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The Riehl World: We Called Him Shaky

By Richard Riehl

We called him “Shaky.” Not to his face, of course. We were first year college men, all grown up, except for our adolescent understanding of a world away from home. We saw Shaky as just another very old man, probably in his fifties. He ate alone in our dining hall each day, hands shaking. We stifled our laughter from across the room.

St. Martin’s, a small college run by Benedictine monks, welcomed all who were in need and willing to work on the Abbey grounds. We saw Shaky as just another hungry and homeless no account.

Looking back, after nearly sixty years, I think our laughter was whistling in the dark. We could never become a version of that silly-looking old man, could we?

Karen and I had lunch yesterday with our new friends in the dining room of our senior living community. I ordered my usual half-cup of decaffeinated coffee, having learned from experience that sipping from a brimming cup of hot caffeine would not end well for me.

This time my anxiety over how my trembling hands appear to others triggered a flashback to Shaky.  I knew, of course, that in this dining room we were all locked in the losing game of aging. I need not worry about being singled out. But now I worry that some may pity me for suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a far more disabling condition than mine.

Although my tremors resemble Parkinson’s symptoms, mine are caused by a relatively mild case of Essential Tremor, a nerve disorder that causes involuntary and rhythmic shaking that can affect almost any part of the body. I first heard about ET from my older brother, whose tremors became socially intolerable. He underwent deep brain surgery to reduce their effect. The result was effective enough to reduce, although not eliminate, his tremors.

Mine, fortunately, are not nearly as disabling.

After researching this disorder, I learned most cases of ET can be attributed to a family history of it. My maternal grandfather had it. When I was 12-years-old I remember seeing his hands shake and asking my mother why. She told me it was just old age. I didn’t ask why my other grandfather, who was older, didn’t have the same problem. But, since I also could not imagine ever being that old, I saw no threat to my own future.

My mother had it in her jaw, resulting in trembling lips. I wondered about that over the years, but just attributed it to a worried mother’s nervousness.

I first discovered my shaking hands in my late forties, after an hour of heavy yardwork. Since it went away after I rested for a while, I figured it was just caused by fatigue as I grew older.

As the years went by my tremors became evident to others. On social occasions I increasingly became unable to control the trembling of my right hand in using silverware and in carrying glasses of water and wine. I switched from Cabernet to Chardonnay. No big sacrifice.

Fortunately, my work as a university administrator was not affected by my trembling hands, except when I had to go out to lunch with a colleague and was a bit embarrassed by not being able to manage the silverware as well.

In my first year of retirement I was hired as a consultant to another university for a month. At the conclusion of my work there I was given a going away party. I thought I’d reciprocate by playing them a tune on my banjo that I composed for the occasion. At the time, my hands were behaving themselves, so I was confident I could pull off a performance. But the stress of the moment got the better of me. My fingers refused to do their duty on my instrument. I sang the song, but the banjo playing was embarrassing. The occasion was made worse when I attempted to carry a full glass of lemonade to my table. There were lots of “no problem” assurances when they cleaned up my spilled glass, but it was an embarrassing end to my consultation.

My other challenge in retirement came from being hired as an opinion writer for our local newspaper, the North County Times. I had a biweekly column, but I’d pretty much lost the use of my typing ability. Fortunately, voice recognition software came to my rescue, so I didn’t miss a deadline.

Strangely, I’m typing this on my computer right now, without the need for voice recognition software. I’ve learned that the effects of ET vary from day to day, even hour to hour. Each evening I practice juggling three cushioned leather balls. On good days I can keep them in the air with 50 tosses. On bad days the balls zoom across the room in all directions. I’m having a good day this morning, but we’ll see how the afternoon goes.

In managing my problem I’ve used some workarounds. Like using both hands to shave and for other tasks that I used to be able to do with one hand. I’ve also discovered that my left hand is steadier than my right. So, I’ve become a left-hander at the table, in using the silverware and in holding glasses and half-full coffee cups.

One hobby I took up when I retired 15 years ago was building balsa wood model airplanes. I haven’t been able to do that for the last 7 years.

But I’m not complaining. I’ve joined an ET Facebook support group and have met online the many ET sufferers of all ages who have faced much greater challenges than I.

According to the Essential Tremor International Foundation (https://www.essentialtremor.org/), 7 to 10 million Americans suffer from the disorder. James Parkinson first distinguished essential tremor from other tremor disorders, including the disease that carries his namesake, in 1817,

The bottom line for all of us is that so few people know about the disorder. When they see someone shaking, they make all kinds of generalizations, from they’ve got Parkinson’s to they’re very nervous, frightened, or drunk.

I don’t know if Shaky had ET, Parkinson’s, or some other disorder. But everyone who has it is faced with being judged on social occasions. I’m hoping this article will help in some modest way.