Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Enlightening and Educational Christmas Story

Breast cancer wasn't the sort of thing that was mentioned on television 40 years ago.

But the writers for All in the Family were all about breaking down barriers, and they chose their 1973 Christmas episode to take on the topic of breast cancer.

I guess there has always been a kind of conspiracy of silence concerning certain illnesses, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of a sense that polite people didn't speak of such things. Whatever the reason, it always seemed to rob people of their power as individuals. When I was growing up, my mother told me that knowledge was power. She told me that time and time again, which probably isn't surprising given that both my parents were educators.

Veils of silence impose limits on that power.

Such a veil of silence seemed to exist around breast cancer. I simply don't remember hearing much about it until well into the 1970s if not the 1980s. I might be mistaken about that, but I have no memory of it.

In fact, I remember watching the episode of All in the Family that aired 40 years ago tonight.

And I remember the lighthearted, disarming approach to the start of the episode, when first Mike (Rob Reiner) and then Archie (Carroll O'Connor) showed up with shopping bags filled with Groucho Marx glasses.

Then Edith arrived (the audience already knew she had gone to what appeared to be a routine doctor's appointment earlier that day), laughed over the Groucho Marx glasses and went to the kitchen, where she lapsed into distraction while doing simple things like filling a saucepan with water.

She confessed to Gloria that she had found a lump on her breast and said that was the "lucky part" of her story. Gloria was confused — as most viewers probably were — until Edith went on to explain that most breast cancers were discovered in self–examinations. Early detection was the key to survival then, and that hasn't changed. Self–examination isn't foolproof, never has been, but it is still the best way that is known to catch breast cancer in its earliest stages.

People just didn't talk about breast cancer 40 years ago. Edith probably educated a lot of people that night.

That wasn't really so unusual. Edith was often dismissed as a simpleton, but she had a lot of wisdom, and she enlightened people in her way.

But she could be enlightened, too, as she was in this episode.

She confessed to her friend Irene (Betty Garrett) her anxiety over how Archie would see her if she had to undergo surgery. Irene assured her that she was worrying about nothing, that Archie loved her and nothing would change that.

"You don't know," Edith said.

"That's just the point, I do know," Irene replied, and she went on to tell Edith that having breast surgery several years earlier hadn't affected her marriage at all.

A visibly relieved Edith embraced Irene. "You made me feel so much better!" she told her.

Archie was still in the dark over what was going on with Edith, though. When Edith went in for a test, Archie was under the impression that she had gone Christmas shopping for him.

Irene was the one who let the cat out of the bag. She came over to inquire about Edith, and she and Mike were exchanging hand signals when Archie, seated in his chair and thinking of the fishing rod he believed Edith was purchasing, piped up that he knew where Edith was.

Irene rushed to him and asked if Edith was all right. Then the cat really was out of the bag. The three of them raced to the hospital, where they found Edith in bed.

Archie could be opinionated, racist, sexist and anything else you want to mention — and you would certainly be right. But he had his moments. One of them came when he sat down next to Edith's hospital bed while she slept.

He put his hand on hers, and she stirred, opening her eyes and telling Archie he didn't have to come to the hospital.

"You're my wife," he protested, "no matter what happens."

Edith said she would be home the next day. Archie was confused. "They told me you had cancer," he said.

No, Edith replied. It turned out to be a cyst, and the doctor removed it with no problem.

Looking around, Archie said, "So what are you laying here for?"

Sheepishly, Edith answered, "When they told me everything was all right, I got so excited I jumped off the examining table, and I broke my ankle!" She pulled back the bedcovers to reveal a cast.

In hindsight, the Bunkers probably laughed about that moment, how relieved they both were. But at the time, all Archie could do was say, "Oh, Edith," and give her a hug.

Which is probably what most people would do under the circumstances.