The Daily Heller: Michael J. Fox’s Profile in Courage

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After learning of my Parkinson’s diagnosis over a decade ago, the first thing I did was write to Michael J. Fox, the TV and film star and activist who had been diagnosed with PD. I attempted to contact him through the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and thought I’d receive an immediate response. I’ve been so used to getting answers to emails sent to perfect strangers (and likewise respond to strangers who write to me), that I never doubted for a moment that I would eventually get a response. It never came.

After seeing the courageously candid documentary Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie about his lengthy bout with Parkinson’s (directed by Davis Guggenheim and currently streaming on Apple+), I understand why there was no response.

I wrote him the very day I got the news. I didn’t know what else to do. In the email I said I had no idea where to turn for support or guidance; all I was given from my doctor at the time was a pamphlet (that wasn’t even well-designed). Since Michael was diagnosed at the uncommonly young age of 29, and from 2000 was spearheading a foundation dedicated to finding a cure, who better to counsel me? I truly believed he would come to my aid. When I got the news I was already in my ’60s. I panicked. I was totally centered on myself. I actually had the illusion that I was the only person in the world that year to receive a PD diagnosis, so some message of hope, or at least just a few sympathetic words, would do.

Ultimately, he probably did not receive my email—and even if he did, if he catered to every PD person’s plea for whatever they needed, he’d be doing it nonstop for the rest of his days. Instead, he is a beacon. His job is to make the world aware that thousands of people are diagnosed each year, and science must find cures. His job is to raise funds for research. But his hardest job is to stave off the inevitable terror of his own disease.

Still is not a movie for everyone. In fact, I’m not even certain it was a movie for me. “Never read or watch anything, if you can avoid it, about Parkinson’s disease,” warned my doctor, underscoring the fact that everyone who gets PD has their own set of symptoms, and that is a toss of the dice. My PD started the same way as Michael’s, with slight tremors, but that’s were the similarity ends. Getting PD at an older age sometimes means the disease is more likely to move slowly, which is my case so far.

Still, is an abridged biography. The title riffs on the persistent movement disorder that is a hallmark of PD. The movie is punctuated by clips from Michael’s television and film roles that made him a star way before he turned 29; it continues with clips of scenes that he narrates to reveal the subtle signs of the disease that were occurring while he was trying to hide his condition for over 10 years after the diagnosis, before he admitted his malady to the world. The film ends with recent interviews, where his more visibly acute symptoms—more apparent than mine—are on camera for all to see. There are scenes of him with his therapist where he is learning to control his deteriorating balance and awkward jerking. There are also many comic moments, even as his PD worsens, which highlight his signature wit and incredible courage.

The best clip is from his guest appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where he gives his neighbor, Larry David, a bottle of carbonated water—that, once opened, explodes in David’s face because it had been shaken. David angrily says to Michael “What the …” and Fox replies with a sly grin, “It’s the Parkinson’s.”

I was moved to laugh and cry. There were painful moments for me, and I was prepared to stop watching. But I did not, reasoning if Michael J. Fox had the courage to allow this doc to be made, I should have the guts to watch it. When it was over I was given something I did not expect: the dose of hope that I was looking for when I wrote that unanswered email over a decade ago.

Posted inThe Daily Heller