I’m going to die of cancer.
Not tomorrow, hopefully. Not for quite a while, with any luck. It’s something I’ve known for as long as I can remember. At a certain point, the body goes insane and starts infecting itself with useless tissue. Suicide by planned obsolescence. The certainty I have in the method of my demise approaches the clear-eyed fanaticism of the very religious. Unfortunately for me, this hasn’t cut into my laundry list of phobias that even Adrian Monk would call excessive. I know what will kill me, but there are so many other things that will hurt, rape, maim, imprison, cripple and torture me. Due to my positive negativity, I was not eager to tackle this week’s After School Special, 1981’s “A Matter of Time,” because this is the cancer episode.
No matter how cheesy the mention, I become acutely aware of my own mortality whenever the subject of cancer flutters into conversation. I can’t prove it, but this episode might be the reason why. Though I have no memory of seeing this, it’s possible I did, since the bulk of it was filmed only several blocks from where I grew up in a house belonging to family friends. Carroll Avenue is a single street of Victorians in the heart of the Echo Park/Angeleno Heights area of Los Angeles. It’s ridiculously beautiful and the best place on earth to go trick or treating. The rest of the neighborhood has Victorians scattered throughout, but Carroll is where they keep them in perfect condition, complete with those old timey streetlamps and places to tie up your horse if he forgets his safeword. So I might have seen this thing when I was little because our friends’ house was on TV, unaware that it was worming into my skull and laying terror eggs.
What’s so scary? Well, Jean Gilbert, mother of two, has a little bit of a sore throat. She ignores it, because it’s a sore throat so who gives a fuck, right? Well, turns out it’s a tumor that’s already metastatized and will kill her in a matter of months. It’s a silly thought, but it feels like the doctors were the ones that inflicted the death sentence on her. Had she never been diagnosed, she could have lived a full and happy life. Now all she has to look forward to is rotting away in bed. This makes for a rather depressing forty minutes of television, even as Jean takes the time to get to know her youngest daughter, Lisl.
Lisl Gilbert (somehow not upset at being named for a typo) has to write an essay for the Voice of Freedom contest, and she’s blocked worse than a Texan’s large colon. She takes the bulk of the episode to figure out what freedom means to her. Does it mean killing whoever you want? Finally trying that cocaine you’ve been hearing so many good things about? Embarking on a career of masked supervillainy? No, freedom turns out to mean knowing who she is, which makes no sense to me. Not that knowing who you are isn’t important, but wouldn’t not knowing be more freeing? You could do whatever you want without it interfering with the artificial construct that is identity. “I wouldn’t bite the head off a live penguin, because I am Morgan Freeman” could give way to the chaotic freedom of amorality. This would be a lousy lesson to teach kids (right up there with sore throats are cancer), so they stick with the coming-of-age theme of finding oneself.
The first step is knowing where you come from, which is a sobering experience for everyone. I can’t say exactly when I figured out that my parents were people, rather than omnipotent god-beings that could go to bed when they liked and were allowed to put sugar on cereal. First you notice that some of the previously unassailable statements they have made are factually wrong, then you think everything is wrong, then you realize that your parents are like everyone else: right about half the time if you’re lucky. Knowing that they are like everyone else lays their flaws bare, which inevitably leads to seeing those same flaws in yourself. Some of us never had a chance.
Lisl, despite being a senior in high school, is mired at the “everything mom does is awesome” phase of existence. Jean Gilbert does seem pretty remarkable. An award-winning artist, she always concentrated more on work than on her family. Lisl lives in her mother’s shadow: no identity of her own beyond that of Jean Gilbert’s daughter. Charles Van Doren had a similar problem, but thus far Lisl hasn’t used this identity crisis as an excuse to cheat on a quiz show. All she knows is that she’s not the talented artist that mom is.
Since mom isn’t going anywhere for the next couple weeks, she and Lisl take the time to get to know one another. This offer does not extend to elder daughter Jane, because seriously, fuck Jane.
What Lisl learns is that Jean regrets going out and achieving. She would have rather stayed home and spent the time getting to know her daughters. By the time she realized the problem, the cancer was already eating her alive. Of course, without the cancer she never would have realized it at all, so glass half full? The point is that the blossoming relationship with mom gives Lisl a better handle on who she is. Jean Gilbert only seems endlessly confident: she’s just as lost, insecure, and vulnerable as her daughters. Parents serve us best as cautionary examples. Learn from their mistakes, so you can make entirely different ones. Finding her identity frees her from the shadow of mom, and it is in this way that the Freedom essay makes some amount of sense. It’s still not very good and ends up losing the competition, so hooray for verisimilitude.
After School Specials were adept at creating single images designed to haunt the young psyches of the audience. This one had two that made me shake my head at the nightmares they must have placed within impressionable children. In the first, Lisl tries on her graduation gown, turns to her bedridden mother and asks what she thinks. Mom stares sightlessly at the ceiling. I thought for sure she was dead, having slipped away between sentences. She held on long enough to see Lisl in the gown and could hold on no longer. The second occurs when Jean is actually dead. Lisl goes into the hospital room to say goodbye. She has a monologue about how she’ll always love her. And then mom’s hand moves. Not just a twitch but almost a fucking wave. The nurse reassures Lisl that it’s a normal involuntary nerve impulse, but it’s creepier than a set of rusty dental tools. It gets even worse since it’s partially supposed to indicate mom’s posthumous approval and acceptance of her newly grown daughter from beyond the nighted caul of the grave. In any case, it’s one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen, and I’m a horror writer.
Which leaves me with one of the most depressing, scary, and downright haunting After School Special yet. Not even Rob Lowe’s cameo as Lisl’s high school chum can comfort you. Life is short, this one says, because you never know when a sore throat might be terminal cancer.
Next up: “First Step” about a girl dealing with her alcoholic mom. Wonder if she could get some pointers from Francesca Baby?
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