Sunday, May 12, 2013

Boston Chicken, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Michael J. Fox

The day began like any other New England summer day: hot, humid, and unremarkable. It was the summer before my senior year in high school and I had just started my first job. Minimum wage—$5.00 at the time—at a local market, stocking shelves, working the register, cleaning the meat and fish coolers, and best of all, killing thousands of cockroaches in the dark, dank basement. My skills with a can of Raid were unparalleled.

My mother picked me up at 6pm. The ride home was silent as I was in my usual post-work catatonic state. Plus, I was 16. Conversations with my parents didn't involve much more than a head nod and "uh huh". (To be fair, at 32, not much has changed.) My mom mentioned something about dinner, I mumbled something back, and we stopped at Boston Chicken for take-out. This was before they expanded their menu and changed the name to Boston Market, changes I still have not fully accepted. I don’t know where my brother was and I think my dad was at work—more likely golfing—so it was just the two of us for dinner. I got my usual: one half-chicken, white meat; side of mashed potatoes with gravy; side of cinnamon apples; and a piece of cornbread. My mother’s meal was identical, except for a smaller piece of chicken. I guess we're all a lot more similar to our parents than we're willing to admit.

When we got home, I placed the dinners on the table and my mom poured a glass of milk for each of us—chocolate for me, of course. Before she even sat down I was halfway done with my side dishes. After a day in the cockroach-infested dungeon, the sweet smell of those cinnamon apples chased the manners my mom had instilled in me right out the window. If I wasn’t in a Raid-induced daze with my mouth full of potatoes and apples, I might have noticed that something was bothering my mom, something more serious than my lack of table manners. In fact, I was grateful for her unusual silence, allowing me to enjoy my meal and avoid the usual one-sided dinner conversation.

She eventually sat down and began her meal. After only a few bites, she finally spoke:

“Geoff, I have to talk to you about something.”

I knew it. I did something wrong and I was about to feel her wrath.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lately, my right arm has been shaking.”

Actually, I had noticed. But I couldn’t possibly have caused that, right? (Ahhh the narcissism of youth.) Where was this going?

“Well, a couple weeks ago, I went to the doctor to check it out. He did some tests and well, he told me I have Parkinson’s disease.”

At that age—to this day, really—I did not have a full understanding of the disease; I just knew it was bad. And I don't know if there's a technical term for the searing pain I felt tearing a hole in my stomach as my mother told me about her disease, but I knew it was also bad, and I knew that no amount of cinnamon apples or rotisserie chicken was ever going to fill that hole.

Almost a year after my mother told me about her condition, a very peculiar thing started to happen to me. It had been building inside of me that whole year and I couldn’t really put my finger on it. One incident in particular marked a drastic change for me personally. When I came home from school one day, I found a People magazine on the coffee table in the family room. Apparently, my mom, who rarely bought People, had left it out. On the cover of the magazine was Michael J. Fox, with the announcement that he had been battling Parkinson’s disease for the past 7 years. So, instead of watching tv for the next 6 hours as usual, I started to read.

Or tried to read. About three paragraphs in, my throat began to tighten up, my heart beat a little faster, and a watery substance began leaking from my eyes. I could barely finish the article. I had to go to the bathroom to wipe the snot off my upper lip. I felt like a 6-year-old who fell off his bike and scraped his knees. It was pathetic.

I started asking the same questions I asked when my mother told me she had the disease: How could this happen to such a good person? He’s one of the greatest, most popular actors of our time. Yeah, he also made Life with Mikey, but he he didn't deserve this.

I cried for many reasons as I read the article. When my mom first told me, I cried out of sheer shock. It didn't actually sink in. It took a full year, and a celebrity coming out with the disease, for everything to fully register. Hearing my mom say she had the disease felt like being in a movie. I wasn’t used to my reality being that serious. In turn, hearing Marty McFly say he had the same disease destroyed the facade. It was so surreal hearing this actor (an actor who played a few of my favorite characters and had established himself permanently into my imagination) discuss the hardships of his disease, that it actually made me realize the reality of my mother's condition. I needed someone from the entertainment world—virtual reality—talking about the disease to make my mother's situation real. That's got to be some kind of new phenomenon caused by the over-saturation of pop culture. Or it's just me.

There's more to it than that, of course. The fact is, there was a lot about the People article that really shed light on my mom’s situation, as well as my own. I learned a lot about the disease itself, but I also learned a lot about the man and his family. Although he was a wild partier and drinker once, especially in the Alex P. Keaton days, Fox was always considered one of the nice guys in Hollywood. He married Family Ties co-star Tracy Pollan in 1988 and had four kids with her. Unlike Hollywood flash-marriages that we read about every weekend, they are still together. So that was another reason his experience was so relatable to my mom's experience. The long term marriage that is, not the partying and heavy drinking.

A big difference was that my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson's in her early 50's. Fox was diagnosed with the disease in 1991, at the tender age of 30 years old. 30?! I'm 32!! Shit! Anyways, he battled with the decision to go public for 7 years. Fox felt that even the few people that knew of his condition treated him differently, so he kept it a secret as best he could to protect his career. The people that got him through it all were his family, of course. His wife and his kids really provided the strength he needed. That was the part of the article that really got to me. His kids, who are all younger than me, were in the same situation as I was: something was wrong with one of the people we loved the most and we didn’t have a clue what to do. I could easily relate to the fear and confusion that his kids were going through.

