Some 35 years since the actor first played the time-traveling Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox, 59, is again looking both backward and forward in a poignant, beautifully written new memoir, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality.
Following two previous memoirs, Lucky Man and Always Looking Up, this book doesn't shy from his feelings of despair after struggling with health challenges since his Parkinson's disease diagnosis at age 29. In recent years he's also had to contend with a tumor on his spine ("I've been pelted with too many lemons to even think about lemonade,” he writes).
But Fox, who's been married to actress Tracy Pollan since 1988 (she played his girlfriend on Family Ties), tempers those sentiments with the appealing humor and gratitude that's brought him so many admirers through the years. You can read the introduction to this frank and moving new book, excerpted here, or listen to the audio version (narrated by Fox) below.
Introduction: Fall Guy
August 13, 2018, 6:30 a.m.
I'm going down. It's a flash fall. Vertical to horizontal in a blink. I twist my head to save my face from collision with the kitchen tile. What the hell just happened? I rise up on my right elbow, expecting to shift my weight to the left and push up onto my feet. Surprise: I can't feel my left arm. As my shock subsides, it's clear that I need help. Slithering forward on my belly toward the wall-mounted phone, I am a one-armed commando crawling under the table, across the floor, and through a thicket of chair legs, dragging a sandbag of a left arm that remains unresponsive and unavailable.
After thirty years of Parkinson's, I have established a sort of détente with the disease. We've had a history together. I've long realized that control is out of the question; instead, I've settled for an understanding that requires adaptability and resilience. PD is like the persistent and cutting jab of a boxer, manageable if I'm willing to do a little feinting and weaving. But then came the check hook; the blow that put me on my knees for a while. Unrelated to PD, a tumor had been found high on my spinal cord. The mass was benign, but constricting, and well on its way to leaving me paralyzed. Menacing all on its own, the defect necessitated high-risk surgery, which was completed just four months prior to this moment on the kitchen floor. Through the crucible of recovery and rehabilitation, I have gone from wheelchair to walker to cane to, at last, walking. And then this happened.
The day before the accident, I flew back to Manhattan from Martha's Vineyard, in the middle of our summer vacation. Tracy was concerned about me staying in New York by myself. I was still what we would both describe as “a little wobbly on my feet.” But I'd been asked to do a one-day cameo on a Spike Lee-produced movie, up in the Bronx, and it offered a brief window of independence. “I'll be back in two days,” I promised. “Save me a lobster.”
Schuyler, one of our twenty-five-year-old twin daughters, also needed to head back to the city for work, so we traveled home together. She lingered with me for dinner, take-out pasta at the kitchen table. Polishing off the last forkful, she had a question.
"How do you feel about going back to work?"
"I don't know, I guess I feel normal again."
"But are you nervous, Dood?” All of my kids call me that. Not Dude,
I flashed a confident smile. “Hey, it's my job. It's what I do.”
Sky offered to stay over in her old room, in case I needed her to fix breakfast in the morning or to help me get organized before leaving for the set. “Skeeter, I love you. I've done this a million times. You go back to your apartment, get some rest. I'll be fine.”
"Okay,” she said, “but promise me you won't..."
I finished her sentence “...walk with my cell phone.”
She smiled. It was a gentle reprimand, and deserved. I am an expert at walking and chewing gum at the same time, but the consensus is that I'm incapable of doing it safely with a phone in my hand. It wreaks havoc with my coordination.
"You got it.”
I hugged her good night and watched the elevator doors close. For the first time in months, I was alone.
Whatever it was that brought me down, it brought me down hard and in a hurry. I have fallen and — like that pitiable older woman splayed at the foot of the staircase, next to an upended laundry basket — I can't get up. I have a theory about pain: If an injury hurts immediately, I know for sure it's benign; but pain that intensifies after a few minutes is reporting real damage.
And now, here comes the pain.
A tiny transfer of weight to my left summons two revelations. One, a sleeve of hurt rockets down my useless arm; and two, I realize that my cell phone is in my pocket. I slipped it into the back of my sweatpants before I came into the kitchen. (Note to Schuyler: It wasn't in my hand.) My first instinct is to call Tracy, but she is five hours away on Martha's Vineyard, and I don't want to freak her out. Instead, I call my assistant, Nina, who jumps in a taxi and is on her way within minutes.
Oddly, I think of Jimmy Cagney, of all people. He once sent me a note on the first day of a new movie. Be on time, know your lines, and don't bump into the furniture. This morning, I was on schedule and I knew my two pages of dialogue, but the third point was a colossal fail.
While I wait for Nina, I slump on the kitchen floor, pissed off, my misery multiplying exponentially. I try to make sense out of this shit-show, but none of my all-purpose bromides and affirmations serve the moment. There is no spinning this. It's just pain and regret. There is no finding the positive and moving on to the next circumstance life has to offer. I feel something beyond frustration and anger, something akin to shame: embarrassment. Every day since the spinal cord surgery in April, everyone — doctors, family members, and friends — have repeated this message to me over and over. You have one job: Don't fall. Yet here I am.
This incident on the kitchen floor brings me down in more ways than one. It isn't that I am hurt; I've been hurt many times. I've been through a lot, suffered the slings and arrows. But for some reason, this just feels personal.
Make lemons into lemonade? Screw it — I'm out of the lemonade business.
EXCERPTED FROM NO TIME LIKE THE FUTURE. COPYRIGHT © 2020 BY MICHAEL J. FOX. EXCERPTED BY PERMISSION OF FLATIRON BOOKS, A DIVISION OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS. NO PART OF THIS EXCERPT MAY BE REPRODUCED OR REPRINTED WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER.
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