Sunday, September 04, 2011
In Her Sleep:My MomCuring Parkinson's Disease,Nightly
My Mother called me from inside her dream last night.
It wasn’t a psychic experience; she used her cell phone.
My own phone started ringing in the middle of the night. I lurched out of bed, panicked and disoriented. A call in those deep-sleep hours before dawn usually comes from the hospital, the police station or the morgue. This one came from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, where my mother’s dream was happening.
“I need you to make some calls for me,” she said.
She sounded strong and alert. I almost never hear that crisp diction and easy authority in her voice anymore, when she’s awake. It reminded me of my Mom twenty years ago – a vibrant seventy-year-old with a busy schedule and a lot on her mind. The ninety-year-old Parkinson’s patient, fading away in the local nursing home?
No sign of her.
“What phone calls, Mom?” I managed. “It’s like two in the morning.”
“Well, I suppose you should call the film office first.”
“The film office?”
“Well, Frank seems to have disappeared and they might know where he’s gone or how to get in touch with him.”
“Frank? Who’s Frank?”
“Oh, sorry. He’s supposed to be handling the extras, keeping track of us, getting the porta-potties here. supplying us with water and snacks, making sure we’re on location when the director needs us. All that kind of thing.”
“Okay, hold on a second. Where are you exactly right now?”
“I’m sure we talked about this. I’m in the Pine Barrens. They’re making the holocaust movie and they had to do a controlled burn for this big sequence they’re shooting. But that’s what I’m worried about. This forest is a tinder box and I think the fire may be going wild. One of the extras is already suffering from smoke inhalation and another one – a very nice man – seems to have fainted. We’re doing our best to take care of them but really it’s Frank’s job and he’s nowhere to be found.”
Now I was fully awake. I was getting interested.
“Tell me about the movie,” I said.
“Well I’m not sure of the story, no one gets to see the script, but there’s obviously an escape involved, since this whole section is set in the woods. And the director is brilliant. Just brilliant. But also a little unstable. He’s always going off on tangents when he talks. He knows everything about film history, and he’s done his research on the period, but I’m not sure he’s on top of things right now. He’s out of control, Stevie, and no one’s really talking to anyone else. Very bad communications.That’s why I thought I should call you. Someone needs to co-ordinate things here.”
I told her to use the old Bob Hope trick of the mini-nap, so she could get some rest in case she had to do something strenuous later.
“Good idea,” she said, and hung up.
She’s been having these amazingly vivid dreams for several years now. Mostly she can’t remember them, but when she can, it’s very difficult for her to distinguish them from reality. We’ve all had that experience: dreaming a car crash and piecing together reality one fragment at a time after you wake up: I can move my legs, I’m my own bed, not a hospital, it was just a dream. Even so the dread can linger into the morning.
It’s much the same for my mother, just magnitudes more intense. When she was living with me before she moved to the nursing home she almost fell down the steep basement steps because she was trying to leave the Metropolitan Museum and get out to Fifth Avenue and take a taxi home. In order to accomplish this she had to traverse the whole downstairs of my house. She couldn’t get the door to the basement stairs open, luckily. This was at a time where she couldn’t walk unassisted when she was awake.
So my question is: what’s going on?
If I was a doctor this would be the total focus of my research. Some broken synapse gets circumvented when she’s asleep. Some short circuit gets corrected. She can walk. She can talk without slurring her words or getting lost in a sentence. It’s the same organic machine, the same bundle of nerves and muscles, but it works when she’s unconscious in ways she can only dream of when she’s awake. Doctors and scientists readily admit they have almost no understanding of brain function. The territory has never been explored and remains as mysterious as the bottom of the ocean or the inside of a Black Hole. The men who created the electronic chip that ‘rewires’ Parkinson patients’ brains and relieves most of the symptoms have no idea how or why it works. They discovered it by accident. Their genius was following the accident and exploring the ramifications of the unexpected. But they remain basically clueless and their awed humility in the face of these mysteries is both impressive and discouraging.
Something extraordinary is going on in the deep recesses of my mother’s mind, some eccentric nightly miracle, and no one has the faintest idea what it is. I know I can’t figure it out. All I can do it send a post out onto the internet, a tiny plea and a rallying call for the men and women doing brain research and trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s.
The cure was in the Pine Barrens last night.
But the director was out of control.