Confronting My Mortality with Dr. Greene

And you all thought I was done with ER

For those new to this blog and new to my stream of consciousness, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the medical drama that I used to watch with my parents as a child. I’ve spent the last year or so on a binge of old episodes for a show that went on for 15 entire seasons. Thanks to the pandemic, my efforts increased from passive enjoyment of blocks of episodes on Hulu Live channels to active consumption to get over a slump I hit around season 10. I’ve made it all the way to the episode before the series finale and I’ve learned a lot about the fate of characters I began to admire and care about even as a child. 

I guess spoilers for ER? Do I still have to give spoiler warnings for a show this old?

There’s a strangeness now to watching the older episodes (they’re all old in comparison) but the channel that has been my main source of the medical drama will roll back to season 1 after finishing up the entire series which means for a lot my watch time of the show, I get to be a horrible omnipotent god who has foreseen terrible things for many of these characters. I know what happens to Lucy Knight, making her screen time all the more bittersweet. I know that Peter Benton leaves County to be a better father for his son, Reese. I know John Carter probably has the worst luck with women of any man as rich and cute as he is. I know Susan Lewis leaves to become a mother and Abby and Luka also leave to raise their child. I know Kerry leaves to be the best damn lesbian in Florida and I know Gallant, Gant, Pratt all face tragic deaths; a particularly painful loss considering these were all three black men that were truly great examples of representation for a show that has done some great work in pushing forward as diverse of a cast as possible. I know Neela didn’t deserve Ray and that Elizabeth Corday is doomed to being a widow. 

Speaking of Elizabeth Corday, we need to talk about her husband, Mark. Mark Greene is probably the main character of the series for most of the show’s run. While your POV is meant to be the young and naive John Carter for early seasons most of the drama seems to always revolve around Mark. He is the one with the marriage in trouble, who is struggling to maintain his job at County and he is the one whose child is a brat (Rachel, at least; from what we know Ella is a sweet baby angel.). And he is the one who we find out has an inoperable brain tumor. 

Television dramas always have an issue of disportionately dosing out trauma to their characters. Someone is always the trojan horse, meant to carry all of the weight of pain for the season or half season. Criminal Minds did it with Rossi, Reid, Morgan and Hotchner. House did it with it’s entire damn cast, mostly cycling through used griefs as a means to poke the bear when it comes to pulling sympathy out of a rapt audience. But for some reason ER took particular delight in torturing its characters. Whether it was removing Romano (who is awful) of his arm or the myriad of shootings that happened: ER seemed to really get off on really twisting the knife into some characters (RIP Lucy and I’m sorry, John.). For the first really 8 seasons of the series, that knife was firmly in Dr. Greene. Let’s go over just a few ways the show decided to ruin his life. Lost a high risk pregnant patient, lost his marriage, got an inoperable brain tumor, had what may be the worst daughter in television history, saw his other infant daughter end up drug-poisoned by worst daughter in television history, had to fight a wrongful death lawsuit, was attacked in a bathroom, married an awesome person but had to deal with that while dying, lost both of his parents, was a caregiver to his dying father. 

 It led up to what really ended being just an exhausted shell of a man who did his best to continue to be a father, mentor, husband, friend and doctor during his time on the show. 

And that tired man is who we meet during the episode “On the Beach”. 

“On the Beach” is the episode in which Mark Greene dies. Mark takes his bratty daughter, Rachel, to Hawaii so he can die in peace. He is later joined by his wife and other child and the whole episode is an emotional wreck for someone who doesn’t have dead father trauma but even more painful for someone like me. But it isn’t just the episode that’s hard to watch. It’s every episode before that one that becomes increasingly hard to stomach. 

In Death Note one of the powers a shinigami has is the ability to see how long a person has left in their life span. The number floats above the head of every human and while Misa has this power, Light turns it down because…well, I’m not sure. I’ll say existential dread. In watching that, I also felt existential dread. Knowing my days are literally numbered. And every episode of ER I stacked under my belt was one closer to Dr. Greene’s death; like a time bomb I was powerless to stop. Each episode in which he deteriorated or tragedy befell him was one episode closer to when the show and thus, the audience would lose him forever. Just like my own life that as each day’s curtain closes, I’m one day closer to being lost forever. 

I wanted to find comfort in it at first; the bandage of loss had already been removed. I had already shed tears over this grief and thus it should hurt so much less but each time I got to relive the pain of Dr. Greene’s final days, it all hurt the same. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I just ached, sometimes I felt nothing at all. 

