Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
The Other Side
By Larry Schreiber
From the east window of my living room, I can see Lobo Peak.
My home is in a valley, in San Cristobal, New Mexico. I’m surrounded by mountains. I know all their names: Pueblo Peak, El Salto, Lobo; to the west, San Antonio and Ute; southwest, Picuris Peak, Truchas and Jemez. Sometimes, up in the mountains, I can just about make out Georgia O’Keefe’s Pedernal.
Names are important. Naming anything brings it closer, as if it’s a secret you’ve found out. Like naming a disease. Does naming it bring it closer? Do you then become the disease? Are you still the same person, but in a new geography? As a doctor, I’m always looking for the name—could it be idiopathic Parkinson's? Or, Parkinson’s-like symptoms, caused by a stroke or head trauma? It’s my job to name it.
There’s something in a name that holds me to it; as when the neurologist confirmed the name of what I knew but rationalized away for years: Parkinson’s.
I love my home in San Cristobal. What I see through my east window is the mountain range that I’ve climbed over and over, naming the peaks as I ascend, like a chant. The mountains are as familiar to me as the names of my children; they are longtime friends.
I always think of mountains as female. I don’t why. They are to me welcoming, nurturing, unpredictable. We seem at first to climb their skirts, climbing to their shoulders to see the world in a new way. I have a favorite trail: Gavilan. There’s no peak, just a ridge, where, when I reach it, I can see the other side.
Seeing the other side is one of those “oh” moments. You’ve climbed a mountain with which you are familiar; your world becomes magnified. You see a whole new perspective. It’s a gift. But you can’t see the other side unless you reach the ridge; then it is like suddenly finding another room in your home. And every season there is newness, and every hour the light changes.
I have clarity in the mountains; density in my physical being. I know there must be another side to this life, but I can’t believe in it yet. When I’m in the mountains, I feel as if I know an answer to a question that has no words.
Why am I so clear there and so doubtful down below?
On the ridge of Gavilan, the mountains change their colors: the light is gold at mid-day, in the meadow below the ridge, aspens shiver, and the greens are bright and silver, or tinted with a plum color…the sky behind them goes from a deep sea blue, to a light paleness, almost white. All color here is subtle, you must really look. The clouds come
upon you quickly, warning you to leave. You see what we call “walking rain” a vertical dark smudge in the sky, moving toward you. On any ridge, lightening comes swiftly, sometimes only one or two seconds separate from the thunder. Sometimes you feel the hair on your neck rise, and quickly you begin your journey down. She has shown her other side.
On Gavilan, you are surrounded by the other peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range: Wheeler, Simpson, Walter, Kachina and Lake Fork. Wheeler Peak is the highest in New Mexico, at 13,161 feet. People who love mountains, love to name the height of them. No matter how doubtful I am, when I climb, it’s as if I’ve found my church.
Parkinson’s affects your balance and makes your legs heavier, so you have to work harder physically to accomplish what once came naturally. I must consciously lift one leg at a time, and it’s like I’m climbing even when I’m on flat ground. Three years ago, already been diagnosed for several years, I knew I could no longer technically climb, that I would no longer be on ropes, or hopping over crevasses. What persuaded me to reach for one of the great mountains? I picked Kilimanjaro because it was not a technical climb; you don’t need ropes, or crampons, or ice axe. And, it is one of the Seven Summits. The highest point in Africa. Was I totally irresponsible? Selfish? I can’t seem to answer that.
When climbing up hill and pushing your body, you focus only on the breath, and sometimes when its steep, like on Kilimanjaro, I’d only be able to take 20 steps, lean over my walking stick, breathe, listen to my heart. But it is this very physical exhaustion that is so exhilarating— even the suffering.
I went to Kilimanjaro in 2011, I took the photo of my adopted son, Kevin with me. He had died a year before, and I had buried his ashes on the north ridge, just above our home in San Cristobal. A spot I’m drawn to every day. To remember. My son. What could be more fitting than to leave his photo, this beautiful and tragic African-American boy, on the highest point in Africa? Perhaps that was my real goal. To reach a kind of freedom, or Uhuru.
What will my freedom be? Bradykinesia, tremor, freezing gait—can I surmount these names? Are they simply names? Will I get to the other side? Is there an Uhuru point for me, metaphysically? Will I see another Mt. Meru, or just darkness? When on Kilimanjaro on the ridge on route to the summit, there was spread before me, Tanzania’s Mt. Meru, the vast gold plains of Africa, the sun rising on one side and the full moon setting on the other.
Naming is a way of gaining control. Parkinson’s does not own me. It is with me when I awake and when I fall asleep. Just as Lobo Peak is, just as my hair, my genes, and personality are with me. Parkinson’s slows my climb up the mountain but it cannot stop it. The inner vibration that shakes the soul. The tremor, the slowness, the muscle rigidity are always with me. It is accelerated aging. It is not what I anticipated. Today I walked in the snow with spikes on my boots to Williams Lake at the foot of Mount Wheeler at 11,000 feet-slowly. Naming the peaks as I passed- Spoon Mountain, Wheeler, Lake Fork. Parkinson’s is a significant crack in the road. One I have to go through to reach the other side. Parkinson’s Disease is only a name; it does not define me.
Larry Schreiber M.D., has lived and practiced medicine in Northern New Mexico for thirty-nine years. Schreiber is the proud father of fourteen children, ten of whom are adopted from around the world. He has been the Hospice Medical Director for Mountain Home Hospice of Taos since 1995. Schreiber worked as a medical team leader for the International Committee of the Red Cross on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980. He was the co-founder of Child-Rite, which for twenty years placed 248 special needs children in New Mexico homes at no cost to the families. For the last six years, he has been writing a memoir-in-progress, titled “Do No Harm.” His stories run the gamut—
his many children growing up, and down, experiences in the Indian Health Service, working in a war zone, caring for the dying in a rural community. Schreiber’s upcoming publications include the journals, War, Literature and the Arts, Anak Sastra, Lime Hawk Literary Arts Collective, Dirty Chai, No Bullshit Review and Eastern Iowa Review. Dr. Schreiber is married to poet Catherine Strisik. They live in San Cristobal, New Mexico.