Horizon at Sandy Point

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Death, thou shalt die" *

The art of dying is what this post wanted to be called. The movie is called Wit. It is almost soliloquy - played direct to camera, the spoken thoughts of an erudite English Lit professor Vivian, who knows she is dying of cancer.

She's checked herself into a hospital - a very sterile place all white walls, glass doors and drapes -  where she is told how sick she is. She has ovarian cancer. The doctors discourse over her as if she isn't there. They talk about her insides as if she is a blackboard for their chalk marks, a specimen being observed. Her belly has their attention, and she's making wry faces, and trying to follow the medical logic which turns out to be more about logic than life.

We see flashbacks to her childhood and recent life. As a child she reads Beatrix Potter; she learns the meaning of soporific - which is what happens when rabbits eat too much lettuce (it puts them to sleep). And later on, with the only person who cares for her, Susie the nurse, Vivian is ever the teacher:
Vivian: I trust this will have a soporific effect.
Susie: I don't know about that, but it sure makes you sleepy.
Vivian: [laughing] Soporific means 'makes you sleepy'.

In her classroom, she is hard on students who don't pay attention, or don't use their intelligence. And yet it seems - with all her intelligence, her wit - she has yet to come to terms with dying. It remains a mental challenge, a literary reference.

Over a shared popsicle, Susie explains to her what all the doctors have not. They are as punctilious and enamored of their language as Vivian is of hers. What is left to decide, Susie says plainly, is what is to be done when her heart stops beating. The instinct of the medical profession is to keep the patient with them at all costs - code blue. But she does have a choice: DNR - do not resucitate. Vivian must choose, Susie says.

Vivian gets sicker and sicker. She has no friends - or none that she has allowed to visit her. Finally her professor colleague "EM"  - "Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause." -  creeps in with bag of books intended for a grandchild. She removes her shoes and eases into the narrow hospital bed to cradle a semi-conscious Vivian. She reads the story of "The Runaway Bunny" as to a child, and Vivian falls asleep.

In the end, there are no words, Vivian slips quietly away. We see the doctor's dramatic attempt to regain life. Susie charges in to preserve her patient's dignity. DNR, she shouts, do not resuscitate. The soul - like the runaway bunny - goes home.

(Wit is based on the play by Margaret Edson. It was produced for tv, directed by Mike Nichols, in 2001)

*Death, John Donne (1572-1631)

1 comment:

  1. "more about logic than life"....

    I enjoyed this article!