Over the years I’ve seen quite a few documentaries about terminally ill patients approaching their final days, but Time of Death, a new six-part series from Showtime premiering tonight, is perhaps the most challenging I’ve ever encountered.
Filmmakers Dan Cutforth and Jane and Alexandra Lipsitz effectively serve notice of their intentions in the opening scene, as we watch 25-year-old Nicole “Little” Lencioni choking back her tears as she makes a phone call to report that she has just found her mother, Maria, dead in her home. It’s a poignant scene that carries a stark warning: “You’re going to care about these people. Just don’t get your hopes up.” No wonder Showtime is billing Time of Death as “a brave new documentary series.”
Maria’s story unfolds in flashback over all six one-hour episodes, with each hour also chronicling the final days of at least one other patient dying of causes ranging from cancer to a rare blood disorder to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Maria, who is 48 when we meet her eight months before her death, has stage four breast cancer. Doctors have told her they can’t cure the cancer, just do what they can to prolong her life, but it’s been more than four and a half years since Maria was diagnosed with a condition that carried a likely prognosis of 18 months to live.
A single mother of three, Maria has made what peace she can with her medical condition, but her two youngest children – Julia, 15, and 14-year-old Andrew – walk on eggshells in the Santa Cruz, Calif., home they share with their mom. They put on a brave front, but they’re both deeply worried that their father – Maria’s ex-husband, whom both teens dislike – will try to get custody of them when Maria finally dies.
They’re pinning their hopes on older half-sister Little, who left her bartending job in Los Angeles a few years ago and moved to Santa Cruz to help her mom and siblings keep it together.
One of the most remarkable characters in the series, Little is heavily tattooed but model-pretty, and she’s managed to forgive Maria for being a “really gnarly” mother when Little was an infant, frequently leaving the baby asleep in the car while Maria went to a bar. She has noticed that Maria seems to have learned from those earlier mistakes, trying to be a good mother to her younger kids despite her illness and, instead of resenting them, Little has grown to love Julia and Andrew very much, stepping in as a surrogate mom to them as needed and taking engineering classes so she can afford to support them all when Maria dies.
“All I hope is that Julia doesn’t have a baby, Andrew doesn’t kill himself and they both do their homework,” she tells her best friend.
It’s impossible to watch Time of Death and not become emotionally invested in this family, as we watch how Maria’s cancer takes its toll on all the members. That’s one of the reasons Lenore Lefer, 75, whose story is told in episode 2, elected to let her pancreatic cancer run its course naturally instead of undergoing debilitating treatments to extend her life. A psychotherapist in the field of death and dying, Lefer had seen the exhausting toll such battles can take on loved ones, so she decided the cure in her case would be worse than the disease itself.
Other patients profiled in Time of Death include Cheyenne Bertiloni, 47, a former mixed martial arts fighter whose ALS diagnosis only motivated him to spend his final days working to rebuild damaged family relationships; Dr. Antronette “Toni” Yancey, a 55-year-old physician, poet, author and former model diagnosed with lung cancer; Laura Kovarik, 63, a breast cancer patient who takes a last road trip with her daughter, Lisa; Morris Bradley Jr., 77, a distinguished Air Force veteran laid low by a genetic blood disorder; Michael John Muth, a Navy veteran with a rare cancer; and the heartbreakingly young Nicolle Kissee, a vibrant 19-year-old fighting for her life against stage-four melanoma.
Time of Death offers an unforgettable gallery of portraits in courage and human resiliency. You’ll have to decide whether you have the strength to pay the price of admission, however.