No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality
Michael J. Fox has played several iconic roles in his stellar acting career: his Marty McFly, Alex Keaton, and Mike Flaherty characters bear his indelible stamp.
But none of Fox’s performances on screen compare to the one he gives every day as the face and voice of Parkinson’s disease, a neuromuscular disorder that limits and slows movement. Afflicting an estimated one million Americans, with 60,000 new cases each year, PD causes tremors, rigidity, impaired balance, frozen facial expression, anxiety, and depression. A chronic condition, it worsens over time, and no cure is yet known.
For about 20 years Fox has been America’s highest-profile PD patient, through his leadership of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars.
Fox has infused the role with courage, humility and droll wit, the qualities that uplift his third memoir of life with PD, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality. But this time there are new kids on the block—resignation, doubt, and futility.
The title, which riffs on his McFly role in the 1980s Back to the Future films, hints at the hard truth of a progressive disease. Nearly 30 years into his battle against PD, Fox has bodily scars to prove it, as well as erosion of movement, expression, and speech.
The struggles described in his latest memoir suggest he is in Act 3 of his disease. Movement is a challenge. “I have to plan every step I take; no extraneous side trips of wasted effort,” Fox writes. “I have to think about the way I sit in a chair: Am I settled in the right way? I do an inventory of where my limbs are. All of this calculation and deliberation is rigorous work. . . . The required mental work is harder than the physical effort.”
And should Fox miscalculate he goes down. He details one disastrous fall, in his kitchen, which shatters his left arm from shoulder to elbow. The fall brings pain, and then guilt, for being careless, and letting down his wife and children. “My mood darkens,” Fox writes. “Even with all my health issues, I don’t believe I’ve ever fully grasped the very real depression and marginalization experienced by many who are ill and suffering.”
His broken arm comes on the heels of a delicate operation to remove a tumor from his spine that could have paralyzed him but didn’t. The combined stress of the two traumas pitch Fox into existential crisis. Fox writes: “Have I oversold optimism as a panacea, commodified hope? Have I been an honest broker with the Parkinson’s community? . . . . Things don’t always turn out. Sometimes things turn shitty. I have to tell people the whole deal . . . my optimism is suddenly finite.”
The darkness of Fox’s reckoning, as his memoir details, is mitigated by the circumstances of his exceptional and privileged life. He has a loving wife, the actress Tracy Pollan, four loving children, a home and office on New York’s City’s tony Upper East Side, another home on Long Island, and a dedicated support staff that sees to his personal and professional needs. He has access to the best physicians and clinicians in America. Fox riffs good-naturedly about his golf outings with celebrity friends Harlan Coben and George Stephanopoulos, and name-drops Keith Richards as a New Year’s Eve companion on a vacation to Turks and Caicos.
He recounts traveling to the secluded Himalayan nation of Bhutan to produce his 2009 documentary, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. His documentary reported on Bhutan’s unique development policy, known as “Gross National Happiness,” and described a mystical reduction of his Parkinson’s symptoms while he was there. He remembers telling a friend, “I can’t explain it and I don’t need to, as my physical presence—steady and spasm-free—says it all. As for my state of mind, I give an account of feeling grateful.”
That was then. Ten years later Fox struggles to rationalize optimism. Most PD patients don’t travel to Bhutan or enjoy the buffer Fox’s privileged life affords him. But all PD patients will identify with his philosophical wrestling match. Fox’s memoir is a reflection of the disease he writes about, a roller coaster of emotion, a narrative at times disjointed and disconnected, and an uncertain ending.
“When I visit the past now it is for wisdom and experience, not for regret or shame,” Fox concludes. “I don’t attempt to erase it, only to accept it. Whatever my physical circumstances are today, I will deal with them and remain present. If I fall, I will rise up. As for the future I haven’t been there yet. I only know that I have one. Until I don’t. The last thing we run out of is the future.”