Nothing brings me more joy than seeing Jerry Bryant in the clinic. Jerry has advanced Parkinson’s disease, but he never complains. He is fifty-eight years old and inseparable from his wife, Betty. They are irrepressibly cheerful; when one laughs, the other cheers. As teenagers, they fell in love, and in love they remain. They are masters of resilience – emotionally, that is. Physically, Jerry has struggled, but he is better now, thanks to Betty, and ready for their 40th "honeymoon." Soon they will be sunbathing in the Caribbean.
I am delighted to see Jerry and Betty at the end of a long day. Jerry is sitting on the exam table, quiet and motionless. He has lost a few pounds, but he is still plump. His thin, straw hair is neatly cut. His brown eyes are magnified by thick lenses. He looks awkward in an undersized gown. Staring ahead, he seems transfixed by the empty wall in front of him. Betty stands by him, her arm draped casually around his shoulder.
"Good afternoon," I say.
"Hi, Dr. Blevins," they reply.
I smile at Betty and turn to Jerry.
"So, Jerry, where are you taking your lovely bride?"
He grins and glances at his wife. "Anguilla," he mumbles.
"Really?" I ask. "Why Anguilla?"
His face brightens; his eyes sparkle. He begins to rhapsodize on the charms of Anguilla, or so I suppose, for I cannot understand a word he is saying. Still, his enthusiasm is unmistakable.
Betty understands every word. She translates: "Anguilla has sun-drenched beaches, pristine waters, and midnight barbecue." Then realizing that she sounds like a brochure, she laughs and adds, "Jerry’s dreaming of the barbecue. I’m dreaming of the beach."
Jerry is amused, which brings joy to his wife.
"Are you healthy enough to go, Jerry?" I ask teasingly.
"You bet!" he mumbles.
I look at Betty, as if needing confirmation: "Is he telling the truth?"
"He certainly is," she replies. "He’s having some trouble with balance, but he walks every day."
Jerry’s tremors began when he was thirty years old. Two years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His condition has slowly progressed. Last year, he received a brain stimulator, which has helped. His tremors are gone now, but his voice remains muffled and his limbs are stiff. He cannot write, but he can walk alone, although he prefers to hold Betty’s hand.
Removing my stethoscope, I check his blood pressure and examine him. As always, I regale him with stories of my weekend adventures. He enjoys my stories, even the silly ones.
"Well, everything checks out," I conclude. "You’re perfectly fine to travel. Have a great trip – and don’t eat too much."
I leave the room smiling. Jerry and Betty have a magical effect on me. Their joy is contagious.
Returning to my office, I sit at my desk and dictate a few notes. After completing my work, I reach into a drawer, pull out a bottle, and remove an orange pill. With a swig of water, I swallow the day’s last dose of levodopa.
Leaning back in my chair, I reflect on the events of two years ago: the evening my hand fumbled as I was combing my hair, the morning I used two hands to brush my teeth, the afternoon I struggled to write. I was forty-five years old then. When my doctor told me I had Parkinson's disease, I journeyed into the surreal: I heard children giggling in a distant exam room and smelled alcohol in a nearby sink. I noticed crickets in the overhead light and saw patches of light and dark on the wall.
For several days I was too distracted to work. I barely listened to my patients. I wrote incorrect dates on prescriptions and impatiently waited for the weekend with its promise of isolation. When Friday finally arrived, I was too pre-occupied to notice Jerry’s arrival.
Dazed, I entered the room and looked at him. He was perched comfortably on the exam table. Betty was standing quietly beside him. Perhaps we conversed. One memory remains: As I approached him with my stethoscope, we looked at each other – he with his Parkinsonian stare; I with the gaze of abject fear. I imagined his decades-long struggle: the frozen movements, the shaking, the distorted voice, the stimulator. He was a crystal ball through which I saw my own bleak future. I wondered when my movements would congeal, when my voice would fade, when....
Jerry’s smile interrupted my reverie. I began to examine him. I checked his blood pressure and listened to his heart, but I could only think of his silent immobility.
As I listened to his lungs, he began to snicker. Jerry behaved oddly at times. I usually delighted in his eccentricity, but not that day. From the corner of my eye I could see Betty’s nervous expression. Raising her finger to her mouth, she encouraged her husband to shush. But Jerry kept smiling.
"What is it, Jerry?" I asked.
He turned to Betty and mumbled something. Betty was perturbed. She tried to ignore his childish behavior, but Jerry waited for the translation, knowing she would eventually give in. Soon her expression softened, and with rolling eyes, she said, “Dr. Blevins, Jerry wants you to know you have shaving cream in your ear." Embarrassed, I wiped my ear and completed the examination.
That evening I sat on my bed and looked out the window. The park was lovely with its vernal backdrop of blue skies and green fields. An old man was riding a bicycle. A mother was pushing a baby carriage. Children were racing on their skateboards.
I thought about Jerry. His happiness defied nature; it was perennial. For ten years I had reveled in his good humor, though now it seemed eerie and discordant. My despair, of course, seemed justified – but why? My limitations were few and mild. Jerry, by contrast, was almost mute, but he seemed oblivious to his condition. Was he unrealistic? Was I?
Spring drifted into summer, and Jerry returned to the clinic with his usual cheer. During that visit, I glanced at him repeatedly, hoping to glimpse the future. His condition had not changed: His eyes were unblinking; his pose, statuesque. But the crystal ball, which penetrated deeper, revealed a future less foreboding. His suffering, although still extant, was subsumed by a graceful serenity. Perhaps I had misread the future. Perhaps time had sharpened my foresight.
I thought about Jerry throughout the summer.
Then one day Betty called to say Jerry wanted to go to the Caribbean. He had never been, and with the 40th anniversary approaching, he was determined to go. He needed a "preflight clearance" and had scheduled an appointment to see me.
And so he arrived, fit to travel. His blood pressure was normal. His neurological condition, although advanced, was safely quarantined from his happy life. He had heard the Caribbean’s call and would pursue its promise of sunny beaches and midnight barbecue.
Daylight passes along with my daydream. The clinic is empty. I put on my coat and turn out the light. For a moment I imagine Jerry in a swimsuit, covered head-to-toe in sunscreen, mumbling and fumbling on the beach. Maybe it's time to stop thinking about the future. After all, there is no crystal ball, just a mirror reflecting the obvious: Jerry is happy.
And I am happy, thinking of Jerry, dreaming of Anguilla.
*This essay is dedicated to Christine Bollerud. **Mr. Bryant gave me permission to use his real name. ***The seasons and vacation destination were changed for literary effect.