Twenty-five-year-old Nicole “Little Lencioni has a beautiful face, an instrument-filled house of her own in Santa Cruz, CA, a surfboard, a motorcycle and a devoted circle of ultra-cool friends. She should be having the time of her life.
Instead, Little’s life now revolves around death — namely, her mother’s. Maria Lencioni, age 48 and also the mother Nicole’s teenage half-siblings Julia and Andrew, has been battling stage IV breast cancer for the past four years — 2 years longer than the doctors expected. She says her children motivate her keep up the fight, even though 50 medications have failed to completely quell the spread of her disease.
A tough-cookie, tattooed stunner, the preternaturally composed Little says Maria was a “gnarly” mom to her, taking her along to parties and bars, but she’s put that aside and found forgiven her because of the way Maria has raised Andrew and Julia. Little hopes to carry on that legacy, parenting the two teens after their mother is gone.
The Lencionis are one of eight families featured in Showtime’s stunning new documentary series Time of Death, which airs Friday nights at 9/8CT. The show — improbably from the same folks who brought you Project Runway and Top Chef — originally sought to tell the stories of families making amends over the deathbed of a loved one. Instead, the hospice and hospital workers with whom the producers consulted encouraged them to create an honest, unflinching show about the reality of death and the process of dying. They changed course and began an intense selection process that lasted well over a year, seeking out families from all walks of life and people who were at different stages in coming to terms with their impending demise.
Then they imposed on their stories as little as possible, serving as their own cameramen and respecting the family members’ evolving wishes.
The resulting series seeks not so much to change the way death is portrayed on television, but the space it occupies in our lives, our families and our psyches. There is no suspense involved here — you know that the heroes and heroines at the center of every tale are going to die. It’s how they face the end, how their loved ones participate in (or pull away from) the process and what we recognize in ourselves as we witness all of it that is the heart of the project.
The Lencioni’s story is the only one that runs through all six episodes, following along as Little and her mother navigate the minefield of their difficult history while trying to determine the best possible outcome for Julia and Andrew.
“I know it sounds harsh to speak bad about my mom when she’s dying, but there’s a whole life that happened before and that doesn’t go away just because she’s sick,” says Nicole as she and her mother battle over priorities and the younger kids’ behavior. So while Maria struggles to accept that her deteriorating condition leaves her unable to care for herself and two unnerved teenagers who have begun to act out, Nicole comes to terms with a future that looks a whole lot different than she’d planned.
As the Lencioni family’s story unfolds, seven other terminally ill people and their loved ones are introduced on an episode-by-episode basis.
Michael Muth, 47, is dying of rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue that usually strikes children. Diagnosed just three months before the cameras began rolling, he has endured 17 rounds of radiation, 4 rounds of chemo and multiple blood transfusions, but nothing has stopped the rapid spread of his disease.
Muth admits that other than a 12-year stint in the Navy — following in his beloved dad’s footsteps — he’s lived a less than honorable life, doing drugs, drinking and failing at two marriages. He says he is fine with dying, because he believes that death is an evolution — “Maybe I’ll be the next God,” he jests — but he is sorry to cause his father additional pain. And he longs for closure with his second wife.
Grief counselor Lenore Leffer is 74 and has terminal pancreatic cancer. She says America is a death-denying culture and has made it her mission to use her final days to bring her family together as often as possible. Lenore and her husband Mel have been married for most of the 53 years they’ve known each other. They briefly divorced after another family tragedy, but reunited soon after.
Lenore’s primary caregiver is her son Josh who has battled a decades-long drug addiction borne of grief and guilt. Newly sober, he says caring for his mother has made him mindful of lingering temptations. Meanwhile, Josh’s brother Matt and Matt’s wife Daniella struggle with how to help their own three sons handle the impending death of their beloved “bubbe.”
“It’s not easy to die … and I didn’t know that as fully as I know that now,” Lenore tells the camera. Still, her last words are dazzling.
Cheyenne Bertiloni, 47, is in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A former MMA fighter, fireman/paramedic, private investigator, bodyguard and diver before the disease took hold, the now bedridden Cheyenne worries that his disease is punishment for his wild former lifestyle.
