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David Walsh talks about his father with Parkinson’s disease

He must have been around 85 when it started, but I didn’t notice. He probably didn’t either. By then my father’s life had already slowed to a treacly flow of television and daily trips to the supermarket to shoplift packets of biscuits. I liked Iced Vovo. He liked Orange Creams. He dunked them in the tea he continuously brewed on the fire.

He claimed the shoplifting was justified because sixty years before, ‘those bastards who owned Coles didn’t pay me for golf lessons’. Dubious, since G.J. Coles was over thirty years older than dad, and also because he didn’t limit his petty larceny to Coles.

I have often contended that, unlike every other appliance, cheaper toasters are better toasters. Dad’s toaster was a significant exception to this rule, although it was reliable. It lasted, it seems, for the first forty years of my life. It was reliable in another sense as well. It burned dad’s toast every day. He would scrape the blackness off and then ladle treacle on. He liked treacle on his toast.

At around 85 he stopped burning toast. Maybe I should have twigged that something was wrong. But the few times I visited early enough to join him for breakfast (about 11 am, his schedule having been established by a lifetime of working late in bars) I must have assumed he was making a special effort. I had been teasing him about burnt toast for as long as I could talk.

A year or so later he rang me, itself an unusual event, he’d only just gotten the phone on. He told me he had been stuck, standing at the kitchen sink, for over an hour.

I had just read Oliver Sack’s ‘Awakenings’- a book about some people with severe symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, so I knew immediately what was wrong with dad. I had watched him slow down, I had watched him waddle around, I had seen him shake but I hadn’t joined the dots. Yes, I had been alarmed at his deterioration, but I had put it down to old age. I shouldn’t have, at 80 he was playing golf, at 85 he stopped putting down the corridor. He was good at golf, which was why the story about teaching G.J Coles wasn’t completely implausible, and yet he had given up demoralising me with a sharp thrashing just before I ended each visit. The sirens were sounding, but I was deaf to their message.

And the burnt toast. How could I not notice that he stopped burning toast because he wasn’t mobile enough to walk away from the toaster?

He’s dead now. Parkinson’s didn’t kill him but it made his declining years pretty bloody miserable. He called his loss of mobility a prison sentence. And there was no possibility of parole. He asked, ‘What was my crime’? I, shedding a tear but choking on a chortle simultaneously, just resisted answering, ‘Shoplifting’?


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