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Bruce Willis, dementia, and my father
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Bruce Willis, dementia, and my father

Willis no longer has a reputation to manage or a career to plan. In his better moments, he can simply delight in those closest to him. Is it naïve to think this reflects something of the real man?

The first time my father met my son, he laughed. We had the boy, then 8 months old, strapped into one of those elastic baby jumpers you suspend from a doorframe. Up and down he went as Dad, whom everyone called “Tip,” took in the sight of his third grandkid and first male heir. Then he said something I still think about almost a decade later, although it’s as much the strange mix of resignation and wonder in his voice as the words themselves that stick in the mind.

“Oh, no,” he chuckled softly. “It’s happening again.”

That was the last time my father visited us in Los Angeles. He was just shy of 70, and the Alzheimer’s was beginning to make the trip from Pennsylvania unmanageable, even with my younger sister to guide him through the now alien and confusing rituals of air travel.

My son, of course, didn’t remember that encounter, although one a few years later left an impression. We had stopped for a quick meet-up in Baltimore on our way to visit my mother in Hilton Head. At lunch, Tip picked up one of the small, brown plastic toy soldiers my son had scattered across the table and tried to eat it. He didn’t mean it a joke (they must have looked like chocolates), but his deadpan affect made it funny. He no longer talked at that point, and his movements were slow and exaggerated, giving the incident a kind of Buster Keaton quality.

My father’s condition worsened considerably before he died 18 months later, although he was responsive and aware until the final week or so. I’d learned that no matter how much of his memory and identity the disease continued to strip away, it was still always possible to reach each other. Tip was still “there,” if not on terms anyone would have chosen, and it was up to us to relax in his presence and find him. This was a lesson my stepmother, sister, and her husband — who lived with and cared for Tip at home until the end — learned quickly.

It took me, with my cynical ideas about “quality of life” and my proud disdain of sentimentality, a bit longer.

Subtle but apparent signs

I thought of Tip when I saw a video of Bruce Willis celebrating his birthday in March. His ex-wife Demi Moore shot it and posted it on her Instagram. A spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday” fills the spacious, light-filled kitchen as the camera pans across the dozen or so revelers — Willis’ young daughters from his recent second marriage, his and Moore’s now adult daughters and their families — until landing on the guest of honor himself. He mugs for the camera as he finishes the song with a mock-operatic flourish, then blows out the candles on the pie his wife, Emma, puts in front of him.

“You can’t just show up at someone’s house and ask them to talk about their emotions!”

Like everyone else, I had followed Willis’ sudden retirement from acting in March 2022. The initial reason given was aphasia, a condition that I found frustratingly vague. Trouble with words? Did that mean he could come back later after making adjustments, or maybe shift gears and take up blues harmonica again (the return of the “Return of Bruno”)? Even when the far more terminal-sounding diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia was announced, I couldn’t quite accept its finality. I realized this when I watched the birthday video and found myself scanning it for signs of Willis’ decline. They were subtle but amply apparent: the slight stiffness of movement, a missing tooth, the faintly childlike way he seemed to follow the lead of his loved ones, and the tender, quiet gestures with which they led him.

I had confirmed the worst, and I offered Willis and his family my prayers. But I also noticed real joy there, both in Willis’ exuberance and in everyone’s unselfconscious, enthusiastic efforts to encourage it. Willis was having fun, but with a clearly stunted capacity to acknowledge or reciprocate his family’s love. They showered him with it anyway.

Then again, how much of this capacity do any of us possess even in full health?

An emotional distance

I’ve already indicated the emotional limits I had to overcome in those last visits with my father; let’s just say a certain reluctance to “open up” is part of my heritage. The oldest of three, Tip was a small-town high school football captain who got into Yale just before it turned coed. Marriage, a stint driving a tank in Vietnam, three children (starting with yours truly), and law school followed.

Tip avoided the more fashionable excesses of some of his peers in favor of good, old-fashioned carousing, which he pursued with vigor and dedication. After my mother divorced him and moved us 90 miles up U.S. 22 to her hometown, he subsequently found himself on the verge of ruining his second marriage. He sobered up and threw himself into his work with single-minded focus.

A new lease on life renewed his sense of responsibility for his younger siblings, who, like Tip, no longer had living parents to guide them. He tended to lecture my uncle Andy, two years younger and a bit of a slacker avant la lettre, with paternal authority. Tip’s wife gave birth to a girl and then a boy, and once again sharing a house with young children made him more sympathetic to the endless, ’70s-inflected seeking of his younger sister, Molly, the baby of the family.

Molly was always welcome in his big, bustling house, and he was happy to listen to her detail her progress with whatever new healing modality she had found. But he balked when she demanded more of him than mere familial duty and affection. In the middle of one particularly insistent request that he join her in more rarefied realms of feeling, he finally snapped: “You can’t just show up at someone’s house and ask them to talk about their emotions!”

Molly was regularly by Tip’s side during those final years, and her comfort with more intuitive forms of communication meant she was a natural caretaker. (During COVID, she pivoted to doing her in-person healings over Zoom.) One spring, she told me, she and Tip were walking in the back yard when he was moved to try to say something.

“What is it, Tip?” she asked. “Is it the flowers?”

