Okay, this is not a post about cancer and parenthood (although I guess most of my posts are about cancer and parenthood). This is a post about cancer, and Parenthood. As in the television show, Parenthood.
I’ve never before written about a film or television show; and if you plan to watch Season 4 of Parenthood and haven’t yet done so, you should probably stop reading (spoiler alert). I have for some reason been feeling compelled to write about this particular show — and this particular season of this show — so I’m just going to do it.
One day last September, I awoke to find that my email box, cell phone and Facebook page had blown up overnight. These portals were flooded with comments such as:
“Oh my God… did you see Parenthood last night”?
“Watched Parenthood last night … tears streaming down my face thinking of you”.
“You’re in my thoughts today more than ever … watched Parenthood last night, thinking of you the whole time”.
Well, I had never watched the show Parenthood, although I had heard good things about it. My husband and I don’t watch much television. We don’t really even have a television, nor do we subscribe to cable. But we do have an Apple TV, and we download from iTunes or stream from NetFlix shows and films that we want to watch. We pay only for the content we wish to see, and we try to limit what we watch. We try to be picky. After all, life’s too short to watch bad television.
This is not to say that we don’t appreciate good film and good television. (And I would argue that, these days, the quality of truly good television is as good as or better than the quality of truly good film.) Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, Girls, Mad Men … these represent great television, in my opinion, and are ‘must sees’ for me. I also have my guilty reality tv pleasures like Top Chef and Project Runway. And of course I get my daily dose of news each evening from The Daily Show. But I don’t “take on” a new show lightly, because I know it means that I’ll likely be sucked in, and my time is valuable. More valuable now than ever, actually.
However, when trusted friends repeatedly rave about a particular show, I usually listen. At least enough to give it the “one episode” test. I’ll download the first episode of the first season, and give it a whirl. If I’m hooked by the end of the first episode, I’ll generally buy the whole season. If not, I’ll generally pass.
So when I was bombarded with suggestions that I watch the show Parenthood, I listened. I gathered that something momentous happened in Season 4, and surmised that it had to do with cancer. However, I couldn’t just watch “that” episode. I knew that to fully appreciate the dynamics of the characters, I’d need to start watching from the beginning. So I did … eventually.
I didn’t rush to do so. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved with a story involving cancer. After all, I was in the midst of my own dance with the disease. Plus, although “Terms of Endearment”, “Steel Magnolias” and “Beaches” are among my favorite films of all time, I didn’t feel that I really needed to see another beloved female protagonist grow dark-circled and wan looking, then bravely but sadly slip away. I was living a much different story, and it was real. Real real.
Nonetheless, as the season progressed and the buzz grew, I decided to take the plunge. One evening I downloaded the inaugural episode of the show and watched with an open mind. By the end, I was hooked. I loved the theme song (Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’); I loved the characters; I loved the actors, including many of my long-time favorites (not a weak link in the bunch); I loved the writing and production; I loved the soundtrack. Most importantly, I found the Braverman family and their stories to be compelling. I was drawn in, and wanted to see what happened next.
So over the course of the next few months, watching an episode here and there (usually on nights my husband had to be out, after my daughter had gone to sleep), I worked my way through the first three seasons. Sometimes I’d watch two or three episodes in a row (or more, sometimes staying up waaaaay too late). I wasn’t in a hurry, probably because I knew what was going to happen in the fourth season.
In January, I began watching Season 4. And it didn’t take long before it was revealed that one of the main characters, Kristina Braverman, had breast cancer. This was a young woman (around my age), with a husband she loved deeply, and three children, including a brand new baby girl. This close-to-home plot line was revealed early in the fourth season – which was abbreviated for some reason – and continued through to the end. And … they fucking nailed.it. The writers and actors truly went there, and did so with a dignity and realness that was raw and beautiful and true. In many ways it was as though I was watching the past year of my life, rewound.
