Personal Stories

The Man Who Wouldn't be Shaken

Amy Serrano
South Florida

When I was 20 years old, I met a woman who was my then boyfriend's godmother and who from the moment she'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 10 years prior, had lain in bed waiting to die.  She was in her late 50's when I met her, about 75 pounds of bone, and all I recall was meeting this horribly emaciated woman who succumbed her mind and body to dying, while her heart was still beating. 

Though I tried to keep my face from registering the inner sadness I experienced, her atrophied body and near inability to use her once vibrant vocal chords created a visual impression upon me that reminded me of the daunting images of concentration camp survivors. I learned that while in the first years following her diagnosis her loved ones hoped she'd come around and find ways to live again, her resignation to Parkinson's atrophied her body to the point she could no longer do anything for herself.  Having once been a beautiful five foot nine, statuesque woman who now rigidly curled into a mere five feet, she refused to have visitors, so I was surprised she agreed to see me. Following that visit, I learned she lived that way for an additional 5 years before her heart also finally gave out.  Until recently, that had been my only personal experience of Parkinson's, so when my paternal uncle was diagnosed about 5 years ago around the time I relocated to New Orleans, having been such an active man, I did not know how he'd respond.

You see, he and my father were born and raised on the coast of Cuba and the sea and fishing were such a profound extension of how they lived and viewed their lives. Those two could instruct you on every single detail of any fish and recount the minutest aspects of marine life.  Next to their human life on the land, there was their marine life on the ocean and oftentimes, it wasn't clear which one they preferred.

When my mother and I first arrived at his home this past weekend while I was visiting South Florida, he was peacefully napping in his garden. From afar, I observed the physical changes of a man who once had been trim and athletic, now with a body that had developed a wide girth around the mid-section, and a face that seemed somewhat swollen.   As we approached, he startled and woke up. I noticed his happiness to see us, and soon after, there was his usual deep laughter and though speaking faster than usual, he made light of his new way of being.  He immediately asked, "See this tree behind me?  Do you know why I am sitting right in front of it?"  Puzzled, I shook my head and he responded like a child who'd just learned something new and was eager to share it, "It's to catch my fall if I get up too quickly after a nap.  It happens you know. I'm just not as precise as I used to be."  He smiled, asked us to sit and just like my uncle, changed the conversation and proceeded to tell us all the new jokes he'd recently learned. 

At the end of our sunny and funny exchange under those balmy trees, he asked my Aunt Daisy to make us Cuban coffee and while she went inside to prepare it, he carefully got up and took us to his old tool shed to show us how he'd taken up painting.  Sure enough, there wasn't a space on that rustic wall that wasn't covered by his old tools, but better yet, newly painted fish and other symbols of marine life, including a few provocative mermaids!  

He then took us on a tour of the tropical fruit garden he'd planted and introduced us to his avocado, lychee, fig, and mango trees while individually beaming at the beautiful and singular fruit each produced.  He also indicated he'd planted a sundry of other varieties of edible plants in his garden that had also yielded wonderful food items this year.

The garden tour generated another surprise.  Scattered all around the yard were salted remnants of an enduring life on the sea; a rusty anchor here, a weathered lobster trap there, yet what he so missed were those fish so he reconnected to the sea by creating a tropical fish pond out of his grandchildren's leftover sandbox.  There was such ingenuity in carefully installing a pump within what once was a toy, and then using the sandbox cover with a sort of cantilever device he created to protect the fish from curious land animals.  I think it was my Uncle's way of bringing elements of the sea to his Home.

But perhaps what astonished me most in view of his condition and his shaking limbs was what he saved for last. After inviting us in for the now ready hot coffee and some ceviche he'd made, he proudly took us to a room that he'd turned into a woodworking shop.  There, my eyes immediately moved round the room to witness endless shelves of little wooden boats that to my deep surprise and delight had all been handcrafted by my uncle Pedro!

He demonstrated how he carves the small crafts from blocks of balsa wood, and how despite the unpredictable movements of his hands, he is able to somehow steady them to paint the names on each boat. What surprised me even more was the level of detail and separate identity of each wooden work of art.  There was one boat even named after my father, Captain G. Serrano for which he'd curiously crafted a shrimping net out of the plastic netted sleeves used by supermarket produce departments to sell bulbous heads of garlic.   

I have pieced this story about my uncle together in hopes that others who live with the unpredictable and painful conditions brought about by Parkinson's might find other ways to LIVE and learn from an otherwise deteriorating experience.   My uncle is very much alive and has found ways to bring into his own life some of what he's always loved most, and the most important part is that despite his constant pain he is happy and has found ways to bring happiness not only into his own life, but also, into the lives of those that dearly love him and want to see him do well.  And one amazing last thing; instead of going fishing now, in the last 5 years my uncle has gone on 2 cruises through the Caribbean and has surprisingly found he loves these happy and lazy sea voyages and does not experience the symptoms of Parkinson’s when his mind forgets he has this! 

If you walk into my Uncle's workshop while he is crafting the next addition to his fleet of tiny wooden boats, lost in the moment, he will tell you how much he longs to return on his next Caribbean cruise.  He will then point to a map to talk about the next chain of islands he'd eagerly like to visit.  

* This is dedicated to my Uncle Pedro with much hope and admiration *

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