“It’s you … it’s me … it’s everything,” he managed. Was he finally receptive to oneness with mother Gaia? Even in Molly’s telling, he still had the final word. When she happily informed her brother that he had just had his first “spiritual experience,” he summed up his skepticism with a perfectly timed verbal shrug: “Meh.”

Roles of a lifetime

It’s fair to say I “grew up” with Bruce Willis; I was 13 when “Moonlighting” premiered, and in David Addison I saw a class clown made good. Finally, a version of being “cool” to which my awkward, comedy-obsessed friends and I could aspire. Then came Willis’ unlikely pivot to action hero with the genre-defining “Die Hard,” in which the wisecracks were just as important as the explosions.

That was the summer before my senior year of high school, and I’d started to fantasize about the destiny awaiting me. Like Willis, I was unique, but would the world recognize this in me as it did in him? By the time I graduated college, his outsized celebrity — the wild parties, the public spat with Cybill Shepherd, the vanity investment in Planet Hollywood, the marriage to “It Girl” Moore — had started to add a note of self-parody to the world-weary everymen he often played on-screen.

Who better to represent the increasing irrelevance of the theatrical first-run movie than its humbled onetime king?

The night before I left to teach English at a natural gas distribution company in Czechoslovakia, my friends sent me off with one last trip to the local multiplex to see the execrable, thoroughly entertaining “Striking Distance.” Bruce as a highly decorated Pittsburgh police detective busted down to river patrol? An alcoholic who lives on a houseboat stalked by a serial killer? Tagline: “If they didn’t want him to make waves, they never should’ve put him in the water”? Peak Willis.

For the rest of the ’90s, I enjoyed his movies as ironic monuments to Hollywood hubris; even his excellent work in “Pulp Fiction,” like his cameo as himself in “The Player,” seemed like meta-commentary on one of the industry’s most profitable and enduring brands.

The new millennium brought more unsatisfying “Die Hard” cash-grabs, M. Night Shyamalan’s boring deconstructed superhero movies, and — poignantly, in retrospect — phoned-in performances in dozens of generic, straight-to-streaming “thrillers.” I lost interest. Who better to represent the increasing irrelevance of the theatrical first-run movie than its humbled onetime king?

There does seem to be something filial in my progression as a Willis fan. The initial idolization, followed by rivalry, then benign indifference. In fact, I’ve always been able to see a bit of Tip when I look at Willis. The fleshy, German features, the stocky athlete’s build, the swagger of a natural-born life of the party, and, more recently, the proud embrace of Norwood 7.

The blessing of confinement to the present

This is why Willis’ latest role has me transfixed all over again. FTD and Alzheimer’s are different diseases, but not so different that I can’t imagine a bit of what his family is going through. That includes their decision to share their beloved husband and father’s suffering on social media.

The dramatic deathbed scene of reconciliation and revelation, where everything long unsaid and unfelt finds its proper and final expression, was not to be.

In the pre-digital age, Willis would most likely have withdrawn completely from public view, leaving us to piece together his fate via sensational tabloid headlines and blurry telephoto images. But the internet, for better or for worse, has made our relationship with celebrities more intimate. Much of this is fake, of course, but even those of us on the D-list have a hint of the parasocial in our relationships. How many of our purportedly “personal” texts and direct messages, after all, could just as easily be addressed to our amorphous collective of “followers”?

Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch spent the last two years of her life with Alzheimer’s. In his thoughtful account of her decline, her husband, John Bayley, noted that he could still reach her with humor, even as language and memory became less reliable: “Only a joke survives — the last thing to find its way into consciousness when the brain is atrophied.”

What also seems to survive is a BS detector:

She loves to be teased, but when I make the tease a tender one by adding, “I love listening to you,” her face clouds over. She can always tell the difference between the irresponsibility of a joke or a straight tease and the note of “caring” or of “loving care” — which, however earnest and true, always sounds inauthentic.

No more stilted, obligatory declarations of feeling: That’s one blessing of this disease I can get behind. I pray that Willis’ loved ones feel similarly blessed.

To dust we all return. The terrible thing about dementia is how eagerly it commences this pitiless disintegration even before death. But this drawn-out dying also tends to confine us to the present, stripping away the relentless obsession with our future and past. Willis no longer has a reputation to manage or a career to plan. In his better moments, he is simply a man delighting in and dependent on those closest to him.

Is it naïve to think that this reflects something of the “real” Bruce Willis, a soul sustained at every moment by a continuous outpouring of grace? Isn’t this what remains of each of us at the end? It’s generous of Willis’ family to offer this final glimpse behind the scenes as we prepare to say goodbye.

I could have said a better goodbye to my father. He was private about his condition at first, and he was on the other side of the country. For my part, I was busy with my own family and distracted by the typical midlife anxieties. The dramatic deathbed scene of reconciliation and revelation, where everything long unsaid and unfelt finds its proper and final expression, was not to be.

But as much as I wish my dad were still around, and as much as I would have liked for him to meet his grandson while still fully aware, I really can’t complain. When it comes to parenthood’s mysterious admixture of joy, heartbreak, and tedium and the miraculous way a bit of us survives in each subsequent generation, “Oh no, it’s happening again” says it all.

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