My Mum’s Parkinson’s Diagnosis, and climbing Mount Fuji at 70
My Mum the Travel Fanatic
My mum is now an official travel fanatic, and has visited more than 50 destinations, including Tibet, Hong Kong, Norway, Cambodia, Iraq, Bolivia, and Vietnam, and gives tips on her blog, Geriatric Traveller. She’s watched Usain Bolt break world records at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and even visited Kabul with me in Afghanistan – with a 24-hour armed guard. When my mum, now a grandmother of two, was diagnosed with Parkinson‘s in 2013 she vowed it would not stop her from seeing the world.
“I did a skydive for my 65th, but this is going to be my toughest challenge yet.”, Maura says. “ The Parkinson’s affects my balance and I can be a little unsteady on my feet so I know the climb is going to take some time, but come hell or high water I’m going to get to the top.”
LIFE GETTING IN THE WAY
My mum was bitten by the travel bug when she visited Morocco more than 50 years ago. She had just finished college and wanted to see somewhere exotic, but at the time Morocco was not exactly a tourist destination. Despite that, she loved meeting new people and living in a different culture.
However by her early 30s, after a period of unemployment, she had become a social worker and single mum to 2 small children, my sister, and I. By her own admission, “life got in the way”. She swapped her dreams of far-flung places for 2 family holidays to the a caravan park in France.
It wasn’t until 2007 that my mum got the chance to indulge her wanderlust again. I had moved to Thailand to teach English so she came out to visit me.
“Bangkok airport is huge and I missed my connection to meet Johnny”, she begins. “There were no other plans until the morning. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I love meeting new people, so I spent the whole night rambling around the terminal, drinking cups of coffee and chatting to anyone with a smattering of English – security guards, cleaners, airport staff. They were all so friendly. It was a brilliant start to the trip.”
The following year my mum and I were in the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics cheering as Usain Bolt set a new record in the 100m. As my blog grew, my mum began to accompany him on some of my trips. However, in 2013 she noticed her motor skills were beginning to deteriorate.
“I was struggling with buttons and zips on my backpack,” she explains. “My handwriting was ropey, and I’d developed a shake in my left leg. At first, I put it down to a trapped nerve, but as time wore on I knew I needed to see a doctor. I was referred to hospital for tests and an MRI scan.
“My biggest fear was a brain tumour, but I was still completely shocked when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It may have been the lesser of two evils, but it was still a lot to take in”.
My mum was given medication to ease her symptoms, but she knew it was progressive and would never be cured. “ I kept thinking, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” she explains. “Then one day I suddenly thought, Why not me? Why should I be any different to anyone else?”
“That brought me up by the heels and completely changed my mindset. Parkinson’s was the hand I’d been dealt and I had to make the best of it. I improved my diet, going vegetarian, and joined a gym, lifting weights and walking on the treadmill. Between that and the medication, my symptoms started to ease.”
Friends told my mum her diagnosis would mean an end to her travelling, but the plucky pensioner has other ideas. A few months later she jetted off to backpack around Peru and Ecuador. “Standing in the Andes watching the sunrise over Machu Picchu, I knew I wanted to see as much of the world as I could,” she remembers. She began her own blog, Geriatric Traveller, to share tips for older sightseers. Meanwhile, I began keeping a list of all the places she visited, calling it ‘Mum’s Countries’ and saving a note on her phone to keep up the motivation!
Afghanistan with my mum!
I was en route to visit every country in the world, and in 2016, I had some news for Mum. At the time we were both visiting my sister Aisling who lives in London with my nephew and niece 2 children, Romilly (6) and Jasper (4). “I had said that I’d organised a trip to Afghanistan, arranged by a security company”, my mum mentioned. “She asked to go with me, but I said it was too dangerous. That evening he had a Skype call with the security company and he told me I was there, and wanted to know if he would be safe. The man told him, of course he’d be safe – in fact he could bring his gran, his sister, his mum whoever. So my mum turned to me grinning and said, “That does it, I’m coming with you.”
So, in September 2016 my mum flew to Kabul to meet me at the airport.
“Kabul was the most incredible city, although we travelled everywhere under 24-hour armed guard”, she says. “Young boys were playing cricket in the dusty street, and I’ll never forget the locks in their eyes. Years of war had taken their toll. I hardly saw any women, and those who were outside were veiled. I kept my head covered, but most places were very welcoming, with restaurants beckoning us in to enjoy the traditional goat stew.”
Maura has visited more than 50 countries, sometimes meeting up with me, but often travelling alone. She recently did six weeks of backpacking in South America. “I love people watching – human beings fascinate me,” she says, “everywhere I go, I look for opportunities to chat to people and make friends. Language only has to be a barrier if you make it one. I look for the cheapest flights possible, which often means multiple connections. Airports are some of the safest places to spend the night, though, because they have high security.”
So my mum turned 70 last month, and next month, on July 7, my mum and I will join 16 others in Japan to climb Mount Fuji in aid of The Cure Parkinson’s Trust.
“I hope I’ll be travelling into the future, there’s a big, wide world out there and I’ve got so much left to see. Parkinson’s can wait!”
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