Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)

Mr. Vandy Dances Again

“I almost died.” This is something you hear older people say on occasion—the lucky ones, obviously. Count me as one of the lucky ones.

I didn’t know I almost died until afterward, of course, when my wife told me. Someone else always has to tell you. If they didn’t say something, if they didn’t fill you in on the horrific details (“Oh, there were tubes, and beeping machines, you didn’t move, and the doctors couldn’t answer any of my questions—it wasn’t good”), there would be no way of knowing how close you came to following the proverbial white light to that special place where there are no middle seats, no flat tires, and no extra-long hairs growing out of your ears.

Having said that, I can’t vouch for the details of the afterlife. I made up the part about no middle seats, no long hairs growing out of your ears, and so on. Everyone has their own version of an afterlife without mortal inconveniences. According to what I have read, though, we do seem to sail into an all-encompassing bright light when we leave this life, and it is reported to be a comforting experience, like a loving hug from your mother after you’ve been gone the whole day. But none of that happened to me when I was down. My body was present, but I was gone. When I try to think of what that was like, I hit a blank spot. The words that come to mind are gray, cardboard, empty, and dull. Not bright. Not white. Not light.

It was February 2014, and my wife, Arlene, and I were in Vancouver, where I was working on Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third installment in this fun, family-oriented series of adventure movies. I was in perfect health when I got up there. Like every actor, I took a physical before the job for insurance purposes. I passed with flying colors.

“I wish I felt as good,” the doctor said as he shook my hand.

On the set I worked with Ben Stiller and Mickey Rooney. We were scheduled for a two-day shoot on location in an assisted-living facility, a place that would have, in a less politically correct time, been called an old folks’ home. I was supposed to dance a salsa with three ladies from a local dance school. None of them were professional dancers, and to be candid, I am a fake. People think I am a trained dancer—I’m not. I am best when I freestyle, when I can go with the way the music makes me feel.

How do I explain Bye Bye Birdie and Mary Poppins? Easy: I was fortunate to work with Gower Champion and Mark and Dee Dee Wood, brilliant choreographers who crafted dance numbers around what I could do. This is one of the reasons I say no to Dancing with the Stars every time they call—and they have called several times. The physical undertaking aside, I would have to learn a new dance every week, and I would have trouble doing that at the level I would expect of myself.

For the “Step in Time” number in Mary Poppins, we rehearsed for six weeks. On Night at the Museum, I only had one day to learn to salsa. It wasn’t enough for the dance to sink in and become second nature. I should also mention that I can’t lead. Well, I can—but I shouldn’t. On the set we did numerous takes, and I could tell the dance wasn’t coming off the way everyone hoped.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Shawn Levy, the director, quietly pulling at his hair, frustrated, while over in the wings, Ben Stiller waited, and waited, and waited for his cue to walk into the scene. But we never got to that point.

Finally Arlene stepped onto the set and said what we all were thinking: “This isn’t working.” She suggested I give up the salsa and freestyle instead. The director agreed, though I needed more persuasion before I released the awkward hold on my dance partner. I didn’t want to disappoint my dance partners or the people who had worked on the dance itself.

“What about the choreography?” I asked.

Arlene shook her head. “I don’t think they care as much about the specific steps as they do about seeing you dance in your style.”

I looked around. The director, the choreographer, and my fellow actors were nodding in agreement. Arlene suggested that the soundman cue up the hit “Blurred Lines,” and as soon as the opening bars played over the loud speakers, the director looked at me and said, “Just let yourself go.”

I did—and the rest happened in a single take.

Ben Stiller was impressed. “What the hell do you do?” he said. “Is it vitamins? Did you make a pact with the Devil? What is it? I can’t get over that you’re eighty-eight years old and still jumping around!”

I did not plan to slow down either. After that scene wrapped, Arlene and I were looking forward to another week in Vancouver. Then I was scheduled to begin work on the new Hallmark TV series Signed, Sealed, Delivered. But two days later I was fighting for my life. That’s how quickly and unexpectedly things can change. It’s also a reminder of why today is always more important than tomorrow.

Here’s what happened: Arlene and I spent the morning touring the city and stopped for lunch at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Vancouver’s historic Gastown District. On the walk back to the hotel I grew weak and winded. I thought it might be because we were going up a slight hill. Then the slight hill felt like a mountain. Several times I stopped to catch my breath. I thought, “My God, I’m not going to make it.”

By nighttime I was quite ill. I was running a fever and did not have the energy to get out of bed. How could this be, when two days earlier I had danced for hours on the movie set? Arlene summoned a local doctor, who gave me medicine to reduce my temperature. The second I took it, though, I was knocked out. From what Arlene later told me, I was down the rest of that night and the entire next day.

Two days later I opened my eyes again and saw my wife sitting at my bedside, coaxing me back to the world of the living. I am convinced that I would have died if Arlene hadn’t been taking care of me that whole time.