What the article really did for me was show me that other people are going through this, too. Even a Hollywood actor—a person basically above the law and above normal social standards in this country—can be afflicted by this awful disease. They, and their families, hurt just as much as the average person. The grace, courage, and the dignity Michael J. Fox displayed in confronting the disease was and is really inspiring. A perfect example of this was the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which he appeared. As with everything involving Larry David, it was outrageous, awkward and uncomfortable at times, self-deprecating without being self-pitying, and absolutely hilarious. I'm biased, but it was one of the funniest episodes in television history.

Fox might be scared (how could he not be?) but he will not be beaten. The individuals and families battling this disease need that strength and reassurance from a figure like him. Every movement needs a voice, and it really helps if that voice is familiar. Ironically, the voice that has come to represent the battle with my mom’s disease just so happens to be the voice of Chance, the lovable, mischievous dog in one of her favorite movies, Homeward Bound. Chance? More like destiny.

Fox became an unmentioned hero after his announcement. I don't recall openly discussing his situation, but I noticed that more magazines featuring him were appearing around the house. It was almost comforting to know he was going through this, too. And just like my mom, he kept working after being diagnosed. When he made the announcement, he was still on Spin City, one of the top-rated shows at the time, and an underrated classic. A couple years after the announcement, he sadly had to step away from the series (replaced by his good friend Charlie Sheen). The tremors were becoming increasingly bothersome, and he felt he had more important things to focus on, like finding a cure.

Michael J. Fox is no scientist. He's never been the super hero type. And unfortunately, time travel still only exists in his best movies. But Fox has been able to utilize the one super power he does possess: fame. In 2000, he started the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which is “dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease within this decade through an aggressively funded research agenda.” Check out their website and maybe even help out. The foundation has helped raise $325 million towards research since its inception, and over the past several years, Fox has aggressively and effectively lobbied Congress for funds; apparently, Congress enjoyed Teen Wolf as much as the rest of us.

In all honesty, it is truly remarkable what he has done to advance research and increase awareness of the disease. He is a modern day hero.

And so is my mom. And so are a million other people with this disease who continue to push forward in the face of adversity. Many of them, including my mom, participate in trial testing for research purposes in order to help future generations avoid this horrible affliction. Currently, my mom takes a handful of drugs (not even the fun kind) every day to slow the advancement of the disease. Most of the medications come with some side effects, of course. As my dad tells me, it is impossible to tell what the side effects are because my mom doesn’t talk about it. She wouldn’t want to burden anybody else with her problems, but according to my dad, restlessness and stiffness are constant issues.

In spite of all that, nobody would ever even know that my mom is battling a disorder of her central nervous system. She doesn’t want or need sympathy, she just wants to live her life. One thing for certain with this disease is that stress is a giant aggravator. Stress is bad period, but it really intensifies the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. My mom's remedy for stress? Get away. Lounge on the beach in Hawaii in the middle of winter. Live in a condo in Florida for a month. Go on a cruise to the Balkans.

She has chosen to enjoy her life, and to me, that’s heroic.

But in actuality, it’s nothing compared to what she was doing her entire adult life: teaching high school special education for 35 years in Hartford. The funny thing is, she wouldn’t complain about that, either. She may have complained about the administration, but never the job itself, or the kids. And then, after all those years of dedication to other people, she becomes afflicted with a degenerative brain disorder. Some people would curse the heavens for their horrible luck. Some would just waste away, feeling sorry for themselves. I'd probably fall in the second camp myself. Others, like my mom, face the disease head on and beat it by dictating the terms of their own lives instead of letting the disease dictate how they live. She is the perpetual teacher, living her life as an example to the rest of us.

That’s what I learned from Michael J. Fox, too: take control of your life, don’t let it control you, regardless of how difficult it may become. And as a family member of someone afflicted with this disease, or any disease for that matter, the only thing to do is give your support. Try to understand the disease as much as possible; as Evidence from Dilated Peoples said, "the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t."  I have never been very vocal with my emotions towards my parents; even now when they say, “We love you,” I usually reply with, “You, too.” But our feelings are understood. Writing has always been my preferred method of expression, and this essay is a testimonial to the love and respect I have for my mom.

And to my father for being by her side the whole time.

And of course, it's a testimonial to Michael J. Fox.

Another important thing I learned from all this: bad things happen in life, and many times, it happens to really good people. The key is how you deal with it. Will the situation define you? Or will you define yourself by dealing with that situation? My mom and Michael J. Fox have been defined by their courageousness in the face of this horrible disease, and throughout their lives. I hope I have the bravery to deal with any situation the way they have dealt with this; and considering I was raised by one of them and raised on the other, I think there's a chance I will.

I’m confident that one day Doc Hollywood and the many others working for the cure will find it. I’m also confident that whether or not a cure is found in her lifetime, my mom will not let this disease dictate her life.

I can't think of a better spokesperson than Michael J. Fox, and I can't think of a better mother than mine.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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