Remembering Parkinson’s

My grandfather died of Parkinson’s. In his late sixties, about a year or so before he died, the disease had run most of its course and had left him with sudden immobility and increasingly spectacular memory lapses. We visited them once a year at this time, and he’d go for walks with me—I was about ten years old then—and suddenly would not be able to move, right in the middle of a giant intersection. The lights would change but he’d be stuck, shaking his leg and smiling to himself and drooling. Then, after what felt to me like an infinity of honking, and just before the lights turned again, nerve impulses would suddenly reach his legs again, and he’d briskly walk off, this time to even more intense honking.

One day, my grandmother related, he did not return from a walk. She took the car and went looking for him. Sure enough, there he was, holding up the traffic at a major intersection. My grandmother drove up beside him and leant across and opened the passenger door.

“Get in!” she commanded.

My grandfather looked at her and turned away.

“Chris,” my grandmother yelled, “get in!”

My grandfather got in and they sped off to much honking. As they drove on, my grandmother noticed that my grandfather was leaning away from her and had covered his eyes like a guilty toddler.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded.

My grandfather parted two fingers and peered at her. “I’m ashamed,” he said.

“Ashamed of what?”

He peered at her again.

“To be seen in public with a strange woman,” he said.

Before my grandmother could say anything, he went on, “What would my wife say?”

I’m your wife!” my grandmother said in exasperation.

My grandfather lowered his hand and looked at her.

“And what’s your name?” he challenged.

“You know what my name is,” my grandmother said.


“Dammit Chris! It’s Jacoba.”

My grandfather considered this and then continued, “And when were you born?”

My grandmother took a turn and entered the complex they lived in.

“I was born on 7 November 1910. You know that.”

They pulled up to their garage and my grandmother parked the car.

“And what were the names of your natural parents?” my grandfather asked.


“Their names,” my grandfather repeated with lawyer-like insistence.

“Chris,” my grandmother sighed, “they were Hermanus Pieterse, and Margaretha Louw.”

My grandmother wanted to get out of the car, but my grandfather stopped her.

“And where are they now,” he asked and pursed his lips.

“Chris! They died in the Great Flu, in 1919!”

My grandfather turned to her with genuine surprise.

“What?” he cried. “And now you tell me?”

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