Bob Hardman: A Body in Motion
About “Bob Hardman: A Body in Motion”
I have wanted to document my dad’s battle with Parkinson’s for a long time. As many reporters can attest, it can be a hard transition from the detached impartiality required for most journalism to documenting someone close to you. For nearly ten years thoughts of interviewing my dad felt forced and, frankly, the idea scared me. Did I really want to know the difficult details of his battle with the disease? On a personal level I had gotten into the habit of assuming he was o.k., and only drawing from his general successes, not what is inevitably a progressive breakdown of the body. While visiting my parents a few months ago, I woke up one morning and saw my dad was getting ready to go to a Parkinson’s support event. I grabbed my recorder and a microphone and joined him.
The key to this story for me is that I did not set out with the intent of turning this into a Hallmark moment for public radio. I was uncomfortable talking to my dad about his condition, and putting myself in a comfortable place, with a microphone and recorder, I was able to transcend my fears. The more questions I asked, the more he opened up, it felt natural, it felt good. My dad asked me after the hour long Parkinson’s event was over, “is this going to be on the radio?” His voice rang with slight skepticism and a little fear. I paused, “I don’t know, but at least we’ll have it for ourselves.” He agreed.
After talking to my father some more, I started to wonder what my mom might say about the whole Parkinson’s deal. Unlike my dad, she is very vocal about it and the affect it has on her life. In many ways it has been harder on her. I caught my mom by surprise when we were driving somewhere, taking out the microphone and offering her a chance to fly. She flew. I think it helped that the lead up to the interview was informal. Family issues can be heavy, and sometimes I think making a formality of talking about it can get you the stock answers. I happened to catch my mom in the early morning, she’d been up all night because of my dad’s loud nightmares, and she seemed to be at a bit of a breaking point.
In search of some more material to use, I stumbled upon a creative solution.
I had left my parents house to get back to my life, and I wanted some more tape for what seemed to be shaping up to be a radio piece. I had somebody lend my mom a recording kit and show her how to use it. At first she was scared, but after a bit she got the hang of it and started to follow my dad around the house with the recorder. The dynamic was interesting to say the least. My mom’s recording captured something I probably could not have gotten, my parents at home, alone, doing what they do, unencumbered.
What ultimately made me want to do more with these recordings than just a family archive was the actual sound of my dad’s tremors. I feel like this sound in and of itself explains as well as any words what it is like to be in my dad’s body. You can probably come up with a sound to represent most physical illnesses, but few as powerful as the sound of Parkinson’s. I want people, regardless of what side of the stem-cell debate they are on, to hear that sound, to feel it, to Hear what is at stake for my dad.
Now that the work is done, I am a little nervous about how this story will be received. It is personal, not just for me, but for my parents too. I try to keep in mind that inevitably the hardest stories to tell are often the ones that resonate the most with the public. I hope this is the case with my father’s story.
I recorded this with a Sony minidisc recorder. This may sound rudimentary, but more than the technology, I think the size of the recorder can play a role, the smaller it is, the less imposing in a recording situation that is somewhat delicate and personal.
Jesse Hardman is a freelance reporter for NPR and related public radio programs. He’s currently serving as an International Knight Journalism Fellow in Lima, Peru. His father, Bob, is an Episcopal Priest who resides in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has lived with Parkinson’s disease for the last ten years.
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