But there have been bright spots, too. His mother tracked down the two sons Cheyenne fathered with women who did not want him to be a part of their lives. The boys, now grown, have forged a relationship and visit their father often. Cheyenne also has devoted partner named Ruth who answered an ad he placed seeking one last great love before he dies and works in tandem with his hospice nurse to make sure Cheyenne’s life is as fulfilling as it can be.
Though his body is now immobile, Cheyenne uses a sophisticated computer to communicate everything that is on his still nimble mind. And in keeping with his freewheeling life, he has a unique plan for the days that follow his death.
Antronette “Toni “Yancey, a 55 year-old former model turned public health professor, activist, author and fitness authority is battling aggressive lung cancer, despite her lifelong devotion to wellness and having never smoked a day in her life. She calls her life partner Darlene and their precocious granddaughter Anais her “spots of heaven” and says her drive came from growing up in the heart of the civil rights movement.
Because she has lived such a vibrant life, Toni’s family is stunned by the rapid progression of her disease, which coincides with a remarkable professional accomplishment. Though Darlene had planned to allow the cameras to capture the ritual the family created to send Toni into the afterlife, a difficult circumstance changes her mind.
Like Maria, Laura Kovarik, 63, is dying of breast cancer that has taken over her body. Laura believes God has predetermined the day on which she will die, so that doesn’t concern her. Because she can no longer work, she and her caregiver daughter Lisa are giving up their apartment and heading for Colorado to live with Laura’s sister for the rest of Laura’s days. With their yowling cats in tow, they embark on a road trip an occasion, planning to stop at every kitschy attraction along with way — a decision Laura says she made because her own dysfunctional family was happy during childhood road trips. She hopes Lisa and her sister Keri will make peace before she dies.
Morris “Brad,” Bradley Jr., 77, has congestive heart failure. He and his wife have been married for 49 years and their grateful kids say they made marriage looks easy. Brad’s wife says that intense connection makes facing her life without him almost unbearable. Brad wants to die at home, and even though a complicated medicine regimen is making that difficult, his family hopes to honor his final wishes.
Nicolle Kissee, 19, has been battling melanoma for three years. Though she is relentlessly upbeat and is surrounded by a loving extended clan of family and friends, Nicolle’s parents fear that telling her the truth about her prognosis will quell her spirit.
Nicolle’s aunt Cindy, a medical professional who is instrumental in her care, laments that everyone talks about how it takes a village to raise a child, but no one talks about what it takes to lose one. She says that the family allowed the cameras to document Nicolle’s last days “so that families know how to love each other. It makes a difference when families work together, no matter how hard this journey is.”
That’s really the thesis statement of the show.
Capturing the actual moment of death of three of its subjects, Time of Death also makes plain — without ever sacrificing the dignity of the dying — that dying in real life doesn’t happen the way it’s usually portrayed on television: a last meaningful look exchanged, eyes close, body goes limp, the end. Instead, dying is as active a process as living, with steps and stages common to all. It is a profound, almost painfully personal thing to witness.
There are other underlying messages, too.
The sheer number of cancer victims here — several of whom thought they had beaten their disease before it returned with a vengeance — underscores that finding a cure should become a priority for all of us, beyond the walks and the multicolored ribbons. And also what it feels like for those of us in remission who march off to this doctor or that every three or six or twelve months, hoping against hope that our cancer has stayed away and wondering how long that reprieve will last.
And as the battle over the Affordable Healthcare Act wages on, it’s tough not to wonder what might have happened if some of these folks had had the resources to catch their diseases sooner — and what sort of financial responsibilities their families face now that they’re gone.
Ultimately, though, like the experience of dying itself, Time of Death’s impact will be different for everyone who tunes in. Which is an important, exhausting and incredibly rewarding thing to do, no matter what your reasons for doing so.
“I hope people will watch this show and consider their own relationship with death and dying,” said one of the show’s executive producers, Alexandra Lipsitz (who along with her sister and colleague Jane, lost her stepbrother to cancer while the show was in production). “Is it a healthy one? If not, what can change? If so, great. Get out there and LIVE your life full-out until you’re complete.”
Time of Death airs Fridays at 9/8CT on Showtime.