Death watch

Anna Quindlen

February 19, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

A WOMAN with a pleasant voice answers the phone with the greeting "Oncology."

I am calling Dr. James Speyer for professional reasons, but still those four syllables make a cold place in the center of my chest.

I am calling to talk about ovarian cancer and the television show "Thirtysomething," and about my feeling that it was a missed opportunity for the people in Hollywood to have Nancy go into remission instead of dying.

"No visible sign of disease," the TV doctor told her husband in the obligatory hallway postsurgical scene. But from the moment I hear the word "oncology" I realize I am calling so that I can make cancer into a story, someone else's story, anyone's but mine.

It's fashionable to denigrate television, to say that the miracle invention has developed feet of clay, a heart of brass and a brain of mush.

The sitcoms rarely deal with any scenario that can't be resolved in the time it takes to finish a pizza, and the soaps suggest that adultery is the bedrock of all human relationships.

But sometimes television rises above itself. Occasionally it gives you the feeling as passing a mirror after you've just had a haircut, that feeling of looking twice and saying, with some surprise, "Why, that's me." There have been a handful of shows that have done that for people, and "Thirtysomething" is one of them.

The problems of well-heeled, educated people of a certain age have always seemed less compelling to me than their obvious blessings.

But ovarian cancer once changed my life, so I watched the show from time to time when it turned out that the disease was to be a focal point.

They did it well -- the paper pallor, the chemotherapy, the wispy hair with the pale scalp visible beneath, the anger, the pain. None of it seemed to have changed much in the 20 years since my mother died of the disease. It still seemed the worst thing that could happen to you.

The doctor said that quality and quantity of life have improved. But the bottom line is, 70 to 80 percent of the women who come in with advanced disease, which is how most of them come in, die within five years.

When "Thirtysomething" decided to pursue this plot line, it had an opportunity to deal in an intelligent and meaningful way with the issue that makes most others seem like a knock-knock joke -- dying.

Television has done this before, in disease-of-the-week movies and, most memorably and harrowingly, in Frederick Wiseman's documentary "Near Death."

But "Thirtysomething" had something different, a character the audience had come to know, a person who had a history before she had cancer. This is how it happens in real life; we come into the story long before the lab tests.

But the remove of fiction would have been a blessed buffer; usually when it happens to someone you know and love, it is happening to you, too, and then it is harder to see it, to live with it, to understand it.

Instead, another character died in the latest episode, killed instantly in a car accident that miraculously left him unmarked, unbloodied, pale and as perfect as a tomb effigy.

The end of ovarian cancer is not a bit like that. The show's creators opted for the quick and unexpected and eschewed the messy and obvious. In other words, they played against reality.

They said that their decision had something to do with the support groups that had found solace in the show, in the hope that a happy resolution might give them.

Dr. Speyer understood. And before he hung up he added gently, "My only plea is that you think a little bit about the people who are going to read this who have the disease."

A person with the disease has been with me for two decades now, with the pallor and the wispy hair, if only in my mind's eye. Damned if I couldn't feel her sitting in the chair as I watched the show.

And because it might have made her feel better for even one evening -- and because I knew that I was going to try to make this into a story so that, just for a moment, it wouldn't have to be my life -- I could understand why there was a happy ending.

It's just that those of us with the ghosts in our chairs know that happy endings are often a script-construct than a part of our lives, and tomb effigies are usually found in churches.

Television so rarely does the facts of life; even more rarely, the facts of death.

But we will all live them someday; we need all the help we can get.

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