Family Bonds, Lifeblood TV journalist Bill Geist inspired the flourishing career of son Willie, who’s returning the love after his father’s announcement of Parkinson’s. Both will receive the Annie Glenn Award at convention. Features
Features  |   August 01, 2014
Family Bonds, Lifeblood
Author Notes
  • Bridget Murray Law is managing editor of The ASHA Leader.
    Bridget Murray Law is managing editor of The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Special Populations / Older Adults & Aging / ASHA News & Member Stories / Features
Features   |   August 01, 2014
Family Bonds, Lifeblood
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 36-38. doi:10.1044/leader.ACC1.19082014.36
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 36-38. doi:10.1044/leader.ACC1.19082014.36
Bill Geist to Willie Geist:
“There’s never been a good time for me to deliver bad news, especially not to you and your sister. As you know, I’m a private person. I was raised to suppress the whining and keep things sunny-side up. For the past 20 years, only your mother knew that I have Parkinson’s disease. She says the only reason she finally told you and Libby was that you thought when I took long naps every afternoon—Parkinson’s drains you—it meant that I didn’t want to do what the family was doing, or maybe that I just didn’t like being around you two. That was crushing to hear.
“When I finally did discuss it with you at a Rose Bowl game a few years back, I told you I didn’t want to be the subject of pity. You said no one could pity a man who had just walked five miles to and from the Rose Bowl! I lived in denial, which had always worked for me.”
—excerpted from “Good Talk, Dad,” by Bill and Willie Geist
Denial, says Bill Geist, had always worked for him in the past. It was his go-to for burying what he wanted to un-see from his year as a U.S. Army photographer in Vietnam. So when he learned in his late 40s that he has Parkinson’s disease, he wanted only to un-know it.
“The trouble is, denial didn’t work with Parkinson’s,” says Bill, now 69. “It just kept getting worse and it still is.”
The signs had become undeniable: The tremors he couldn’t control when he signed autographs, the facial twitching as he delivered one of his Americana stories on “CBS Sunday Morning,” the multiple rattles of the pill bottle his producer couldn’t help but notice. Fans wrote him with concern, and his children wondered at his increasing social withdrawal and fatigue.
Somehow, it was a small detail that really struck his son Willie, 39: the uncharacteristically slow, deliberate way his father moved his hand to operate his car’s sunroof.
Finally, Bill came clean. On July 1, 2012, he announced that he had Parkinson’s. Yes, it was time for his fans and employers to know. And it was long past time for his son and daughter to know. The joke-slinging, happy-go-lucky father saw that he’d always under-communicated to his children, especially when it came to difficult, sensitive topics. Bill knew he had to change.
He now sought to reinforce those intergenerational bonds that, in many ways, make us who we are. This disease had shown him it was time to reach out to his family. That he needed to open up and communicate.
At a convention with a theme of communication and generational ties, ASHA will honor both Geists for their message of family solidarity and open communication with its Annie Glenn Award. ASHA awards the “Annie” to a person or people who, like Annie Glenn herself, build awareness about communication disorders. Annie Glenn and her husband, former Sen. John Glenn, will present the award to the Geists.
Shaped by silence
What did 1950s Champaign, Ill., lack? Successful psychiatrists, Bill Geist jokes, riffing on his hometown’s buttoned-down culture. His parents and their friends just didn’t talk about their struggles or inner lives.
“My mother and father weren’t open about things, and you take cues from your parents,” he says. “I now wish that I knew more about their lives.”
After finally revealing his Parkinson’s disease to the world, he and his son joked about his stoicism, laughing that they’d never even discussed the birds and the bees.
“We thought, ‘Why wait? Let’s have the talks now,’” Willie says. And that’s what sparked the idea for their book, “Good Talk, Dad.” They saw it as a way to relive all the funny family stories—but also to produce something grander: “It gave us the chance to sit down and have those talks we hadn’t had, the kind of talks you have late at night, out on the back porch.”
But that birds-and-the-bees talk? Both agreed to give that one a miss.
Opening up
As a TV journalist following in his father’s footsteps—Willie is a co-anchor on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and NBC’s “Today Show”—the younger Geist always admired his dad.
“He 100 percent inspired me!” Willie says. “He had a way-cooler job than all the other dads. They put on suits and rode the train to and from the office every day. He goes to towns and finds stories that he puts on TV, and we all get to see the work he did all week.”
Father and son even shared the same voice. They sounded so alike that Willie could successfully phone-order liquor from the local store by channeling his dad. The one thing he wanted more of from his father was communication, but he never expected Parkinson’s to be the impetus. Neither did his father. They realized something that speech-language pathologists and audiologists know all too well from their work with people with degenerative, chronic diseases: Family involvement is key to managing and coping.
In fact, seeing an SLP is next on the older Geist’s to-do list because the Parkinson’s is taking a toll on his voice—and that’s affecting his communication with his wife. “My voice has gotten a lot weaker, along with everything else,” he says. “So sometimes when she has me repeat things, she thinks it sounds like I’m angry with her. But it’s not her. It’s the condition.”
Obviously, living with and assisting a family member with Parkinson’s requires others to make accommodations. Now that the whole Geist family knows about Bill’s disease, they’re working hard to help him.
The father notes the increased burden on his wife—and how her graceful shouldering of it has deepened his love for her. He recounts, gratefully, how his son urged him to slow down and take breaks on their recent book tour. Willie was always ready to help him in and out of his seat, to remind him about exercising and taking meds, or to supply him with an iced tea or, better yet, a beer.
“You just want to make your dad comfortable,” the son explains. “We’re down in the trenches with him.”
In accepting the Annie Award, the Geists will emphasize that, “Facing a disease like this together really can make your family stronger,” Willie says.
And talking—really talking to each other—enriches those bonds, his father adds.
“In writing this book together, Willie and I expressed things we’d never expressed,” he says. “And now we have something we didn’t have before.”
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August 2014
Volume 19, Issue 8