The following day I was able to sit up in bed and get to the bathroom on my own. Those little things were suddenly significant achievements. Later that week I was supposed to begin work on Signed, Sealed, Delivered, but Arlene informed the production company that I was ill. They sent a doctor to the hotel. After a few more days in bed, I relapsed, not dramatically, but to the point that Arlene took me to the ER, where I was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Even though every breath was a painful struggle, I had a hard time accepting the reality of the diagnosis. The previous month I had come down with shingles, which turned into weeks of torturous pain and itching. But I soldiered through it. Now the deal was pneumonia: this was serious. How did I get pneumonia? I was not used to being sick. I didn’t know how to be sick. It was not in my repertoire. The word “sick” wasn’t even in my vocabulary. The closest I came to being sick was back in my early sixties when I had gone for a physical. A routine chest X-ray showed what the doctor described as “emphysema scars.”

“I have emphysema?” I asked, frightened.

“The beginning stages,” he said.

I immediately thought of my father, a heavy smoker, who had died of emphysema. At the time I was also a two- or three-pack-a-day smoker—until that moment. I quit then and there, and for the next thirty-plus years I went full bore without missing a step, until Vancouver—and then wham!

On the flight back to Los Angeles I tried to understand where and how I could have gotten pneumonia. It could’ve been at the assisted-living facility, where I took time to meet and greet the residents, shaking hands, signing autographs, and posing for pictures. I might have also picked up a bug in a restaurant, a taxi, or at the hotel. It was impossible to say, and you can’t live your life in fear of getting sick. I decided it was fate—payback for eighty-eight straight years of feeling terrific.

At home my recovery was slow. I didn’t bounce back after a few days, as I was used to doing with a cold or the flu. I supposed this was the downside of getting sick later in life. Then I had a setback. One day while Arlene was out doing errands, I felt my heart rate speed up, and my breathing became labored. I thought, “Heart attack.” I called my doctor, who had me drive in and sent me straight to X-ray. As he had suspected on the phone, I had a collapsed lung.

I phoned Arlene and gave her an update. She asked whether I wanted her—or needed her—to come get me. “No, they’re going to do a little procedure,” I said. “Then I’ll be able to drive home.” I had one request: Could she pick up my new prescription at the pharmacy? Otherwise, I said I’d see her soon.

As it turned out, we saw each other an hour and a half later in the pharmacy parking lot, where I stopped unexpectedly because the pain medication from the procedure had started to wear off while I was driving home, and I wanted my pills as soon as possible. Arlene saw me get out of the car clutching my side. Knowing I was in pain and realizing I had underplayed my condition, she hurried over to me to see what was really wrong.

“Don’t worry. I’m fine,” I said.

“What’s that . . . that—” She pointed at the plastic tube hanging out of my side, another detail I hadn’t mentioned to her.

“It’s a valve—to help re-inflate the lung,” I said. “It’s temporary.”

Over the next couple months my lung collapsed two more times. The second time my doctor did a pleurodesis, a more extensive procedure in which he glued my lung to my chest wall. The third time it turned out I needed some additional gluing due to having extra long lungs—they’d missed a portion. But that did the trick, and I spent the rest of the winter and all spring recuperating. It took months for me to regain the weight and strength I lost during the ordeal. I benefitted from the patience and support of a loving wife and family who encouraged me to get back to the things I loved to do, which I think is the key to recovery. Get back to what you love to do.

What I realized is that age is directly related to health. If you feel physically fit, age is immaterial, as it had always been for me. I had gone from dancing like I was in my forties to feeling nearly dead to trudging around the house like I was one hundred–plus, until gradually I was back to feeling not just younger but normal. Back to where I no longer thought about my age. My brother marveled at my resiliency.

“I don’t know how anyone pulls through when they have to lie on those beds in the hospital,” he said.

“Oh my God, they’re uncomfortable,” I concurred.

“Many people fall out of those beds and break their butt,” he said. “Thank God that didn’t happen to you.”

In May I started going to the gym again, forcing myself at first, but knowing it was vital to get back to my routine of lifting weights and walking on the treadmill if I wanted to get my stamina back—which I did.

Arlene noted the difference one day after lunch. I was at the kitchen sink, doing dishes, and we were singing “Carolina in the Morning.” She said, “Wow, did you hear that?” I looked at her curiously, not having heard anything other than our harmonizing. “You held that note a long time—longer than me! I think that’s a sign your lungs are back to normal.”

With age comes a constantly changing sense of normal. But each one of us determines our own sense of normal, and mine was defined by the sheer delight I felt at having survived. One afternoon Arlene and I were at a store picking up running shoes, and I started to dance. I heard music playing, and my body began to move. It was involuntary, as if my body was saying, “Hey, I’m back! And I still know all the moves.” Arlene captured it on her phone and posted the video on Twitter.

“The wait is over,” she wrote. “Mr. Vandy Dances.” The video went viral instantly. “This made my day!” one fan commented. People magazine called it mesmerizing. And actor Denis Leary retweeted the video with the caption, “Father Time can suck it.”

I felt the same way—and still do.