Responsible Programming

June 29, 2006 at 11:54 am (Uncategorized)

I’m calling for a moratorium on all depictions of children dying on television. If I had my druthers, I’d just ban the whole concept of children dying – on television or in life. Come to think of it, I’d do away with the dying thing in general. But, as my daily lamentations about illness and injury must make abundantly clear, I just don’t have that kind of pull with the powers that be. So I’m focusing on something attainable.

I don’t know what happened in the world of network and cable executives, but there has been a spate of little ones meeting untimely ends. Rescue Me, Dennis Leary’s portrait of a New York firefighter, ended last season with Leary’s son being struck and killed by a drunk driver. This season finds Leary having to deal with this loss. For instance, in this week’s episode, he comes across his son’s baseball glove and later sees the boy twiddling with a Game Boy next to him in the car. These scenes are so spare – so achingly real in the way they pop into Leary’s life out of nowhere – that they rip your guts out. Then there’s Deadwood, which also closed out last season with a kid dying, this time trampled by a horse. Of course, there was an agonizing deathbed scene in which the parents talk to their unconscious son. House typically seems to relish inflicting children (even babies!) with horrible diseases, and killing them off with regularity. A recent Medium had Patricia Arquette comforting the ghost of a dead child and helping him leave the earth.

These are all excellent programs – examples, in my opinion, of why television isn’t merely the vast wasteland some claim it to be. Dig a little and you’ll find these gems buried in the rubble and ruin of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. I know that part of what makes Rescue Me and Deadwood so good is that they don’t shy away from the darker aspects of the human condition (and the human soul). Children die, and their parents don’t quite know how to go on living after this. I’m all for quality programming, but my God, enough is enough!

I have a suspicion that I’m a tad oversensitive when it comes to watching other beings, especially innocents, suffer. One day about ten years ago while flipping through the channels, I ran across a documentary about gorillas that had been taught to communicate with humans in rudimentary sign language in a lab and were later being used for pharmaceutical studies. One of the sign language researchers tracked down one of the gorillas and it started frantically signing from inside its small cage. I cried (well, actually sobbed) for about five hours. I made a puddle on the floor. Even now, when I think of that gorilla, I get a little misty-eyed.

Maybe I’m thin skinned because I grew up not watching much television. My parents thought we had better things to do, so aimlessly surfing wasn’t an option. As a result, I’m completely lacking the reference points of The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, Happy Days and whatever else my generation grew up with. I don’t mind. I read a lot of books, grew bacteria to analyze under my microscope, and started a novel when I was nine.

But the dying kid thing strikes at a deeper level than the gorillas. I don’t so much feel like crying when I watch these scenes in Rescue Me or Deadwood. Rather I feel a shadow pass over my soul leaving me with a darkness in my chest. Because I know it’s so damn possible to have a kid die. Now that I have one, it seems miraculous that they live through birth, much less childhood. Fragile doesn’t even begin to describe the human condition. The most recent edition of Granta, a British quarterly of new writing, has a photo essay of quadrapalegics and parapalegics detailing how these people were paralyzed. Most weren’t injured in car crashes or by diving into empty swimming pools. No, these photos brought to life the trauma of everyday, ordinary living. One woman slipped and fell on the sidewalk, another in the shower. One boy broke his neck jumping into the ocean. One minute everything proceeds neatly according to plans. But then it’s as if in the middle of mundane living – running errands, driving to a concert, crossing the street – tectonic plates of tragedy and trauma bump together. And everything changes.

I don’t know if I’m unusual because I tend to look for those plates and expect an earthquake. Maybe most other people do too. I come from a long line of proud pessimists whose unspoken motto is, “Expect the worst and then you’ll never be surprised.” I’ve been like this long before I got sick and was forced to dwell on my mortality. My heart problems and the uncertainty of sarcoidosis certainly have upped the ante when my thoughts turn to darker things, but this vision of the world was there all along.

Because I was diagnosed with this illness at almost precisely the same time that I gave birth to Andrew, I have spent time trying to come to grips with my mortality in the midst of the joy of witnessing new life. This can get confusing and sometimes a little depressing. Every milestone that Andrew achieves – his first steps, his first words, the first time he told me to “go away” so he could pee in private – make me as proud as any parent. But they also make me melancholy. Perhaps every mother feels this way; I don’t know because I never had the opportunity to be a mother when I was not sick. But beneath each of Andrew’s accomplishments, I sometimes hear the dragging and rasping of those tectonic plates. He is growing up too fast, moving away from me too fast, changing too fast. Every step could be fraught, every passing car could careen out of control. A cell could mutate and become malignant.

And this is a horrible way to look at the world, to look at my son’s place in it. It is a horrible way to live. And I refuse to do it. I believe it is possible to change my thoughts – or at least to clamp my hands over my hears so I don’t hear those god-awful plates. This is why I hate the reminders brought to me by Rescue Me and company. I am all too aware that drunk drivers come flying out of alleys. I am all too aware of how small my son is. I am all too aware of how quickly life can change. Maybe there’s something to be said for American Idol. There’s no dead kids to contend with.

1 Comment

  1. susan said,

    I remember last year when I had my first car accident. I was t-bone in my brand new car. One car payment was even made. The sound the of the accident I will never forget. I was so thankful that my children weren’t in my vechile at this time. I make bargins to God all the time. I love my husband and girls with all my heart but hate to put them through all my health struggles. I wish and pray that I am put out of my misery and my children don’t have to continue to live with mom being okay. Is she in the hospital this week and how long this time. It is sad to say that my oldest child has my hospital phone number in her cell phone. I’m so impressed with your strength to go everyday and appreciate all that you have. I lose my focus on what I have compared to what I have lost

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