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Book Review: Everybody Has a Window and Aisle Seat

Friday February 17, 2017

Everybody Has a Window and Aisle Seat: Choosing a Positive Approach to Parkinson’s Disease, by Mary Huston McLendon. Franklin, Tennessee: Cloverdale Publishing, 2015. 175 pp.

The first question a prospective reader will want answered about this book is what its title means. Mary Huston McLendon seems to believe that it is better to choose the window seat on the journey with Parkinson’s:

Every one of us has the choice between a window or aisle seat and choosing one or the other can make the trip frightening or comforting. Taking the window seat keeps you focused outward rather than inward, which lessens the possibility of feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and despair. You can always get to the aisle if need be. . . .

Sometimes when we focus so much on our ailments or issues, we are tempted to get into the aisle seat, buckle up, and never leave. . . . At times when we get so settled into the aisle seat we get focused on our own little space. And we lose focus on the world around us.  Don’t lose focus.

Get up, get unstuck, give back, and focus on living this wonderful life you have. (p. 13)

McLendon explains her title with a story about an agent at the Delta ticket counter in Baton Rouge who proudly announced that “everybody has a window and aisle seat.” The agent meant that it was a small airplane with only one seat on either side of the aisle. What are we to make of that story? Is the point that on that flight the passenger really does NOT have a choice, in which case the advice to choose the window seat is meaningless because the window and the aisle seats are one and the same? Or is the point that people with Parkinson’s are best off being in a seat that permits us to look both inward and outward? Or is the point that we should be in neither seat, but rather should “get up, get unstuck,” and leave the airplane?  But if we are to do that, what does that do to her advice, repeated at the end of the book: “Always choose a window seat, and buckle up” (p. 161). If everybody has both a window seat and an aisle seat, what’s to choose?

Everybody Has a Window and Aisle Seat is, like its title, unsure of its direction. It is partly the author’s memories of growing up in the South, partly a Parkinson’s log, partly advice to others with the disease, partly a thank-you letter to her family, partly a poetic chapbook.

McLendon had lived with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s for almost twenty years when she published her book. She tells us about it in long-line couplets:

                                    A Grim Diagnosis

The diagnosis was made with professionalism and much concern.
It is not every day that such devastating news a person will learn.

Parkinson’s disease — I was way too young — I was just fifty-four
I researched this disease (my disease) and learned much more.

Medications were available to slow down this progressive disease
Without hesitation this was an option I was very quick to seize.

Living with Parkinson’s gets harder each and every day
And I listen to and do everything my doc has had to say  (pp. 16–17)

There are more than 150 such italicized lines in the book, some of them punctuated, most of them not. It is not clear why McLendon tells some parts of her story in this prosaic verse, or what her notion of poetry is. Her idea of a couplet seems to be that two irregular lines of around a dozen to around twenty syllables constitute a stanza so long as they end in words that rhyme.

There is, however, much of interest in Everybody Has a Window and Aisle Seat. My own favorite parts are the DBS section (chapters 15, 16, and 17) and the speech section (chapter 19).

When her neurologist suggested that she consider the surgical option known as deep brain stimulation, McLendon did a lot of research on what DBS would entail: drilling holes in her skull, inserting wires deep in her brain, embedding rechargeable batteries in her chest, then hooking them all up and flipping the on-switch. In the end, she says, the decision to try DBS was “really pretty simple. I had to do something and I had very little choice if I wanted a shot at delaying the most debilitating effects of Parkinson’s” (p. 108). She describes the evaluations, the anxiety, the drilling sounds “like a jack hammer” (p. 113), the discomfort of “one awful headache” (p. 113), the painful battery-implantation surgery which “felt like a huge truck had rolled over my chest” (p. 117). Or, as she puts it in one of her poems:

My head is throbbing from electrodes in my brain bouncing to and fro.
And my chest muscles feel like I had a boob job with nothing to show. (pp. 117–18)

But all the discomfort was for McLendon more than compensated for when they turned on the power in her DBS unit: “My tremors stopped almost immediately. . . . I literally skipped out of the medical center after arriving hobbling on a cane” (p. 119). Would she make the decision to try DBS again? “You betcha. DBS gave me my life back.” But she then adds the ominous warning: “For how long, nobody knows” (p. 122).

My other favorite part of Everybody Has a Window and Aisle Seat is the chapter where McLendon talks about the frustration of losing her ability to speak. We tend to think of Parkinson’s as a movement disorder, a disease that slowly robs us of the ability to walk. McLendon reminds us that even more frustrating for some of us it is that it slowly robs us of the ability to talk. Let’s hear about that frustration in her own voice:

I was beginning to have issues when I talked. My voice had decreased in volume and I was difficult to hear, not what is ideal when your husband is very deaf and does not like to wear his hearing aids. Also, my hearing is so good, I feel like I am yelling while others say that is not the case. In addition to the softness of my voice, I was beginning to experience stuttering and also talking so fast that others could not understand what I said at times. (p. 135)

She tried speech therapy, but did not have much success. She had some success slowing her speech down by tapping out the syllables when she talked, but she found that to be distracting to her listeners. She tried pausing every few words and taking a deep breath at the end of each sentence, but sometimes her auditors assumed that she was finished and would “steal the spotlight” by interjecting their own thoughts. She remained frustrated:

In summary, speech therapy did not help much. This is the worst part of Parkinson’s that I have had to face because I really don’t have a feasible alternative for talking. My handwriting is illegible and I don’t know sign language. A solution so far has been for me to use one word to get across point when possible or prep my daughter or some other family member or friend so they can essentially translate for me. My good friends and members of my family will almost always try to help me by reading my lips, listening very intently, and generally letting me off the hook by finishing my sentences. This works OK but makes me feel like an incompetent stand-up comic. . . .

Talking to people that I don’t know well or to strangers really puts me in a twit. To speak or not to speak, that is the dilemma. My inclination is not to say much and when I do, I usually muddle through and leave them thinking that I am really “slow” or not all together, perhaps even a victim of a stroke or suffering from dementia. They may start to talk slowly so that I can understand and this gets me even more agitated and I talk faster because I want them to understand what is going on. And boy, is it hard to try to explain all of this to someone unfamiliar with Parkinson’s or the result of the disease. The bottom line is: What in the heck am I going to do?   (p. 136)

The answer to that question, for her, is to write a book. This is that book.

Peter G. BeidlerPeter G. Beidler
Peter G. Beidler

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