Kristina’s reaction to finding out her diagnosis – from the initial bad mammogram to the confirmation of her biopsy results – was spot on. The underlying fear, while trying to put on a brave face for her family, was heartbreakingly real. And her initial refusal to accept that she might be incapacitated by chemotherapy? I did the exact same thing, making plans into the future as though I would not be spending days each week in an infusion lab, then dealing with the after effects of treatment. I, too, was annoyed when others tried to do things for me, particularly when they offered to step in and take over with my new baby. I felt like a mama bear, and also like my privacy had been invaded, even though those offering to help were only doing so out of love and concern.
The “chemo sweater” episode hit home. I, too, was given a few such magical items of comfort: a prayer shawl knitted by some ladies in a country church; a community quilt, crafted by hand with messages from friends far and wide; and a few soft blankets given to me by dear, dear friends, including one left on my doorstep the night before I started treatment. I went into the chemotherapy ward that first day petrified with the fear of the unknown, and those soft talismans gave me warmth and comfort and carried me through that first day and beyond. And I know they will comfort others after me.
I saw the reactions of my husband, family and friends in the reactions of each of the Bravermans. I relived the moment when I first experienced a handful of hair coming out, as well as the moment I – with my husband’s help – shaved my head later that same night. I remember covering my head in those early bald days, and being uber-conscious of the stares of strangers, just as Kristina was. Then later proudly walking around with killer boots and my bald head held high, confident in the knowledge that I was a warrior doing battle and had nothing of which to be ashamed, just as Kristina did later on the show.
I cringed as Kristina tried valiantly to infuse romance into her marriage in spite of her weariness, fatigue and nausea. I did the exact same thing, sometimes with the same result (apologetically having to go to sleep before the magic happened). My husband was just as kind and understanding as Kristina’s, even in the face of his disappointment (and the blueness of his balls).
I cried when Kristina admitted that she didn’t want to miss a milestone, as she didn’t know how long she would be here. I sobbed out loud as she danced with her son Max in the living room, helping prepare him for his first school dance, knowing I might not have that same opportunity with my baby daughter. I knew just what she meant when she said she wanted the Christmas after her diagnosis to be the family’s absolute best Christmas ever. I got it.
And her reaction to her husband’s proposed “celebration” trip to Hawaii before the results of her final scan were in? Yes, I thought. Of course she wouldn’t want to plan a trip to celebrate the end of treatment when she didn’t know if the treatment had been successful. I felt the same way when I received well-meaning congratulations in the wake of my final chemo session. I smiled and said many thank yous, but inside I was thinking, “I don’t yet know if there’s anything to celebrate”. It felt a bit like the infamously premature and erroneous “Mission Accomplished” banner of the Bush era. Way too soon, and potentially untrue.
The video message she made for her children was heartbreaking, and all too familiar. I, too, have left notes around my house for my daughter to find, and have painstakingly tried to document the first 14 months of her life in photographs and video so she’ll see what this time was like in the event I’m not around to talk with her about it. So she’ll ‘remember’ me, even if she’s too young to truly do so, by looking at the photos and videos taking of me during her early months and (hopefully) years.
I knew all too well the fear the Kristina was feeling as she went in for her final post-treatment scans, and then the stomach wrenching anxiety of waiting for the verdict from her oncologist. And the heart-sinking feeling of seeing a fellow comrade who had previously been in remission, back in the infusion ward. I have been there, all too many times.
Without rehashing 15 hours of television here (any more than I already have), I’ll just say, they got it. They did. They got it.
It is so clear from the writing and production to the art direction and acting that so many of those involved with the show have been touched by cancer in a profound way, and have been forever changed by it. Just as have all of us who have been touched by the disease. We are forever changed. It’s just nice to see the experience portrayed in such a grippingly accurate and compelling fashion. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s not easy to live either.
Here’s hoping that they are picked up for a fifth season. I, for one, want to see what happens next.