Fritz Kleiner had been a skilled woodworker and musician. He could make elegant furniture or carve feathery terns in flight with an artist’s flair, and loved nothing better than to work hard. In one John Henry-esque incident, he challenged an automatic screwdriver to a race at a machine expo, and beat it hands down. Then, fifteen years ago, Fritz was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Plough talked with him recently about how this terrible disease has enriched his life in surprising ways.
What was your reaction when you heard that you had Parkinson’s?
What a shock! My first reaction was horror, though I didn’t really know what it would mean. I soon learned that Parkinson’s is a disease that slowly hinders your movements and mobility. It plays havoc with your emotions and makes your speech incoherent. It makes you incapable of what you have always done with ease. One of the tell-tale signs is the tremor in your hand. You suddenly realize that you can’t stop the shaking hand. Of course, no two cases of Parkinson’s are exactly alike.
Had you known anyone with the disease before it hit you?
I remember an older man who lived close to me, who had Parkinson’s and could hardly walk. He would get spasms of “freezing” as they call it, where he could not move forward and was stuck. His caregiver would patiently wait and help him to relax so the freeze would pass and they could move on.
Have you found support among others with your condition, or been able to help them?
When I lived in England recently, I joined a club for people with Parkinson’s. We were about 60 people. We would get together and do activities such as hiking outings to places of interest, concerts, and garden parties. I enjoyed meeting with these people whom I would never have known otherwise, and I am thankful for how we could support and encourage one another. I would tell them what a gift community is, where we can share everything, even the burden of sickness.
I’ve heard that as a musician you still perform at public events, and even on the street and for your colleagues at work.
Some years ago I was given two harmonicas, which I know are expensive. So I try my best to play them. I cannot play very well, but I enjoy it, and take any occasion to bring cheer. I have played those harmonicas in all kinds of unlikely places, from busking on the streets of Canterbury to performing for a group of 100 prisoners in South America. It has always given me, and hopefully my listeners, a lot of joy.
Actually, one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s is a lack of air, so one’s speech becomes quieter and quieter. My doctor wanted to sign me up for breathing exercises, but I declined and said, “Forget it.” Well, to my surprise, by playing the harmonica I have made my own therapy. I wasn’t able to play many songs to begin with, but now I can play and play.
Another plus to playing the harmonica is that it builds relationships. I made friends with a little group of school boys who asked me to teach them to play. They were so enthusiastic and eager, and have now formed a band.
Is there any effective treatment for Parkinson’s?
One of the things I had to accept early on was the use of medication. I knew it would not cure Parkinson’s, but it does help forestall it and allows me to continue to work.
Another aspect of Parkinson’s is forgetfulness, or I suddenly go blank and don’t know what to say or do next. This calls for a lot of patience and forgiveness on the part of my wife!
One of the most wonderful things my wife and I were able to do together was to ask the pastors of our church for “the laying on of hands.” We read in the Bible that in the early church those who had sickness would be granted this special prayer. There has been no miraculous healing as a result, but it has given us a lot of courage and peace of heart, and we thank God every day for his love to us. I give him all the glory, and he helps me along.