This Is the End

About death, the poetry is better than the policy. An hour or so into On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying (Sunday through Wednesday, September 10 to 13; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13), someone will paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke: “Love and death are the two great gifts that we pass on, and usually they are passed on unopened.” By then we’ve already met Thomas Lynch, a poet who happens also to be an undertaker. His Milford, Michigan, funeral home is a family business. He buried his own father and wrote about it. He speaks knowledgeably of an “intimate contract,” with its own language, rituals, symbols, and ceremonies. And suggests that “when someone you love dies, it feels like an emergency.” And believes that mature acceptance of the natural process involves an almost Zen-like stoicism: “We are, there is, they were.”

But in Kansas City, Dr. Bill Bartholome wants to know: “How do you get dead?” He is a pediatrician and a medical-school professor. In his very own hospital, he will be operated on for cancer of the esophagus and complain about the indifference of the staff to his pain. Having seen too many patients perish as much from the treatment as the disease, he is actually relieved to be told that chemotherapy won’t save him. Even under a six-month sentence of death, he chooses to remarry, to smoke a peace pipe with old friends on a prairie camp-out, and to think about what’s happening to him. Outliving his prognosis, he discovers that “if you don’t expect to see spring when fall comes and then you are around and get to see spring, you don’t experience it as spring; you experience it as a miracle.” So he’s a poet, too, and a hero of consciousness. But as his wife is worn down to a frazzle, and money is running out, he admits to Bill Moyers that he can’t brush his teeth or take a shower on his own; he feels “locked in the trajectory of dying … dead meat.”

In Miami, where there are as many different, strongly held beliefs about life and death as there are religions and ethnicities in the multiculture, a public hospital has spent $2 million on a paralyzed patient who can’t eat or move, who can only breathe with a respirator, and who has now come down with an infection. The cash-strapped hospital can treat the new infection with expensive antibiotics or settle instead for “comfort care,” in which case Nancy Martinez will die sooner. By moving her eyes from left to right, she indicates she still wants to live. Moyers talks to staff, patients, and families. It turns out that non-Hispanic whites are far more willing to pull the plug than, say, African-Americans.

In Oregon, the only state in the union to have legalized physician-assisted suicide, Kitty Rayl insists on her right to “Death With Dignity” in spite of doubts among members of her own family, and Moyers sits in on the discussions that lead to her decision. In Louisiana, Jim Witcher, a former veterinarian, doesn’t have that option. He can continue to slide in slow motion toward death from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), losing every physical function while his mind looks on, or he can put himself out of his misery as he used to put down suffering animals. The problem, as he explains to Moyers, is that while he’s still alert enough to do himself in, he isn’t really ready to go. In New York, at both Mount Sinai and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, doctors have started costly, time-consuming, and labor-intensive “palliative care” programs, involving family members and hospice services. Some patients have to be disabused of the idea that taking drugs for the pain means somehow “surrendering” to the disease. And, of course, the real money to be made from dying is in hospital “procedures”; Medicare severely restricts pay for company at home.

Moyers and his producer-director, Elena Mannes, go everywhere and listen to everybody. At University Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ricky Tackett’s wife, Rose, and Dr. Carlos Gomez must decide whether to sedate him and let him die, which is what Ricky said he wanted when he wasn’t delirious from the pain of liver failure. At Balm of Gilead in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Amos Bailey tries almost single-handedly to change the “culture of dying” by controlling pain, nursing the whole family as well as the patient, cherishing the exhausted “caregiver,” and making deals with local nursing homes. (His colleague Edwina Taylor says, “It’s like putting your fist in the Grand Canyon.” They don’t go to sad movies: “We already gave at the office.”) In Washington, D.C., Dr. Joanne Lynn lobbies – on behalf of Americans for Better Care of the Dying – to change federal policies on end-of-life care: “How is it possible that it is easier to get a hip replaced than it is to get a nurse visit on the weekend?”

Pain, fear, choice, dignity, a death of one’s own, and a friend against the night – these are the deepest chords, and On Our Own Terms touches all of them, in six hours without cant or condescension, without sentimentality or self-aggrandizement. I can’t tell you whether people just happen to behave better when Moyers shows up, or maybe we see people at their best because we’re looking at them through his eyes. Either way, his television dignifies the medium, and his poetry needs to become policy.

Robert Hughes, the Time magazine art critic, was scouting locations for Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, September 5, 6, and 7; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), a television sequel to his highly regarded history of the penal colony that became a modern nation, when he had the automobile accident that left him on crutches for most of these six hours. The damage to his legs has in no way injured either his mordant wit or his itch to subvert stereotypes.

The Australia we see in the very first hour is enjoying itself at a Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. What we see in the last hour is an Australia voting itself down as a republic, just last November. In between, we visit an outback space empty except for the Aborigines, a “dead heart” from which most of the white population has fled, to cluster on the coasts; a surprising class system that may account for the continuing servile devotion to queen and Commonwealth; the mysterious beginnings in Dreamtime and rock paintings that go back more than 50,000 years; and the persistent racism, from the treatment of the indigenes to the attitude toward immigrant Asians. If the bookend emphasis is on the pleasure principle, it’s not for want of the very same disapproving “wowsers” who have tried to censor everything but rugby for the past 200 years – the uptight arses who wouldn’t let women in bathing suits on those famous beaches and who were appalled, in 1972, when modern art arrived with Jackson Pollock, after which a Robert Hughes was, perhaps, inevitable.

This Is the End