[22 September 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
“Hope is optimism informed by knowledge.”
For all my witticisms, for all my analysis of the cultural icon Michael J. Fox had become, his evolution from acting heartthrob to stem cell research activist to author and family man, and now reflecting on what his life has meant to me and how I might react to the tragic news of his death, I can’t help but fall speechless, neither a witty remark nor a smarmy pun to save my life. (Well, there’s a small one, but I’ll need humor to get through this article.)
Silence is perhaps the start, because however much I try to imagine that lackluster world, I always hit an almost insurmountable mental brick wall, lost at the shoreline of my vague emotions, like awaking in a dark, unfamiliar room, suddenly possessed by existential despair, no idea where the switch waits to light the way into the future. Silence offers a chance to think, to process. Silence gives us the opportunity to accept these celebrity tragedies, to grieve for a moment before we pull ourselves from the bed of depression and conquer the new day. Just as Fox writes about his experience waking each morning in his newest memoir Always Looking Up:
At the turn from our bedroom into the hallway, there is an old full-length mirror in a wooden frame. I can’t help but catch a glimpse of myself as I pass. Turning fully toward the glass, I consider what I see. This reflected version of myself, wet, shaking, rumpled, pinched, and slightly stooped, would be alarming were it not for the self-satisfied expression pasted across my face. I would ask the obvious question, “What are you smiling about?” but I already know the answer: “It just gets better from here.”
It’s that optimism, that smile that I will remember, mourn, and emulate (or at least try to emulate). Unfortunately, this piece isn’t about silence; it’s about Michael J. Fox, or more accurately, how Fox has been somehow woven into the fabric of this writer outside the spotlight named Justin Dimos. How can I start an honest discussion about what Fox has meant to me? How can I pull him apart from my 28 years of experience in this world? (He isn’t just an appendage of mine that I can study and somehow rationalize on a therapist’s couch after all.) And more to the point, how can I hope to imagine a world—even my small world—without him, especially now that he’s planted the seed of modern optimism and brave scientific innovation is so many of us 20-something folks who have watched him blossom over the decades?
After much silence—and staring at my blank computer screen for hours, unable to articulate the reasons why I’ve invested so much emotion is this public figure named Michael J. Fox, a man whom I’ve never met in person, a man I will probably never meet face-to-face—there comes only possibilities. There are no answers, no quick logical fixes to the mourning I know will suddenly surge to the surface when I hear the NPR announcement of his death one morning, but only misty, fragmented possibilities that will inevitably contribute to my quiet desperation; and though I don’t myself suffer from Parkinson’s, I’m positive that my friends and family will happen upon me and notice the “mask face” I can’t seem to budge, a bradykinesia of the heart.
* * *
“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.”
Perhaps you could attribute this celebrity attachment of mine to Fox’s presence throughout my lifetime. Though I can’t seem to remember much from my childhood, what I can remember are countless afternoons at my grandmother’s house, my brother and I huddled around the television watching reruns of Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton somehow connecting with family as he attempted yet another get-rich-quick scheme, usually (and often satirically) involving the republican party. I can remember watching Marty McFly charging the time circuits of the flux capacitor and driving his DeLorean back to 1955 as Doc Brown is gunned down, my parents prattling on about Christopher Llyod, all the while mesmerized by Fox’s charisma—I was just a kid back then after all. Let’s not forget about Teen Wolf (1985) and Doc Hollywood (1991) and The Frighteners (1996) and Spin City (1996–2000) and the dozen other movies and television shows that kept him constantly present in my daily existence (at least cinematically).
Thing is, I never once considered how his death would affect me back then. Even while my parents mourned the deaths of celebrities like James Cagney (1986) and Frank Sinatra (1998) as I was graduating high school, my idols weren’t the same, and I was far too young to bolster my emotions for their inevitable demise. Yet now, as I read and research more about Fox’s life achievements for this article, I find myself reminiscing about those cult classics that acted as markers in my life: basketball tryouts after watching Teen Wolf or that first date with an ex-girlfriend watching For Love or Money. Logically, I know Fox didn’t intentionally mean to punctuate the chapters of my life—why would he?—but since he moved to Los Angeles at 18 (before graduating high school even), found an agent, and landed his infamous television gig, he’s somehow acted as a kind of pop cultural guardian angel, lifting my spirits with his seemingly overzealous, keen acting ability.
* * *
“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”
And perhaps my connection to Fox can be attributed to how impressed I’ve been by the fortitude with which he’s made his decisions, too. One minute an actor drowning in a drinking problem, the next a sober, loving father and husband—he has never whined or complained about the cards he’s been dealt. He simply accepts his responsibilities and adjusts his life accordingly, and how many times I’ve skirted such hard decisions, instead choosing the path of least resistance? How many times have I envied Fox’s determination?
Especially now! Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, his brain sporadically electrifying his nerves, jumpstarting his limbs uncontrollably, he manages a smile; he continues to make guest appearances on shows like Scrubs and Rescue Me; he had become a superb example of husbandry and fatherhood despite his disease (and maybe because of his disease); and he’s even published two memoirs now, both of which have proven themselves to be two of the most honest, sincere, and inspirational books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read thousands of books!).
