On Soap Operas, or, We Read and Watch Our Stories In Order to Live

(10/16/14, Canton, NY)

After a lengthy absence from the show due to his declining health, John Ingle’s last appearance as General Hospital patriarch Edward Quartermaine was broadcast on September 11, 2012. Ingle had been something of an institution on General Hospital, having played the role of the scheming, cantankerous businessman since 1993 (with the exception of a couple of years when the role was recast with another actor). A retired high school teacher whose drama students included Richard Dreyfuss, Barbara Hershey, and Albert Brooks, Ingle was reportedly an avuncular presence on the set, willing to help younger actors learn their craft and older actors hone their skills. When he died five days after the broadcast, on September 16th, his former co-stars sang his praises on social media. Steve Burton, who played his grandson Jason Morgan, tweeted, “A great husband. A great father. A great friend. A great actor. A great man. We love you John.” Billy Warlock, who played another grandson, A.J. Quartermaine, tweeted, “Today is the saddest day of my life. My friend and mentor John Ingle passed away last night. I’ll miss him more than words can say.” In the obituary released by ABC, Leslie Charleson, who played his daughter-in-law Monica Quartermaine and may have shared more screen time with him than just about anyone else on the show, said, “He was genuinely interested in people and everything that was going on… his dressing room door was always open, and many of us would find our way there to pick his brain and, in turn, he would lend an ear and offer his wisdom.” The show’s executive producer Frank Valentini noted, “In our brief time working together, I have enjoyed getting to know a great man who embraced life, cherished what he did and, most of all, loved his family. He is already truly missed by the General Hospital family.”

Of course, these are things people say when someone dies. And when the deceased is a celebrity with even a minimal amount of fame, the cynical among us sometimes imagine that the condolences and expressions of grief from other celebrities might be, shall we say, less than sincere. These people pretend to experience emotions for a living, and much of their appeal comes from audiences identifying with them. Public mourning– especially in a venue like Twitter– can seem self-serving.

I think, though, that these comments are heartfelt, that the loss expressed by these people was genuine. Or maybe I just like to think it, because I like the story of the retired teacher who found success as a full-time actor and who never lost his gift for instruction, and whose insights and advice were appreciated by his co-stars and unofficial students. You can call me sentimental if you wish, but I want to believe that these TV stars appreciated their fallen friend, and recognized– as I did when I read the news of his death– that this death mattered, that this life mattered, and that this loss was significant. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote in “The White Album,” and this story of the soap star teacher and his appreciative and adoring students was one that I found myself desperate to believe in.

*

Having cancer was a terrible experience, but I find myself grateful for the life I’ve lived since my final radiation treatments in 2000. My cancer had been especially pernicious, recurring twice—- once in 1998 after initial chemotherapy treatments, and then again in 2000 after aggressive chemotherapy and an autologous bone marrow transplant. I hated the chemo, of course, but radiation was far worse for me. It left me nauseous and fatigued to the point that I couldn’t work, but not so exhausted that I slept peacefully. More than that, it left me depressed and lethargic. I could have gone out, but didn’t. I might have interacted with friends, but I usually chose solitude. Most of the time, I sat on the couch, playing Tomb Raider II on a borrowed Playstation until I felt like I couldn’t see straight. Or listening to Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya album– Zevon’s stripped-down, slowed-down cover of Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again” suggested a sense of melancholic delusion in the song’s speaker that is absent from Winwood’s original, and the song became my theme song for a while there, as I sadly promised myself that I too would soon “Drink and dance with one hand free” and “Have the world so easily” once I was back in the high life I belonged in. Or, occasionally, watching General Hospital. But not often. I didn’t have cable in my apartment at that point, and this was before the days of a high-speed Internet that allowed us to watch our stories on our computers.

