Byline: Debbie Shapiro, a fun and inspiring woman, and a great writer too, who just happens to have Parkinson's
I have always loved walking, especially in Yerushalayim. One of my greatest pleasures was to wake up very early on Shabbos morning, before the heat began to set in, and walk to the Kosel. During the week, whenever I felt a bit down, I used to take a break for an hour or two (or three, or four…) to explore my very special city. Each neighborhood is so unique, and for a history buff like myself, full of historical treasures. Even the names of the streets — Chessed L'Avraham, Shmuel Hanavi, Yechezkel, Ohel Yosef — awoke within me a feeling of awe, and the various neighborhoods — Bucharim, Meah Shearim, Shechunat Hateimanim – are a potpourri of distinctly Jewish flavors and smells.
Today, I still love walking through the streets of Yerushalayim; only now, my walk looks very different. That's because today I use a cane (Gulp! I said it. Don't I deserve kudos for being so brave – and honest?).
I had initially been prompted to see a neurologist — which had led to my Parkinson’s diagnosis — because of serious balance issues. Walking had become so difficult that I tried my hardest to avoid it whenever possible. And when I had no choice, I was so unsteady on my feet and afraid of falling that more often than not I could barely put one foot in front of the other.
At one point, I "just happened" to notice that not only did my gait become faster when I was pushing a stroller, I was also able to enjoy myself. That little bit of support was what I needed to be steady on my feet, and with that boost of confidence, I enjoyed walking.
That's why, a few weeks after being diagnosed with Parkinson's, my husband and I had the following conversation over supper:
Me: You know, perhaps we should consider adopting a baby. Babies are SO cute....
Him: (Quickly swallowing his toast as he tries not to choke and keep a straight face) Don't you think we're a little old for that?
Me: But if we had a baby, then I could push the carriage. And it's so much easier for me to walk when I push a baby carriage.
Him: Well you know, there really is another solution. It's called a….
Me: (with visions of a little old lady with her grey sheitel pulled back into a bun, stooped over her….) Don't say it. I can't stand the word. I will never, ever become a sweet little old lady, or even a cranky old lady, with a walker — UGH! I can't believe I actually said that word! And if I ever do have to use such a thing, chas v'shalom, it won't be until I'm at least 95! Only then, I will call it a runner, 'cause I'll run with it. (Deep breath. Wistful smile.) And besides, I really do like babies. And I'll look much younger pushing a baby carriage.
Him: (with a hint of a smile and a mischievous twinkle to his eyes) Actually, I wanted to suggest a cane.
Me: No way! Me? A cane? (Flush of anger.) I'll only get one if you get one. Then we can fence together. Touché! (I wield my soup spoon as an impromptu sword.)
Actually, the idea of using a stroller instead of walker is not so far-fetched. Here in Jerusalem it's common for older women to push empty strollers to steady themselves. But I just can't see myself doing that, unless, of course, I were to place a large teddy bear inside – then I could laugh at all the reactions I'd get. (That's my wicked side coming out. And besides, we’ve married off all the kids, so who cares what the neighbors say….)
A few weeks after my husband and I discussed the pros and cons of adopting a baby, I had an appointment in Yad Sarah, the national volunteer and medical supply organization, and decided to surreptitiously take a look at the different types of walk… — oh, excuse me, I meant runners — available, "just in case I should ever change my mind." I studied the various models, but although some of them were really practical, with built-in chairs and baskets for holding groceries, none of them had the "look" I wanted: bright red, shaped like a race car, with a huge fog horn attached to the front, or at the very least, something disguised to look like a shopping cart. I didn't even bother looking at the canes.
The following day I had an appointment with the physiotherapist. She told me that it was important for me to walk as much as possible, and encouraged me to go for long morning walks. I countered that although I have no difficulty walking in the house, outside was another story. The sidewalks are uneven; and for some reason that I have yet to understand, people often park their cars or motorcycles on the sidewalk. And then there are the kids who cut in front of me with their bikes, and the mothers pushing strollers who bump into me – and all those things throw me off balance. A few days before, I had almost been run over by a Hatzolah motorcycle. I had been so intent on keeping my balance while crossing the street at a busy pedestrian crossing that I didn't hear the approaching siren and continued plodding forward. I don't know who was more startled – me or the Hatzolah medic.
The physiotherapist suggested that I purchase two hiking poles at a sports store — you know, the long poles with straps on the top, most often used by mountaineers wearing boots and carrying heavy backpacks for conquering the Alps — and use them to steady myself on my morning walks. I could not imagine myself trekking through the center of Yerushalayim with two hiking poles for support, so I decided to purchase a cane instead.
A few days after having made that brave decision, I organized to meet a friend at seven a.m. for a brisk early morning walk. As we circled the hilly neighborhoods of Ezras Torah and Kiryat Sanz, I kept on thinking how wonderful it was that now, with the support of my trusty cane, I could concentrate on quickening my pace rather than on remaining upright. But at the same time, there was this niggling feeling of embarrassment. How could I be using a cane IN PUBLIC?
After all, I certainly don't look disabled, and with the little bit of extra support that the cane gives me, my gait was completely normal. When I mentioned my embarrassment to my walking partner, she retorted, "Halavai that everyone would be so smart." She then proceeded to tell me about a relative of hers with Parkinson's. Despite having had several painful falls, she is too embarrassed to be seen outside using a cane. So instead, she avoids walking whenever possible – which means that in in trying not to look like an invalid, she has really become one.
When people point to my cane and ask, "Hey, what's this?" I respond that I need it to keep my balance and prevent myself from falling. Falls are dangerous, especially as we get older. I think a cane is preferable to a cast, and besides, more often than not, many people with casts also need a cane, or crutches, or even (gulp) a walker. And then, of course, canes really are a lot of fun. I use my cane as a prop (pun intended) to perform fun dances with the grandchildren (anyone reading this ever heard of Jiminy Cricket?), to press the stop button on the bus without having to standing up, and, most important of all, to once again enjoy exploring the streets of Yerushalayim.
Oh, and I almost forgot! Canes really do make great make-believe swords. Touché