“I had been adamant that we have a child early in our marriage, very much fixated on the archetypal husband/father. Any space put between these two was too big of a space; to be a husband and not a father didn’t make sense to me. I’m sure Tracy conveyed reluctance or hesitation, but I failed to read her true feelings and to understand how severely maternity would disrupt her ascending career.”Michael J. Fox
Actor and advocate Michael J. Fox released a new book this month: No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality. I’ve read and loved two of his previous books. They provide a thoughtful and often humorous view of his journey living with Parkinson’s disease. Whereas the previous books put a lot of stock in optimism, this book grapples with the possibility optimism is ultimately inadequate.
Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s, a degenerative illness, in his late 20s. Despite physical decline, he continues to live a full and productive life. Fox has enjoyed remarkable success both in his acting and his fundraising efforts. His foundation supports scientific research to treat and hopefully find a cure for PD.
The above quote paints the portrait of a man who embarked on adulthood with a specific, and frankly self-serving, narrative in mind. Most of us born and raised Mormon can understand this. We enter adulthood with a called-and-chosen narrative fueling our expectations. Often, we fail to consider how our expectations may prove unrealistic, even harmful to ourselves and others.
“I didn’t miss being the leading man. I think of that Hollywood truism that explains the difference between a short actor and a short movie star: to appear taller in a shot, a short actor stands on a box, while a short movie star makes everyone else stand in a ditch. I had discovered the simple pleasures of the ditch, where vanity has no value.”
After his PD diagnosis, for a time Michael went into early retirement from acting. Then a call came from a friend and past collaborator, Bill Lawrence. Michael accepted Bill’s invitation to do a two-episode guest star gig on the sitcom Scrubs, playing a doctor with severe obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve got these episodes on DVD. Every time I think about them—like right now—I want to stop what I’m doing and go watch them. Brilliant, hilarious, and poignant storytelling. Previously a high-energy comedic leading man, Michael transitioned into playing darker, intriguingly problematic characters.
There is an underlying point to this, beyond praising his professional resiliency. As I read it, Michael has evolved from an early cocky optimism into a mindset of increasing gratitude coupled with acceptance for his limitations. In this book, Michael also presents readers with a true hero other than himself.
“I wouldn’t be here now, in whatever shape, were it not for Tracy’s infinite capacity to accept me as I am in the moment.”
Tracy Pollan and Michael met on his first hit show: Family Ties. Right off the bat, Tracy displayed the ability to keep Michael honest. In the decades since, they have become a wonderfully successful couple in and out of showbusiness. Tracy deserves her own book, given her considerable accomplishments as an actor, advocate, parent, and caretaker.
“…seriously, if optimism is my faith, I fear I’m losing my religion.
This is a new kind of thinking for me. Can you be an optimist and a realist at the same time?… I’m numb. Weary. Optimism, as a frame of mind, is not saving me.”
I have an uncle in Utah who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s years ago. Despite the disease, he and my aunt kept right on working hard as parents and grandparents, also completing several service missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And they kept right on being incredibly productive until earlier this year when my aunt died of pancreatic cancer. If only optimism were enough.
I sit here alone in my apartment on Thanksgiving. I enjoyed a pre-Thanksgiving fellowship on Zoom, a visit with my neighbor this morning in our shared yard, and a wonderful phone call with my folks. Still, I’ve been alone for most of my adult life—a very different narrative than the one I set out with at age 19. My intended narrative was quite like Michael J. Fox’s.
Back then, optimism was a drug I delivered to myself via unbridled faith. The reality has been far stranger, more problematic, and yet full of great opportunities like blogging for Wheat & Tares. Come what may, I have much for which I am truly grateful. How about you?
Book cover image from Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers.