I’m half the man I used to be. One half of my body twitches. I drool when I’m peeing, and I tear up at the sight of tiny broken birch branches in the snow. Sometimes my left hand jerks up, leading to slapstick scenes in which I involuntarily chuck a glass of water over my shoulder. In 2011, at the age of 51, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After 10 or maybe 15 years, the doctor said, I would start needing help. But it was also possibile that I would grow old with Parkinson’s. “It won’t kill you,” he said.
It will end crappily though, I thought.
The typical patient with Parkinson’s becomes disabled after eight to 10 years, but this typical patient does not exist. Everyone is different. Six years after being diagnosed, I was still on the tennis court. Then everything went wrong. Within a few months I became a wavering wreck. Walking turned into stumbling and I was forced to shuffle along behind a frame.
The time had come for brain surgery, my neurologist declared, and I was admitted to a clinic in the north of the Netherlands “for observation”. It took me several days to get used to the other patients. There were seven of them: three men and four women. I watched their nonsensical tremors and how they moved, step by petty step, as they tried desperately to swerve the wheels of their walking frames in the right direction. They ate in silence. One of them, a grumpy farmer from the countryside, sat quietly urinating on the worn-out lift chair.
One patient, a man in his 70s with a sturdy head and a weathered gaze, sat opposite me during dinner. Crouched like a frightened bird, he ate his sauerkraut mash while keeping his mouth close to the plate and drooling. From time to time some of the food fell back from his fork or from his raw, red swollen lower lip. When his plate was half empty, a nurse mercifully fed him a few more bites. His chin sagged on to the plate, his gray beard dipping in the cold sauerkraut mash.
My God. I had pictured hallucinations. I had read that Parkinson’s patients have a much greater risk of dementia. I had accepted that one day my wife would have to cut up my food and tie my shoelaces. I had scoured eBay for a reasonably-priced mobility scooter. I had more or less come to terms with all that, but after spending time at the clinic, my neurologist’s remark – “It won’t kill you” – took on an entirely new meaning. If everything goes wrong, I thought, this is what lies ahead of me. And it won’t even kill me.
What was worse? The looming oblivion of dementia or the cruel physical failures that come with Parkinson’s disease? Was it better to be trapped in a confused mind, or have a lucid mind while being trapped in a rebellious body?
Over recent years, I had discussed these kinds of questions with a friend of mine named Joop. We met occasionally and talked about dying, as if we were discussing a long-term weather forecast. Joop suffered from Alzheimer’s and had started to forget the basics of daily life. What he did know was that he didn’t want to die the way his father did, in a nursing home. “I don’t want to end up chasing after the nurses,” he told me.
Even as we replace old hips or knees or organs with new ones, and even as average life expectancy continues to increase, our brains keep on ageing. Neurodegeneration is the price we pay for the intense human drive to deny that existence is finite. Sooner or later our brains start to falter, nerve cells break down, and we end up in a nursing home, chasing nurses, chasing shadows, chasing ourselves.
I understood Joop’s deepest fear only too well. Nico, my father-in-law, was 91 when, in the middle of the night, he mistook his wife for an intruder and attacked her with a kitchen knife. Shortly after the incident, he was placed in the closed ward of a geriatric facility. That image never left my mind: the helplessness of the confused man we left behind when the lock of the glass door clicked, his bewildered eyes staring at us in an unstoppable kind of loneliness. Weeks later, when we were visiting Nico, he reproached his wife for neglecting him. She never came to visit him, he grumbled, even though less than an hour beforehand she had fed him pieces of bread, with tears in her eyes.
On our way home, it hit me that I would rather die than end up like that. For the first time, I seriously considered the possibility of one day voluntarily ending my life. After all, I thought, the Netherlands has the best-regulated voluntary euthanasia system in the world.