insurance is paid up. Make peace with all who need forgiveness. One day soon, they may no longer be able to do more than breathe.

By then, the only thing left talking or throwing fists will be some bastard disease.