Personally speaking, just the idea of continuing ahead with my life as I struggle with a degenerative disease (say Alzheimer’s, for example) terrifies me. Part of myself constantly slipping away, forever lost, who wouldn’t be terrified? And yet Fox proceeds forward, unashamed, writing about his devotion to human development in Always Looking Up, neither flaunting nor denying his condition. Interview after interview, democratic commercial after commercial, he refuses to hide behind his Parkinson’s, but rather continues to educate and work towards a practical cure. How can you not love him?
“I didn’t want people to walk away from my testimony muttering, ‘Poor bastard.’ Rather, I hoped they would be thinking, ‘Maybe we can do this.’”
—Michael J. Fox
Perhaps I can’t seem to shake this confidence I have in Fox because of his recent activism and “eternal optimism.” For those of you who don’t understand exactly what Parkinson’s is, the disease is s a chronic and progressive degenerative neurological disease of the brain that impairs motor control, speech, and other functions, and there is currently no cure, which means Fox’s condition will only worsen as time progresses, his sinemet and carbidopa losing their effectiveness over the years, his entire body turning into a tremor just waiting to succumb to that infamous night.
Though Fox was diagnosed in 1991, he didn’t go public with his condition until 1998, two years into Spin City. I remember thinking, what? what the hell is Parkinson’s? Of course I had some hazy idea of its symptoms from specials on Muhammad Ali, but what did this mean for Fox? Obviously, Parkinson’s had to be a big deal, the new coverage alone told me that; and then watching CNN as they uttered the words “no known cure,” I knew then that something huge, something tragic, something unalterable as well was happening.
Of course, instead of sitting idly by as his brain progressively degenerated, brave Fox chose a new path, one that strayed from his previous career as an entertainer and lead him to launch a foundation that currently supplies millions in funding to research specifically directed at curing Parkinson’s—not just for himself, but for the countless others afflicted with this horrible, debilitating disease. Officially established by Fox in May 2000 (that’s only nine years ago) with the goal of eradicating Parkinson’s in the genetically predisposed and head trama victims, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has now become the largest private funder in the United States for medical research into the disease, second only to the federal government.
And he’s taken his licks for his advocacy as well, always with grace though. Remember his infamous Missouri campaign video for Senator Claire McCaskill, during which Fox showed millions of Americans the true face of Parkinson’s? And remember how the juvenile Rush Limbaugh attacked the video thereafter, footage of him waving his arms broadcasted on every station as he stupidly tried to imitate Fox’s genuine symptoms, calling him a faker and belittling Parkinson’s victims around the world? How inaccurate? How asinine? How revealing too, a testament to how desperately the United States (and the world at large) needed honest, forthright individuals like Michael J. Fox, men who understand the great potential of science, men who can capture our attention as we flip through channels, men who can help us realize the importance of issues such as stem cell research?
Truth be told, I wouldn’t have known the potential of stem cell research if not for Fox and his activism. I’ve never followed politics—always frustrated by the lack of definitive statements and carefully choreographed innuendo—but seeing Fox dance in his chair and involuntarily kick his feet somehow reached me. Of course any genuine Parkinson’s victim confessing their positions on stem cell research may have affected me similarly, but the fact that Fox chooses to boldly display his symptoms instead of preserving his pretty, glamorous memory as a celebrity compelled me to investigate.
Here was a man who didn’t need to attack Parkinson’s so rigorously, a man who could have quietly dealt with his disease and lived another thirty years without showing up on the political radar, yet inspired individuals like myself to learn more, to join his cause, to donate time and money, to write articles in praise of his achievements so others might follow suit and remember Fox for the achievements that have altered the very nature of the human race.
* * *
“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.”
—John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so much of Fox that he’s almost like family, like a distant relative who lives in a distant place, one who everyone references for his great achievements but nobody sees anymore. Culturally speaking, he’s become somewhat of an icon for the family, hasn’t he? Introduced to us as the older brother Alex, we’ve seen him give advice and hugs, we’ve seen him graduate high school and later dream of building hotels, we’ve seen him become an adult and dress in suits and work for the mayor. All his characters have aged beside us, discovering those life lessons that we too learned.
In a very real sense, we’ve adopted him, or at least I have. And now, he’s more a part of the national family than ever before. Though his books, through his advocacy, though his spirit of optimism, he has touched the American collective (and maybe even the global mindset) when it comes to scientific research. Additionally, he himself has become the kind of father I would love to become someday, teaching my son how to ride a bike around a baseball diamond, never succumbing to depression despite the overturned bills by former conservative presidents and his own physical restraints.
