Dark Victory, Bright Soul
We’re outside at his patio table, the hub of conversation in Thom’s household. We’ve just sat down, post-dinner, for a smoke, Thom to my left and his partner Tom G. to my right.
Thom is very fragile, and his oxygen cannula has been removed from his nostrils and placed on top of his head so that his cigarette doesn’t cause the pure oxygen to catch fire. He draws slowly on his Marlboro, eyes closed, his face awash in calm.
I, on the other hand, am a bundle of energy. Not for any particular reason, it’s just the way my chemistry works. My leg bouncing up and down would drive him nuts, as would my proclivity for frenetically tapping my cigarette on the side of the ashtray.
I notice his eyes are open, and he’s watching my over-enthusiastic ashtray assault.
“I’m sorry,” I say quickly, pulling the cigarette back. “I was tapping my cigarette like an angry Bette Davis.” He smiles at this.
Because I’m generally put in charge of what we’ll watch on TV each evening, I ask my friends what they’d like to watch that night. I offer a few comedy suggestions (Thom, when he’s not watching Lester Holt or CNN News, has a penchant for broad comedy…The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are among his recent favorites), so I’m surprised when he says, “Let’s watch a Bette Davis movie.” Thom and Tom have recently watched the finale of the series “Feud,” about Davis and Joan Crawford, which they both enjoyed.
“I know,” I blurt, “Let’s watch Dark Victory. My favorite Bette Davis movie.”
“Sounds good,” says Thom, and Tom G. concurs.
Suddenly, it occurs to me. Bette Davis dies at the end of that film. From Cancer.
“Guys, I don’t think we should watch that movie.”
“Why?” the boys ask.
“Because…um…she dies of cancer at the end.”
Silence, for a moment. It’s slightly awkward.
Then Thom looks at me and says, “Let’s watch it.” He’s smiling softly. I marvel at his sense of humor, intact as ever despite his failing health and the quickly spreading cancer inside of him.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Thom, smiling more broadly now. “I want to see how it’s done.”
“Are you seriously going to make us watch a movie about someone dying of cancer?” I ask.
“Yup,” he says, with that million-dollar smile. I can’t help but laugh at his enthusiasm.
An hour later, the three of us are seated in his living room in front of his giant tv screen, watching Bette Davis over-emote her way through her cancer diagnosis in a melodramatic frenzy. Thom, Tom and I are practically guffawing at the over-the-top nobility of the dying Judith Traherne.
Finally, the ending of the film arrives, and Bette ascends the stairs to her bedroom, gazes with melancholy out her window, then retires to her bed where she expires in a haze of soft focus, a smile playing on her lips, one hand poised gently on the pillow next to her head.
I look over at Thom, who is looking at me.
“That’s how it’s done, Thom,” I say, smiling. “Do you think you can manage that?”
He laughs, and affirms that he can. He mimics Bette’s death scene to perfection.
“Okay,” I say. “We let you make us watch this movie, but if you make us listen to Seasons in the Sun I’m just going to end you right now.”
Though we don’t know it at the time, Thom has less than two weeks to live. On occasion, while helping his family and other friends nurse him, I’ll stare into his eyes, hoping he can still see me, and say, “Remember how Bette Davis did it.”
And while he does not pass with a smile on his face, nor with his hand positioned next to his head on his pillow, in the days leading up to his death he had definitely matched Bette scene for scene for dignity and courage in the face of the coming unknown. Barely complaining though in great pain, and with more concern for his caretakers than for himself.
While I seriously doubt that Thom modeled his last weeks after Bette Davis’ in Dark Victory, I do know that he showed all of us who were blessed to be with him those final weeks how to die with dignity and grace.
But before that, of course, he showed many of us how to live. With humor, with graciousness, with an appreciation of life that few could compete with. “Life begins when you say yes,” he would say. Or, “Sometimes life makes better decisions for us than we would for ourselves.” He filled the lives of those who loved him with joy.
And that in itself is a victory.