The ticking clock of impending doom also made me appreciate the screen time I had left with Dr. Greene. The moments where he laughed or saved a patient mattered so much more knowing that my time with him was limited; knowing that I would lose him. 

And maybe that’s a worthwhile lesson to keep in mind: knowing that all of our time is brief and coming to an end to cherish the moments that are good or bad or just the ones that affirm that we indeed are mortal. 

The Day If Becomes When

Corpse Door

“Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”-W. Somerset Maugham

When I was 12 I lost my father under sudden circumstances and complications to chronic illness. But even at 12 I was no stranger to death. I had lost my grandfather at 9 and Death’s cruel shade would continue to haunt me well into my adulthood. It’s no surprise, really. It’s the one thing we all have in common. Mortality. But we as a group, collective or society don’t talk about it or deal with this fact well and today I’d like to talk about that a little bit more.

Don’t worry. Things will lighten up soon.

When I was 9, my grandfather passed away as mentioned above. He was a great man but he was sick. It was at 9 that I remember being one of the first times asking about my own mortality.  As children here in the West, our parents quickly changed the topic of conversation when such serious topics arose. The wording was always very careful.

If you die, you go to heaven. 

If, not when.

As if to say because I was a child, I was somehow immune to the nature of entropy. Now, I understand being discrete with children. I’m Southern. And it’s a painful topic to discuss with a child. And not an easy one especially considering that most adults don’t seem to have a solid grasp on mortality. It was also at 9 that my mother told me that I shouldn’t cry at my grandfather’s funeral. I was the oldest of the grandchildren and “had to set an example” for my younger cousins. I was as I said before, 9 years old.

It was this verbiage of if that dotted my childhood. Through natural  disasters, terrorism and disease. If.

When my father died at 12, I received a book on how to “cope” with loss. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Dino Life Guides for Families) [if you have read this book and had great feelings about it, please let me know. I’m almost tempted to give it another read now as a cynical adult to see if angry 12 year old Amanda just didn’t like being given a book to explain the grand mysteries of life and death or it was just a piss-poor book] and I maintain that it’s the most tone-deaf piece of literature ever. It did not help me cope with the loss of my father. It just made me angry. But it was the first time that I remember the tone of loss change. “When we die, this is where we’ll go.” my mother said, standing in front of the open plots. She had purchased two plots: one for me and one for her, shortly after my father’s death. At 12 the fabled if of loss became a when. Life became a ticking clock.

It happens to everyone. It’s just a matter of when. 

The reason to bring this up? Recently I joined The Order of the Good Death. A collection of those that say they are Death Positive. Mortality isn’t a curse, it’s a fact. We’re all headed to a grand greater something. What that something is…yet to be unknown. But we’ll all be there.

Another point to bring this up, many of my favorite web celebrities (John and Hank Green are honorable mentions) have been very concerned about mentioning mortality in popular culture. Hank Green recently posted a song to his very popular Youtube channel titled: We’re All Gonna Die. And it’s a brilliant, if not subtly cheeky way, to deal with the fact that our time is finite. I’ve always admired the Green brothers and their candid discussions on their anxiety with the matter; John especially.  The Ask a Mortician channel on Youtube is incredibly informative and witty while still being human and it quickly has become one of my favorite new sources for videos.

But as a culture, we’re still uncomfortable talking about death. Some outlets have taken a stand against this and has started to take a stand on realizing that life isn’t something that just goes on forever. We’re mortal. Our lives are very finite and it’s about time we start realizing it. When YOLO first became popular it was a catchall phrase to rationalize somewhat reckless acts because we do in fact “only live once”. Being finite doesn’t mean that our lives are meaningless, it means if anything, it means more. We have so many days, minutes, seconds, weeks and so on. Let’s all do something with the time we have. We’re not Wonder Woman, Superman or a sitcom character: and even some superheroes die; they just come back later on. Our universe is even finite: it will eventually end. All of it.

However, being Southern it’s still a taboo topic. We still struggle with the memory, memorial and sanctity of our dead. We value and rush through life with vigor and we mourn the dead as if death never comes. But Death…the handsome gentleman caller that he is, has very little concerns for our Southern ignorance; he just waits.

Enjoy your existence, whether you believe in the cold nihilism of the mostly unforgiving universe or the warm tender embrace of an afterlife as something greater.