'I'm out of the lemonade business': Michael J. Fox on the day his optimism ran out
In a new memoir, the famously upbeat actor describes battling back from a brutal year
Originally published on Nov. 17, 2020
Michael J. Fox was lying on his kitchen floor with a crushed arm, unable to reach the phone to call for help, when his optimism finally ran out.
It was 2018, and the famously upbeat Canadian-born actor was having a terrible year. For nearly three decades, Fox has battled Parkinson's, a brain disorder that strikes the nervous system and leads to difficulty with the most basic actions such as walking and speaking.
On New Year's Eve, Fox was at a resort in Turks and Caicos and bumped into Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. "I realized that Keith Richards looked better than I felt," quips Fox in an interview with Q host Tom Power.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Early in the year, Fox's father-in-law passed away. Soon after, the actor noticed he wasn't only having gait issues because of his Parkinson's: he was having difficulty walking because his legs were going numb. Doctors diagnosed a tumour on his spine.
The good news was the tumour was benign; the bad news was it would eventually paralyze him. Surgeons said it was too risky to operate, but Fox found a top doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore who was willing to perform the procedure. Then the actor spent much of 2018 learning how to walk again.
"People say, 'I had to learn to walk again,' and I think sometimes they mean they had to get a balanced stride or get an evenness with their pace. I had to literally learn to pick up my foot, put it in front of the other foot, and then transfer my balance over the other foot," he says. "It was quite painstaking."
That was the point where I went 'I'm out of the freakin' lemonade business. I can't put a shiny face on this. This sucks, and who am I to tell people to be optimistic?'- Michael J. Fox
Fox found himself constantly surrounded by care aides and other people, and felt "a suffocating loss of privacy." Finally, by late summer he was able to move independently, and he told everyone to leave him alone and give him some space.
"I squandered it by going too fast down a hallway and turning into the kitchen, slipping on a tile and crushing my arm," says Fox, who couldn't reach the phone to call for help. "I had to get my arm rebuilt.
"That was the point where I went 'I'm out of the freakin' lemonade business. I can't put a shiny face on this. This sucks, and who am I to tell people to be optimistic?'" he says.
"People have a lot worse than this to deal with, and I have a broken arm and a bad back and Parkinson's and I'm whining and squealing and complaining. So what good has optimism done me? And that began a kind of a semi-quasi journey to find my way back to being an optimistic person."
No Time Like the Future
That journey is captured in Fox's new memoir, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality.
Of course Fox is best known as the actor in hit TV shows including Family Ties and Spin City, and in the classic teen adventure flick Back to the Future, or the alcohol- and drug-fueled Bright Lights, Big City.
First diagnosed at age 29, he has also been a tireless advocate for Parkinson's awareness, research and treatment, and founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
His two earlier memoirs, Lucky Man and Always Looking Up, chronicled his experience of the disease, and centred around his trademark optimism.
But his latest book strikes a decidedly different tone, one largely inspired by the notes he took during his exceptionally terrible year.
"I took all these notes, and I said, 'There's a story here to tell.' And for some reason I feel like telling it," says Fox, who has been hunkered down at home with his family during COVID-19.
"I mean, who knows why we do these things. I didn't necessarily think, 'Oh, there's an audience for this' or whatever. I just thought, 'I'm compelled to put this down.'"
In No Time Like the Future, Fox explores illness, aging and death, as well as the importance of celebrating friends and family — in particular the deep gratitude he feels for his four kids and his wife of three decades, actress Tracy Pollan.
"Somebody asked her the secret of a 30-year marriage and she said, 'The benefit of the doubt.' But it's really true. I could perceive a slight in something you said, or I can say, 'Nah, you wouldn't have meant that,'" he explains. "Or I may say, 'I didn't mean that,' but I get the benefit of the doubt going in."
Fox says they always took the same approach with their kids, and that rather than grumbling about this or that, he would say things like, "Hey, how are you doing? Glad to see you coming through the door."
"It's just that kind of family. And I always put a gloss on it, but I don't remember having loud, angry words with any of my children, and I don't treat my wife that way. We talk like we like each other. And that's the key to it."
'That's just who I am'
During his darkest months, Fox found himself spending long hours watching "crappy television," much of which existed before he was born — and it got him thinking about how his kids could end up watching reruns of his shows.
"Someday my kids will be watching me when I'm long gone, and I'm survived only by my reruns. And that made me think about mortality, in a kind of an odd way, in a funny way," says Fox.
He also thought about how he used to move, and found optimism in the fact that he could still find ways to express himself physically. People ask Fox if he ever watches reruns of himself and he says no, he usually changes the channel to a football game.
Still, the question got him thinking, and one day he called up Lonnie Ali, the wife of late boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who also suffered from Parkinson's disease.
"I said, 'Did Ali ever see himself on television or film and see the old footage of himself in the old Cassius Clay days and a little later, when he was dynamic and expressive and poetic and a physical wonder?" remembers Fox.
She answered that yes, he did, and it didn't make him feel sad for his loss of his physical ability; on the contrary, he loved it — so much so that he would watch for hours.
"And I thought, 'Well that's cool. He accepts and realizes it's great to have been that. It's great to have done that.' So I took something from that," says Fox.
Fox also tried to look at his experience through the lens of the people in his life, and all they had done for him.
"And then my father-in-law, I thought about him and about the gratitude he always expressed, and I just came to a place where I said, 'That's just who I am. And it's just the way I respond to things regardless of this gauntlet I went through.'"
'There's no soft piano music here'
Still, Fox is quick to point out that the book isn't all about gratitude and appreciation and coming through dark times; in fact he questioned whether he had, in the past, put too bright a spin on his circumstance.
"The way I put it in the book was, 'Had I offered optimism as a panacea? Had I commodified hope? Had I been so glib about my positive experiences that it had been counter-productive or not sincere?"
With disabled people in a lot of media, and a lot of film and television, they play the soft piano music until they accomplish their meagre goal and then it rises to a crescendo. There's no soft piano music here. I'm not trying to manipulate anybody into feeling like it's all going to be great.- Michael J. Fox
Rather, No Time Like the Future is about being honest about both life's highs and deep lows — especially when it comes to living with disability. When friends would ask what the book was going to be like, he jokingly answered, "Cranky."
"With disabled people in a lot of media, and a lot of film and television, they play the soft piano music until they accomplish their meagre goal and then it rises to a crescendo. There's no soft piano music here. I'm not trying to manipulate anybody into feeling like it's all going to be great," he says.
"It's just like, 'This is my experience. And I think it'll be okay, but maybe you might think different.'"
As its title promises, the book also confronts mortality — and in the end, Fox finds promise, and humour, even under the spectre of death.
"It all comes down to mortality. I mean, you're trying to figure all this stuff out and then you die," quips Fox.
"But I thought about the idea of the future, and then it came to me that the future is the last thing we run out of. We run out of breath. We run out of everything. Then there comes a point where we have no more future and that's the end of it," he says.
"But until then there's always something in the future to be optimistic about, to look forward to. It may change our circumstances or it may not, but that will run out, so enjoy it while you have it."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Mitch Pollock.