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An unblinking look into face of death


Television hates death.

Death makes people uncomfortable, and uncomfortable translates to tune-out in terms of viewers.

That is reason enough for me to sing the praises of Bill Moyers and PBS for "On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying," a brave and unblinking look at death and the politics of dying how and where we want.

"Moyers on Dying" is uneven, too often marred by cliched visuals and a downright clunky editing style that fails to find a rhythm to some of the stories it is trying to tell. But what powerful and profound moments many of the stories in this documentary still manage to deliver during its six hours over four straight nights starting tomorrow.

Watching this series is not easy. If you have ever been deeply involved with the death of someone you love, it will be painful at times to watch. But "Moyers on Dying" also offers bursts of transcendence - stretches where you will lose any sense of yourself and the world around you as you join one or another of the persons in the documentary on their journey to the grave.

Transcendence and television are two words rarely found in the same sentence. Such TV moments, which can enrich our lives as much as any of the co-called "high" arts, are to be cherished.

Moyers is decidedly old school in his method of film-making. If you have been watching "Hopkins 24/7," the splendid six-hour documentary from ABC News on Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Medical Center, for example, you are going to feel like you got off a race horse and onto a mule as you settle in with Moyers.

Instead of the bang-bang, in-the-middle-of-events opening sequences in "24/7," you have Moyers sitting in front of a yellow background talking to you like a college lecturer. Think of the late Charles Kuralt opening "Sunday Morning" on CBS. It is old-style CBS News - not surprising since Moyers, who also serves as co-executive producer and co-executive editor, and Elena Mannes, the series producer, are old CBS News hands.

But, as static and pedantic as his opening is, Moyers lays out a thesis with as much clarity as anyone in the business. After explaining how baby boomers are faced with caring for their dying parents, even as their own age has many of them thinking about mortality for the first time, he says: "So, like it or not, we can't push death back through the door. That's one reason we did this series.

"The other is that there's a movement afoot driven by our hope for a better death. There are doctors, nurses, hospice and social workers, and patients themselves pushing to improve care for the dying. What they're doing will affect us all.

"In these four programs, we'll report on that movement through the intimate journeys of the dying, their families and their caregivers."

The intimate journeys are what make the series special. While each 90-minute segment drifts a bit in the early going, each of the first three ultimately settles on one journey and in so doing finds a wonderful voice with which to sing its song of life in death. The story each tells is that of person with a terminal illness trying to determine how, where and when he or she will die. The theme is dignity and control in the face of death.

Dr. Bill Bartolome, a pediatrician and medical ethicist, is the story tomorrow night. Facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Dr. Bartolome and his wife, Pam, decide that he'll forego treatment that he considers excessive and instead focus on living "in the light of death." Dr. Bartolome keeps a diary of that experience - a remarkable document that through Moyers he shares with us as a gift to illuminate our lives, too.

Monday night, the narrative that elevates Moyers' report from journalism to poetry is that of Joyce Kerr, a retired math teacher in the late stages of cancer, who leaves one of the world's best hospitals to go home to die with the help of her family and hospice workers.

Tuesday, we meet Jim Witcher, a veterinarian in Louisiana with Lou Gehrig's Disease, a vicious predator that shuts down muscle movement inch by inch from the toes up - until breathing and swallowing are impossible. Witcher's fight to die with dignity in a state that by law ties the hands of anyone who might help is impossible to watch without weeping for him and his wife.

Moyers is the name in the title. But it's Bartolome, Kerr and Witcher to whom you should listen this week. They are the ones with the wisdom on dying.

'On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying'

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

When: 9 p.m.-10:30 p.m. tomorrow through Wednesday

In brief: Television brave enough to tackle death.

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