I had cancer as a child. Diagnosed at five and given a clean bill of health at age eighteen. Presently two friends of mine have been diagnosed with cancer. I think about them a lot. They both have amazing spouses and they both have the support of their friends and family. I want them to know that they are going to feel alone sometimes. Sometimes it comes down to you and the disease at three o’clock in the morning. I rarely talk about my cancer. If I meet someone and they come out as a survivor then I do, too. I see it as a club. The dues are hefty, but you get the rest of your life to live. So there is that. And that is everything.
I watched a lot of movies when I was a kid. I loved the feeling of zoning out and losing myself in a movie – especially when I could not sleep. My first favorite movie was The Sandpiper (1965), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Sleepless and five years old I would watch late night television in the den downstairs. I don’t really think my parents even knew I did this until I started talking about this movie:
“There was a ministoh (I couldn’t pronounce my r’s) and this ow-tist (Elizabeth Taylor was a artist). She is a fah-wee spir-wit. There’s a naked statue of her in the living woom. The lady took care of a sandpipoh. They fall in love and then the minstoh’s wife finds out. They stop seeing each othoh and then the ministoh leaves town.”
My parents thought it was hysterical that I loved this movie so much, and at every opportunity they would ask me to describe it to their friends. Joanne Mills, a longtime friend of the family, would come over to our house after a particularly rough day and ask me about the movie. I never failed to deliver because I truly loved this movie.
I watched this movie within the last ten years and I was struck at what a beautiful film it is: Big Sur; the boho fashion of the mid 1960s; Elizabeth Taylor’s beach house; Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes; Richard Burton’s handsome wistfulness; and the story of someone whose faith is tested and who ultimately decides to be free. Take as many paths as needed. All of them lead you to these big choices.
Another favorite movie came to me when I was around twelve. It was autumn and I had just had a surgery. I started seeing commercials for a spectacular television event: two night of Cleopatra (1963)! Starring none other than Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton! What?! This was too much. I talked about it – a lot. The night before the television event my dad ran the cable up to my bedroom and put a TV in my room. Now I could watch Cleopatra in my bed.
How luxurious. This was the 1970s and my family was working class. My parents didn’t even have a TV in their room. So for two nights I soaked up every Technicolor moment. As a budding film critic I had to say I liked the Sandpiper better. I thought the director Joseph Mankiewicz really went too much for the flash. At the time it was most the most expensive movie ever made. That said it blew my mind. I thought about it for months and came up with alternate endings. However historically inaccurate the movie was I wanted an even more historically inaccurate ending. I wanted them to live happily ever after. Spoiler alert: he dies by his own sword upon hearing of Cleopatra’s death (but really she isn’t dead she just has a buddinsky aide who doesn’t want them together). The ending has Cleopatra without anyone to trust so she clasps an asp to her bosom and dies.
Burton and Taylor fell in love during production. Later came the BIG diamond, the wedding, the battles, the divorce, the second courtship, the re- marriage….their life together was a fantastic journey. Lots of twists and turns. And during this time they made some good pictures together.
My parents didn’t talk about me being sick. Parents didn’t do that in the 1970s. No one talked about it. I would sometimes walk into a room and hear a whisper from an aunt, “yes, she is the sick one”. I didn’t see myself that way and my parents didn’t either. Or at least they didn’t project that to me. The act of running the cable to my room is one of the memories I have when my parents made some acknowledgement that I was sick. They understood it might be too much for me to watch the movie in the living room and I would be more comfortable in my bed.
The next time you are with someone who is ill don’t pretend they are not sick or going through something big. Be like Elizabeth Taylor. She didn’t shy away from sickness. Her friend Rock Hudson became ill with AIDS and she stuck by him – privately and publicly. She became a voice of reason among many who saw HIV and AIDS as some sort of punishment or comeuppance. Think back – some people did not want to be in the same room as someone who had AIDS. Elizabeth Taylor made a big show of kissing her friend, Rock, in public. She made a big show talking about the disease. And, she raised money. Who would have thought this magical movie goddess would be more known for her heart than her violet eyes? You don’t know what your legacy will be. Life is full of weird twists and turns.