I do know that at this point Edward Quartermaine was frequently something of a villainous figure, and that in 2000, he was working hard to keep young Emily Quartermaine from the boy she loved, Zander Smith. The understanding was that Edward was too old to understand the pure love the two shared, and too much of a blue blood to allow his granddaughter to associate with someone as common as the street-smart Zander– a common “deviant,” Edward frequently, cantankerously charged. Even Edward’s wife, the saintly Lila Quartermaine, thought Edward heartless for trying to stand in the young lovers’ way. Seldom brought up was the fact that Zander and Emily met because he was her drug dealer, and he took her hostage and kidnapped her in order to escape from the police when he was suspected of murder.

People who do bad things are often forgiven on soap operas, if they repent their evil ways and test well with audiences (this is why there are so many rapists-turned-romantic-leads on daytime dramas). The actor who played Zander, Chad Brannon, was good looking and had chemistry with Amber Tamlyn, the actress who played Emily. So they became a young supercouple, and Edward– the only character to voice the completely sensible objection that this young woman was clearly suffering from Stockholm syndrome and needed to be protected from her captor-cum-boyfriend– wound up looking like a bitter old fuddy-duddy.

*

Several characters on General Hospital have had cancer. Monica Quartermaine developed breast cancer in the 90s. Her adopted daughter Emily developed breast cancer as well about a decade later. Super-spy Robert Scorpio survived colon cancer. Josslyn Jacks had cancer in both of her kidneys. At different times, things looked dire for these characters, but they all lived to love another day.

Angelina Jolie— the actress who played Lara Croft in the movies based on the Tomb Raider videogames– had both of her breasts removed after learning that a defective gene left her with an 87% chance of developing breast cancer. She will, presumably, live to see her children grow up.

On September 7, 2003 Warren Zevon died of peritoneal mesothelioma nearly ten months after his final live performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, where he ended his set not with his famous crowd-pleaser “Werewolves of London” but with the less-famous, but better, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” After his diagnosis, Zevon lived to see the births of his grandchildren and the release of his final album, The Wind.

Nine years and four days after Zevon’s Letterman appearance, Edward Quartermaine appeared on General Hospital for the last time, speechless save for four words uttered to his daughter Tracy; five days after that, the cancer he had been fighting for all of 2012 finally killed John Ingle.

*

When I’m teaching literature, I always make a point of re-reading the stories, poems, and essays I assign my students, even when I have read them dozens of times in the past. I always discover something important that I had forgotten. Sometimes, my wife has to correct me when I say something like “I’ve never seen a Georgia O’Keefe painting in person before” by saying, “Yes you have—you couldn’t stop talking about O’Keefe after our visit to the Chicago Art Institute.” Stanley Kubrick is my favorite filmmaker, but I still haven’t seen Barry Lyndon. I keep meaning to read more James Joyce— I know I ought to be familiar with more than just Ulysses and “Araby,” but I never seem to find the time.

I’ve seen Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama more than once, though.

“As a writing man, or secretary,” E.B. White wrote in “The Ring of Time,” “I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” And I guess that’s part of what motivates me too. To write, and to write about stuff that mattered to me, even if it strikes some as silly or lowbrow. The world changes fast, and life as we know it changes before we have time to register. Just think of the changes John Ingle– born in 1928— saw in his lifetime. The development of the interstate highway system. Televisions in every home. The rise of the Internet. The world that he died in was not the same world he was born in.

So it will be for me. So it is for all of us.

While it’s dangerous to live in the past, to give in to nostalgia’s deceptive pull, I think we’re well-served by making an effort to remember the world as it existed, as we perceived it at the time. Holding onto what was real keeps us rooted to who we have been, and reminds us of the world– or, perhaps more accurately, worlds– we have lived in. The history books will remember the presidents and the captains of industry. Neither Nabokov nor Twain will ever go out of print. Scholars and culture critics will make sure we remember the Citizen Kanes and The Wires.

But who is going to remember the One Life to Lives? Or the Howard the Ducks? Or The Gong Shows? These things were part of our cultural landscape for a time. People worked hard on them, and surely their efforts and the work that resulted ought to be remembered in some way. They might not have had the lasting impact the works of high art are supposed to have, but they mattered to a lot of people, who labored on them or experienced them as an audience that cried, laughed, or played along at home.

