Termites, Movies and Death

It’s hard to convince yourself you’re living a glamorous life when you’re hanging around the house, waiting for the termite guy to show up. Oh, and — should I mention it? — he’s already stood me up once.

That’s one reason (distinct lack of glamour in my daily life) I love movies. Especially old movies in black and white, where everybody looks better, richer, more gorgeous. I somehow managed to tape Notorious recently and my husband and I watched it a couple of nights ago. Turns out, it was chosen by Cybill Shepherd for Turner Classic Movies, and I had to listen to her yammer on for several minutes about the movie’s romantic scenes. Which almost ruined the movie for me, since Cybill Shepherd is one of my least favorite actresses and personalities, someone whose preening smugness gives me heartburn. My husband stared at her and complained she didn’t look nearly as great as she did in Last Picture Show, which almost sent me into a diatribe of feminist empathy about aging. But fortunately, Cybill stopped talking and the movie started. Finally.

So, Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant were falling in love, with gorgeous vistas of Rio in the background — although, frankly, I think anybody could fall in love with Cary Grant in the late 1940s, even with a garbage dump or toxic waste plant in the background. You wouldn’t even notice or care. “Cary Grant is incredible,” Cybill had gushed and it killed me to admit it, but she was right.

But even movies begin to lose their glamour when you know too much. Every time I see Ingrid Bergman, I’m haunted by a story I once read about her. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s and — improbably enough — became friends with the writer/intellectual Susan Sontag, who suffered from the same disease. The two women’s reactions to the same illness were completely different. Sontag did everything she could to fight it — treatments, clinical trials, any kind of regimen. But Bergman was more acquiescent. She’d already had a good life, she said.

Sontag somehow managed to survive that bout of cancer (which was Stage 4, I have read) and lived until a few years ago, when another form of cancer killed her. Even at the very end, her son wrote, she insisted on trying every new treatment, no matter how aggressive, brutal or unproven. Her doctor talked to her about the treatments’ interfering with her quality of life. She told him she didn’t give a damn about her quality of life. Didn’t he understand that?

So, Bergman died in 1982 and Sontag outlived her by more than two decades. Maybe it was Sontag’s aggressive battle that kept her alive far longer. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe she was just fortunate. (I’ve seen too many other friends tackle the illness with that same kind of ferocity and gritty, dogged optimism Sontag showed, only to die in the end; cancer isn’t a disease you can make easy, preachy pronouncements about.)

But, to me, more than anything, the story is about the vastly different ways people confront death. I’ve known people who refuse to talk about it, who deny it till the very end, with their last breath. I had another friend, whom I drove to dialysis a few times and could talk to about everything — her fears, the pain she was in, her thoughts about death. Another friend (and fellow cancer survivor) and I were in a support group with a woman who was dying, but wanted to talk about anything else — the more mundane, the better; the friend and I used to meet for coffee, trying to recover from the support group and swearing that, if we were dying, we’d wear big buttons that said “Ask Me About Death.”

And maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not. We won’t know till we get there. I’m convinced that we all lead our own, idiosyncratic lives and that the way we choose to die is even more individual and idiosyncratic. Maybe we don’t even choose to do it a certain way; maybe it’s simply a reflection of who we are and we can’t fully control it. But I still have problems with people who criticize an approach like Bergman’s: What’s wrong with a graceful surrender at a time that’s right for you? Why is fighting always the best and only answer?

All of which is way beyond glamour and romance and Cary Grant’s striking profile. But it’s that kind of day. The termite man stood me up — again! I’m sure that never happens to Cybill Shepherd.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

0 comments… add one

Leave a Comment