In essence, the fabric of his character inspires millions of people on a deeply personal, public, and scientific level, and for that, even after his death (hopefully long into the future), his example will endure. Fox has led; Fox has adapted and lived; Fox has undoubtedly effected change in the mind and hearts of those who dare to usher in a better future.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Perhaps it’s simply because I’m jealous. Pull back for a second, and just look at Fox’s accomplishments. Take a good look at his life and attitude. Married to the stunning, supportive actress Tracy Pollan, with four beautiful, charming kids, here’s a man who’s tasted fame, fortune, and success on levels I can’t even begin to imagine. He’s turned his degrading neurological disease into a positive development, transitioning from actor and assuming the public role as advocate of Parkinson’s treatments, stem cell research among those sponsored by his foundation. He’s befriended innumerable beckons of hope: Christopher Reeves, Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, and many more, too many to name here in fact. He’s even eaten dinner at the White House and played guitar with The Who for crying out loud. How could I not be jealous?
But jealousy doesn’t necessarily mean I want to covet everything that belongs to him, nor does it mean that I want to eat at the White House or suffer from Parkinson’s. The point being, I’m jealous of his full life, and his positive outlook that continually surprises me. How can one man make such a different in the lives of so many, especially when workaholics like myself can hardly effect change on such a grand scale, instead hording our savings, instead looking for new ways to simply pay back our student loans? Perhaps Fox has simply been lucky—as the title of his first memoir would suggest—but then again, perhaps it’s not luck that defines a person of any grade. (Would you think yourself lucky if you were neck deep in Parkinson’s aches and constantly jittery from medications?)
In essence, maybe my jealousy stems from Fox’s spirit of betterment, not his accomplishments, and maybe that’s what compels me to volunteer my time with developmentally disabled youth and donate to the scientific research that I really believe can influence the health of everyone and their families. Maybe there’s a fine line between jealousy and motivation (if there is a line between the two at all), but either way, he has my thanks for the inspiration to action he’s undoubtedly encouraged in me.
* * *
“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
Can you really imagine a world without Michael J. Fox? Because I can’t, and by that I mean, I can’t seem to subtract Fox from the formula that has resulted in the present world. Of course I know that his death will be mourned by millions around the world, and it’ll greatly affect people like myself who are greatly invested in stem cell research and cures to a myriad of diseases, but Fox seems to be more than that—he seems almost to epitomize humility. As he writes in Always Looking Up:
Sometimes when channel surfing, I am ambushed by the image of a younger, healthier me. Usually, I just carry on clicking, giving it no more thought than I would an infomercial. There are times though, I confess, when I will pause and set the remote on the coffee table for a minute or two—sometime longer.
Admittedly, flipping through the channels, I stop on anything involving Michael J. Fox, whether an interview or a corny movie from the ’80s; and I wonder if after his death, I’ll stop on one of his movies and no longer delight in his performance, but instead admire his perseverance. How large his obstacles must seem—even his morning ritual is magnified by extreme discomfort and pain—and how casually he proceeds to endure them, whether under the spotlight or offstage. How impressive! How memorable!
* * *
“Happiness grows in a direct proportion to your acceptance and an inverse proportion to your expectations.”
—Michael J. Fox
I’ve always been an overly ambitious person: master’s programs, working 60-hour weeks, submitting articles and freelancing in whatever spare time is left, and for what? For a few extra bucks and maybe a few comments from friends or readers? For a few love interests to swoon if and when I describe my accomplishments? Whereas Fox’s mentality is completely opposite mine, and he actually seems the better for it: a successful actor before even graduating high school, now enjoying a loving family, a famous nonprofit foundation that helps millions of people and advances scientific research, not because he needed to prove himself, but because (simply put) he accepted his own desires and dreams.
Truth be told, happiness is always a work in progress, just as life too is always ongoing, filled with complications and unexpected landmines. Having watched and read about Fox’s progression as he tamed his personal unrest only to have it manifest in his body after achieving such internal peace, perhaps I better understand the profound need to negotiate lifestyles and exorcize demons of all varieties. Our waking hours are finite after all, but the deeds we perform and the intentions of our actions can send ripples throughout history, however dramatically, however faintly. As Fox says:
Sleep, like waking, is not something I can sneak up on. It’s a negotiation, seeking consensus among all the bickering faction—mind, body, psyche—before I can simply lie down, close my eyes, and drift off to sleep.
Whatever the reasons for this deep connection I’ve singlehandedly manufactured, only one thing’s for certain: there’s an apprehension inside of me that knows the day will come when I hear of Fox’s death. Even as I finish the article, no closer to figuring out why exactly I’ve endowed him in particular with so much emotional weigh and placed so much importance on his activism and career, I still can’t imagine the afternoon after his death.
Though I’m certain Fox has made a significant impact on the world and his memory will continue to drive personal betterment and medical developments, a world without him and his optimistic smile now more than ever seems like an unfamiliar place. “That such a mensch, a good and decent man, a father, a husband, could be touched by this random life-changing calamity,” Fox writes about Christopher Reeve, “seemed to validate the dread we feel when a spouse is late driving home on a rainy night, or a kind takes to long to scramble up for a spill on the playground.” And that one statement encompasses how I feel now, as though Fox life is threatened (which it is), and there’s nothing I can do but wait for the good or bad news that awaits everyone in the future, the only comfort being that he lived (and continues to live each day) with a stern optimism that can hardly be defeated by death.