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Book Review: Nan Little

Tuesday September 06, 2016

If I Can Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Why Can’t I Brush My Teeth?: Courage, Tenacity, and Love Meet Parkinson’s Disease, by Nan Little. Copyright 2015 by Nan Little. 232 pp.

Nan Little Book CoverNan Little’s name will be familiar to many as the driving force behind the local Pedaling for Parkinson’s program. She has been a frequent speaker at support groups and conferences. She has a doctorate in anthropology and is well-versed in Parkinson’s. Her book is honest, brave, and not for the faint-hearted. If you want to read an optimistic, hope-saturated book about Parkinson’s, If I Can Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, may not be the book you want to reach for first.

“Parkinson’s books tend to focus on positive aspects of having the disease,” Nan Little tells us on the first page of her book:

Whereas an upbeat attitude makes a huge difference in both slowing disease progression and determining how PwP’s are “doing,” a certain lie is embedded in this approach. Having an incurable disease, whether or not it’s a neurodegenerative one like mine, is a bad deal. Prognosis, diagnosis, and reality tell us that over time the disease will worsen and the patient will become increasingly debilitated, quite possibly even demented. It’s not a pretty prospect. No matter what resources a person has — intellectual, physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, or community-based — there is no denying that at some point the scales will tip in favor of the disease.

The embedded “lie” that she finds at the heart of most of the cheerful and optimistic books about Parkinson’s is that “if you just believe, and you try hard, you can do nearly anything. . . . I used to believe that was true.”

And that is just the first page. It is almost a warning. Nan Little seems to be saying: if you want to feel uplifted, don’t read my book.

But maybe you should read her book. It is the story of Nan Little’s own amazing journeys, her unwillingness to sit still, her refusal to give up too early.

The answer to the question asked in the title If I Can Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Why Can’t I Brush My Teeth? is of course Parkinson’s. As with many book titles, the real subject of the book is revealed in the subtitle: Courage, Tenacity, and Love Meet Parkinson’s Disease.

Courage. Anyone who has Parkinson’s or is in a close relationship with someone who has it, knows about courage: the courage to get out of bed in the morning, the courage to get oneself dressed, the courage to appear in public, the courage to try to get some work done today. Nan Little writes about another kind of courage, the courage to ride a bike across the state of Iowa when she can scarcely walk to the start line, the courage to trudge to the frozen summit of the highest mountain in Africa, just to prove to herself and others that Parkinson’s need not keep us from attempting to ascend to new heights.

Karl And Nan

Tenacity. Some people may find If I Can Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to be a busy book, to be longer and more repetitive than it needs to be. Some will wonder why Nan Little comes back so often to the issue of biking, why she tells us not only about her life-altering first ride across Iowa in 2009, but also the rides she undertook in 2010, 2012, and 2014. They will understand why she tells us about her climb to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2011, but not why she also tells us about the details of her climb to Annapurna in 2012, and to Machu Picchu in 2013. One way to answer those concerns is to remind readers that dealing with Parkinson’s demands tenacity. It was not just the first Iowa biking trip and the first mountain hiking trip that helped Nan Little manage her Parkinson’s symptoms. It was the others as well. Dealing with Parkinson’s is not doing something once and then knowing you’re done. It is not like getting a knee replacement and then just getting on with your life. Parkinson’s does not work that way. It persists. To fight its persistence requires tenacity. It means riding that bike again and again, climbing that mountain over and over.

Love. It is clear that love has been an important part of Nan Little’s struggle with Parkinson’s. Her husband Doug has struggled with her, supported her, encouraged her, teased her. And it is also clear that she is motivated in part to be as healthy as she can be so that she can be a help to the man she loves rather than a drag.   

The most important features of If I Can Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro come at the end of the long section (chapters 14–16) on the Kilimanjaro climb. Does Nan Little think we should we all fly to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro? Of course not. We all already climb other Kilimanjaros every day:

Every day of our lives — every day — we struggle to get up, to go swimming or dance or tai chi or whatever we do to get past our barriers. We struggle to ensure there is meaning in our lives.  Every day, we PwP’s climb a mountain higher than Mount Kilimanjaro — and no one is there to cheer. (141)

Nan Little speaks positively about the empowerment that comes from a fact-based attitude to our disease:

People with Parkinson’s can and should be empowered. We neither need to curl up and bemoan our diagnosis nor prove to anyone that we won’t let our disease slow us down. Parkinson’s will slow us down. Although perhaps we can be in control of our lives more than we are led to believe, the truth is that we have a progressive neurodegenerative disease that might be mitigated but won’t be cured by medicine, exercise, or belief systems. We are in complete charge of our attitudes, but only to some limited extent, our disease. (138)

We can convince ourselves that the disease will go away by itself, the way a cold does, or that a cure is just around the corner. Or we can cheerfully accept the facts and be grateful that our disease moves slowly and gives us so many good years. And we should absolutely not feel guilty. It is not our fault that we got this disease. It is not our fault that our disease may adversely affect the people we love:

When a person is told she can succeed if she only tries hard enough, there is an implicit underlying statement that if she does not succeed, she has not tried hard enough and somehow the failure rests in her, not in the course of the disease or something completely external. She is guilty if she fails. We have enough problems without adding guilt to the mixture. Stretching our goals is healthy. Beating ourselves up is not. (141)

The message of If I Can Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro is an important one: people with Parkinson’s did nothing to deserve this disease. They can do a little, but only a little, to fight it. But they can change their attitudes. They can stop feeling guilty, stop feeling sorry for themselves, smile, and do what they can to make life more pleasant for those they love.

Read Nan's book:

  1. Order from Amazon.com
  2. Check it out of NWPF's Lending Library - call 877.980.7500

Peter G. BeidlerPeter G. Beidler
Peter G. Beidler

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