Michael J. Fox likens riding in a wheelchair to being “luggage,” but it is something he’s had to come to terms with in recent years. “The pusher is in charge,” he writes in his new book, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality. “I’m not expected to say much. Just sit still. No one listens to luggage.”
Over the past two years, the Back to the Future star, 59, strove to overcome a new set of health setbacks largely unrelated to his Parkinson’s disease. After hitting “bottom,” he’s left with a deeper feeling of gratitude for his life, his family and Tracy Pollan, 60, his wife of 32 years. “She really got me through everything,” he says.
Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, Michael, a father of four adult children, has found a way of living with the degenerative disorder. For many years he continued to act while he raised money and hope for a cure. To date, his eponymous foundation has funded more than $1 billion to Parkinson’s research although no miracle breakthrough has occurred. “I’d hoped we’d be out of business by now,” he admits.
Two years ago, after experiencing numbness in his legs, Michael underwent spinal surgery to remove a benign cyst. The growth had caused irreparable neurological damage but without intervention, Michael might have become paralyzed. It took four months of intense physical therapy for the actor to learn to walk again.
He thought the worst was behind him when he slipped and fell in his kitchen, shattering his arm, which needed 19 pins and a plate to repair. “That was definitely my darkest moment,” Michael confesses. “It was when I questioned everything … There is no bright side to this, no upside. This is just all regret and pain.”
The experience didn’t destroy Michael’s characteristic optimism, but it tempered it. Recently, he had a turtle tattooed on his inner arm as “a visual record of the power of resiliency.” Most of all, Michael’s trying to be grateful for the things he can still do rather than mourn what he has lost to Parkinson’s.
The now-retired actor admits that his compromised short-term memory makes learning scripts hard. “Not being able to speak reliably is [also] a game-breaker for an actor,” adds Michael, who had to stop playing guitar and sketching, too.
Yet, he insists he’s “made peace” with Parkinson’s, a “kind of a détente” centered on his small triumphs. “It takes up the space it takes, and it left me room to do other things and thrive: golf, friendships, travel.” He often can be found golfing in the company of pals Jimmy Fallon, Bill Murray, writer Harlan Coben and newsperson George Stephanopoulos. “[They] look past my difficulties in playing golf with Parkinson’s and embrace the truth that golf is hell for everyone,” Michael quips.
Writing has become a greater creative outlet than before and his life with Tracy and their kids, Sam, 31, twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, both 25, and daughter Esmé, 19, is a source of strength and pride. “The last couple of years have been trickier than most,” Michael admits. “But my gratitude is deeper now, from having gotten through the darkest times.”
For this story and more, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.