Tuesday, January 5, 2010

When Your Mortality Calls, Will You Be Home?

This posting is a reprint of an article which MORE Magazine printed in June 2009. 

When my mortality called, I refused to answer.

When she phoned again, I told her she had the wrong number.

Like the most persistent junk callers, she rang me yet again and this time left a message: “You have Parkinson’s disease.” I hung up, hoping she was merely an obscene caller.

When she phoned once more, I told this nuisance caller politely but firmly to check directory assistance because she must have me mixed up with another Peggy van Hulsteyn, some frail widow in declining health. I was the healthy Peggy van Hulsteyn, fifty-something, with boundless energy, an exciting writing career, and a wonderful marriage. Having a degenerative illness was not on my to-do list.
She was formidable and did have a way with words and gestures; I must admit when she cackled her fiendish cackle, I paid attention. When she ordered me to head for the nearest neurologist, I did her one better and saw three neurologists, all of them with the same gloomy conspiracy theory—it was indeed Parkinson’s disease. I believed none because I knew I was merely experiencing carpal tunnel syndrome and that if I rested my arm and stopped writing books the symptoms would disappear.

Being a baby boomer didn’t help me accept the inevitable. As the Peter Pans and Wendys of a brave new world, we felt that we had been promised a fountain of youth and would live forever. We thought that our brilliant, rich, and technologically savvy “Me Generation” could solve every problem. By the time we were old enough to catch horrible diseases, we figured cures for all such maladies would have been discovered. How smug, and how wrong we were!

Although I am not a quick study, finally, after a period of anguish, I gave in to the inevitable and came out on the other side, determined to write about this complicated disease and to make a difference. So, after dealing with my disbelief and shock, I turned to my notebook and computer. Perhaps, I reasoned, if I juggled the words in just the right way I could make some sense out of this heartache.

I am now trying to think of Parkinson’s disease as a guest I didn't invite to dinner but who showed up anyway. After the initial months of denial, I have reluctantly invited him to stay for dessert. As in the film, The Man Who Came to Dinner, I’m not thrilled that he came to my house. If I had been given a choice of whimsical house guests, I would have much preferred the charming pooka rabbit that moved in with Jimmy Stewart in the movie Harvey. Unfortunately, we don’t have any say about the diseases that visit us in the night and fail to leave in the morrow.

I now see my diagnosis of Parkinson’s as a wake-up call to learn to live. Given that I do have this disease and that, as a writer, I try to understand the things that happen to me, it seems the only option I have is to view Parkinson’s as another class in the school called life. Though as president of the Oscar Wilde Cynical Society I have never once been confused with The Little Engine That Could, I must admit that life has seemed more precious, more fragile of late.

My mortality is still calling me, but now I am listening. And you, dear reader, should be listening too, because there is one equal-opportunity chronic disease awaiting us all—aging. In spite of Botox treatments, face lifts, and tummy tucks, that crafty crone Old Age has your number and soon will be calling to remind you, “Someday has arrived! That novel is not going to write itself. That exotic trip you were going to take in the future should be planned for the day after tomorrow.” It’ll be a call to cultivate your garden, hug your cat, learn French in France, read Auntie Mame to your niece and embrace its message to “live, live, live.”

I am the worst type of convert, one who is now spreading “the word,” reminding folks not to postpone joy. I continually challenge my fellow baby boomers to make a list of ten things they were going to do someday and encourage them to start doing them today. I invite them to plunge head first into the carpe diem pool.

I am happy to report that I am taking my own advice. I just plunked down cash I was planning to put into a savings account to whisk my husband off for a romantic vacation. I recently had an art deco bathroom with a Chanel red shower installed in our master bedroom; it’s impossible to be anything but optimistic in that cheerful spot. Not long ago I threw a Nancy Drew birthday party for my chum, Val, complete with costumes and a spectacular dinner from The Nancy Drew Cookbook; of course, I got to play Nancy.

I don’t wait for Christmas to give presents to friends; I bestow them all year round. I am the most generous and most extravagant on St. Swithun’s Day. I’ve told my husband of almost forty years that he’s never been sexier than when he’s bringing me my morning dose of Parkinson’s medicine (before these pills kick in, it’s difficult to walk).

“Bringing more joy into your life.” I remind my friends, “doesn’t always require that you become an heiress. It just means you have to be present to appreciate what’s already here. I am typing these words while an adorable cat sits happily purring on my lap. Bosque, my beautiful Buddha-like cat doesn’t increase my word processing speed, but he expands my heart and fills me with delight just by his very being. He is comprised of equal parts of unconditional love, heart and soul. When he stares at me with those beautiful eyes that look right through me, my health and well being seem to magically improve!

Look at beauty and magic of the world without your usual cynical lens. Do something you do routinely every day; only this time throw in some creativity and joy. Make an everyday dinner sparkle by spending some time setting a festive table. This has become a part of my routine and it becomes almost a meditative practice. Take a sunset walk with a friend and this time really concentrate on the beauty of the sunset and the unique qualities of your friend.

A true spiritual hobby/obsession is Birding which has the lovely ability to put you in a totally different space while viewing then world from a different and more serene perspective. One of the more spectacular places I try to go every year is the nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro. I recorded one of my trips there in my journal “It’s 7 a.m. and the black sky is tuning orange-red. I hear the whooshing of hundreds of sand hill cranes and a few whooping cranes flying overhead in V formations. Once again, in spite of all my travails, I have hope that the world is still a beautiful and magical place.”

By writing about Parkinson’s, as well as campaigning for stem cell research and for more funding for Parkinson’s research, I am searching for meaning and a sense of purpose in my diagnosis. I am trying to remember that my mortality always remains ready to dial my number and that her message is that I should fill my life with as much laughter, whimsy, and joy as possible. I strive to view life as a glass all the way full. As Viktor E. Frankl, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna and concentration camp survivor, reminds us in Man’s Search for Meaning: “It is not the events in our lives that determine who we become, but the meaning we choose to place on those events.”


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey and heart with us! Your words bring me renewed energy as I prepare to meet with my client who is in her own journey with this disease. She and I have been practicing yoga together for about 4 months. Every week that we meet, I remind myself to empty all notions of what I think she needs and allow her body to tell me when we're face to face. It always does. : ) Blessings, Angel

  2. Peggy-

    Your writing has always been full of humor but has never been richer than in this article. Thank you for writing it and for embracing the approach you are taking to life with Parkinson's. I look forward to reading more of your wit and wisdom, and as a newly turned 60 something, will take it to heart!

    Daryl Black

  3. Your writing has always been full of wit and life, but never has it been richer than in this article concerning Parkinson's. Your approach to life with the disease is inspiring and will certainly inspire others. I hope you will continue to blog about it.