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To the Stranger Who Didn't Assume My Husband Was Drunk

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My husband Radford has Parkinson’s disease. Eleven years post-diagnosis, he can no longer work or drive, and he’s difficult to understand when he speaks. That means I do all our driving and 95 percent of our talking. And that means  the person running errands to places where “guy stuff” gets done is usually me. Rad’s lost a lot of motor control and balance, and he has a hard time talking, but he’s still a genius with anything that needs to be engineered, built, fixed, refinished, etc.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

My friends know I have a brown thumb. If you think I’m bad with keeping plants alive, you should see how I am with explaining what Rad needs when he sends me alone to an auto parts store. He’s devised a procedure wherein I carry in a detailed list of part numbers and even images of what he needs, but if I have to think on my feet, I’m dead in the water. Today we were out together because he had a doctor appointment, so to make efficient use of time and resources, we stopped at an auto parts store so we could get a part for our teenage son’s Jeep. Rad would be right there to explain what he needed.

Our experience for many years has been that when people can’t understand Rad, they turn to me and talk to me as if he’s not even there. It breaks my heart, and we’re likely to come home with a part for a space shuttle instead of a car when that happens, so I always defer back to him as kind of a high sign to the person that Rad is in there — he just needs you to take a minute and listen carefully.

Last week at O’Reilly Auto Parts in Simpsonville, South Carolina, a young man named Michael helped us at the counter. I stepped back, ready to tactfully take over talking as soon as I got the signal from Rad, but it never came: when Rad began to describe what he needed, Michael looked him in the eye, waited for him to finish, asked him to repeat or elaborate when needed and never dealt with me at all until it was truly impossible to sort out what was being said. He showed zero frustration or self-consciousness. I was close to tears for the whole beautiful exchange, so it was good that I only had to intervene one or two times to clarify something.

In a particularly difficult moment, I smiled at Michael and explained, “It’s Parkinson’s.” Often people think Rad has been drinking or doesn’t understand what’s happening because he’s slow to talk.

Michael looked at me and said, “I know. My aunt had it.”

This is why Parkinson’s awareness is important. This young man, familiar with PD from experience, was a gift to us today. And especially after a doctor’s appointment, another cold-water dunk into that medical world where things are always a big deal. Michael didn’t think Rad was drunk or out of his depth or screwing around. He knew Rad needed a minute to explain what kind of radiator hose and cap he wanted and why.

If you live here, I want you to know about Michael at O’Reilly in Simpsonville so you can take your business there and say hi for us. He went beyond customer service right into world-class human interaction.

If you’re not in our area, I want you to know about Michael because in our dealings with people who are “different,” we should all remember not to give up, turn away, ridicule, rush, judge, feel awkward, feel condescending… we should be like Michael and treat them just like we’d want to be treated.

May we all be as Michael-like as possible every day.

This post originally appeared on The Caregiver Space.

Originally published: May 6, 2015
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