In Life’s Work, David Milch, TV writer and creator of such shows as NYPD Blue and Deadwood, shares an intimate glimpse into his incredible past as he faces a future with Alzheimer’s disease. In this excerpt about wrapping his last film, a feature-length installment of his Deadwood series, he shares the realities of life after diagnosis.
Read an excerpt from LIfe’s Work below.
Bodies, after a period of exertion, knowing they’ve completed a task, have a tendency to break down. “Oh, we did it? Great, because I’m spent.” College kids always get sick after finals. Something like that happened after we finished shooting, while Dan was still in the edit. My confusion got worse, what had been a loose grip on reality became more untethered. Mornings weren’t so bad, but with dementia and Alzheimer’s the late afternoon and early evenings are notoriously worse. They call it sundowning. In early 2019, for the first time, there were moments when I wasn’t sure who the people around me were. There was a night in January I turned to Rita and asked, “Is Rita dead?”
“No, I’m Rita. I’m right here.”
“I should call Rita. Where’s my car?”
“We share a car now. I can drive you if you need to go somewhere.”
“Would you dial a number for me?”
“Who do you want to call?”
“Judgy. Do you have Judgy’s phone number?”
“Aw, he’s not dead, I just spoke to him a few days ago. You’ve got to go with me on this.”
I’d ask her what to wear to the event we were going to when there was no event. I’d make her drive me to the bank, say there was six-hundred-fifty thousand dollars waiting. I’d tell her I wanted to separate and ask how much money she needed to sever our connection, would five hundred thousand do the trick? She took notes on her phone so she could report back to my doctors and to Bob.
But mornings were still better. With help, I could still work in the mornings. It was around this time that I wrote what would become the first pages of this book, dictating in the room in the back house Rita had made into an office. The one a block away had become too far, we’d let it go.
The movie aired at the end of May. Everyone had worked so hard to get us to the finish line, and we got there. During the press run, in large part to account for my absence from it, we announced my diagnosis publicly. The implications that had for my future work prospects weighed on me, but there would have been no way to pretend my condition wasn’t real and getting worse. I couldn’t have pulled it off. We trusted Matt Zoller Seitz to break the story, to tell the world on our behalf. He had visited the set and spent time with us. So did his frequent collaborator Alan Sepinwall, who first made his name writing NYPD Blue recaps when he was a college student.
It’s a series of takings away. And there’s a subsidiary category of shame, at not being able to do things . . . More than anything else, one would like to think of oneself as being capable as a human being. The sad truth, imposed with increasing rigor, is you aren’t. You aren’t normal anymore.
The day he came my granddaughter was there too. Mark Singer, who had written a profile of me for The New Yorker back during our second season, wrote another piece where we talked about how I was doing and feeling at some length. I described some of what was happening to me: “It’s a series of takings away. And there’s a subsidiary category of shame, at not being able to do things . . . More than anything else, one would like to think of oneself as being capable as a human being. The sad truth, imposed with increasing rigor, is you aren’t. You aren’t normal anymore. You’re not capable of thinking in the fashion you would hope to as an artist and as a person. Things as pedestrian as not being able to remember the day. Sometimes where you’ve been. There have been a couple of times when I haven’t been able to remember where I live. And then there are compensatory adjustments that you make in anticipation of those rigors, so that you can conceal the fact of what you can’t do. It’s a constriction that becomes increasingly vicious. And then you go on.”
From the book LIFE’S WORK: A Memoir by David Milch. Copyright © 2022 by David Milch. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.