In 2006, I walked into the warehouse where I would work (off and on — I tried screen printing elsewhere for a while) for the next thirteen years. Within its walls, something went seriously wrong for me. The building is home to a book manufacturer. As an art major with bills to pay, I had drifted into bookbinding shortly after graduation. Since 1993, my day-job has been in the printing industry. As a machine operator, it has always been said of me that I was pretty good with my hands. When one of them (the right and more dominant of the two) no longer functioned as smoothly, the reason why remained a mystery for months. Last week, I was reminded of the course of my decline. One morning, with a visit to the neurologist scheduled for that afternoon, I tried drawing as a way to measure my dexterity. Three attempts resulted in three wadded-up sheets of paper. My frustration led me to reflect on how things had gotten so bad. The first red flag that I can remember was raised while I was demonstrating a cutter program for a tour group.
It was on a machine very much like the one above. A handful of onlookers watched as I jogged their product into place. Having just come off a press, six printed panels had to be cut apart and stacked into a singular tower of text. My audience represented one of our biggest customers (one of the biggest companies in the world, in fact — a confidentiality agreement keeps me from saying which). With my back to them, I was getting through the program when my right arm began to shake uncontrollably. I willed it to work despite the weird vibration. Any hope that I had harbored that no one had noticed was dispelled when I turned around. Their expressions can best be described as compassionate alarm. A few asked questions about the process but with the tone of people addressing a developmentally disabled first-grader. My humiliation, eventually, waned to the point that I could wonder about my condition. That’s when I became aware of a startling truth.
My formerly dominant right hand had taken a backseat to my left. The keys that I had to press a thousand times a day were the sole domain of my no longer secondary digits. Why hadn’t that strange development ever dawned on me before? The safety guy, when I mentioned it to him, responded, “Yah, we didn’t know why you were holding your arm at your side like that.” What’s worse, I was soon diagnosed with adhesive capsulitis: frozen shoulder. An occupational health doctor blamed overuse. I went to physical therapy and got a steroid injection from an orthopedist, regained some range of motion yet still suffered from motor-control issues (at a restaurant once, I had to have Lisa cut my food). When I went back to see the specialist and told him that his shot hadn’t done the job, he replied as if it were obvious, “That’s because you have Parkinson’s.” A bad shoulder hadn’t caused my dexterity problems. A reliance on my other arm had caused my right one to seize up. It was so pathetically slow that I was inadvertently letting the limb go dormant. A three-month-wait to see a neurologist later, my worst fears were confirmed: I did, in fact, have Parkinson’s. It explained a lot, from my plodding pace (I have always preferred the adjectives ‘thorough’ and ‘methodical’) to my displeased expression (they call it ‘mask face’ and it’s the consequence of your features going slack) to my trouble speaking (a weak voice is yet another symptom). I had already taken leave from work. It allowed me to finish illustrating a novel, maybe my last. I finished the final drawing in March and hadn’t tried to sketch again until last week. At fifty years old, I worry that my art-making days are behind me. Of course, I mourn the loss. What surprises me is that I would ever miss a printing plant.