And who, for that matter, will remember me?

*

The hospital was overrun with dying patients– the villainous Jerry Jacks and his accomplices, Dr. Ewen Keenan and Joe Scully Jr, had poisoned Port Charles’s water supply. Many, including the Quatermaines’ beloved cook, Cook, had already died.

For some reason a few people seemed unaffected by the toxin– Alexis Davis, Josslyn Jacks, and Tracy Quartermaine were all inexplicably healthy. An examination of Tracy’s blood showed that, somehow, she had antibodies that counteracted the venom. In fact, a smitten Joe Jr. had given Tracy the antidote that Jerry had given him to guard against the toxin’s effects, but nobody knew this at the time. All they knew was that the doctors at General Hospital had been able to synthesize a single dose of the cure, and would not have time to develop more before the citizens of Port Charles began to die from Jacks’s treachery.

While the heroic doctors– Monica Quartermaine, Steve Webber, Patrick Drake— debated what to do with the single vial of the antidote, Tracy broke into her sister-in-law, Monica’s, office to steal it. The cure came from her blood, she reasoned, thus she would be the one to decide who among the thousands of sick citizens would get it.

She had her father, Edward, brought to the hospital. He didn’t say a word as orderlies pushed his wheelchair into the crowded emergency room, and he was silent as Tracy spoke to him in his private room, where she produced the purloined vial and said, “I want you to drink this.”

The conversation that immediately followed Tracy’s instruction can only exist our imaginations, but when we next saw Tracy and Edward, they were holding hands, “I love you, Daddy,” she said.

Slowly, with apparent difficulty, he replied, “I love you too,” then left his mouth open in a slight gasp, as if he might be overcome with emotion, as she leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

And then, Tracy left the room to find Patrick Drake, to tell him that Edward had insisted that the antidote be given to the good doctor’s sick daughter.

*

“No one has ever watched a soap opera and said, ‘My God! I can’t believe that happened!’ I doubt anyone’s life has ever been changed by something he or she saw on a daytime drama.”

I wrote those words at some point in 2003 or 2004, as I was composing the very first essay that I would later publish. That essay got me some positive attention– publication, as I said, and a “Special Mention” in that year’s Pushcart Prize anthology of small press publications and “Notable Essay of 2005” in The Best American Essays collection. Its success likely resulted in my first academic job, too, after I finished my Ph.D. work. I’ve taken a lot of pride in that essay over the years, but now I wonder if I might have gotten a few things wrong.

I didn’t say out loud, “My God! I can’t believe that happened” when John Ingle was wheeled onto the set of General Hospital. In fact, I had read beforehand that he would be appearing after a months-long absence—perhaps for the final time, as some people who knew him speculated. I knew he had been sick, even suspected—though I didn’t know for sure—that he might have had cancer (he’d been treated for a melanoma on the top of his head, which meant that he was always conspicuously wearing a hat during his subsequent appearances on the show). But I was still surprised to see just how much he seemed to have aged. The last time he had been on, he was able to portray the same opinionated, belligerent, yet ultimately family-oriented character he had been playing for decades. Now, he was in a wheelchair, thin and gaunt, and apparently unable to speak.

Of course, he did speak. He said, “I love you too.” Not merely “I love you,” which would have spared him the effort of uttering an additional syllable and been quite moving on its own. But “I love you too.” In character, as Edward, this line was directed towards his daughter, Tracy. But I think– or I choose to believe– that this was also the actor himself, addressing his fans, those people who had watched him play a schemer, a curmudgeon, a husband and a father for years. “I love you too,” he told them, anticipating how they would respond once his cancer had finally claimed him, as he must have known it soon would.

Did watching John Ingle’s final scene as Edward Quartermaine change my life? Not exactly. But it did remind me how frail and fleeting our lives actually are, and that’s a lesson that can’t be driven home hard– or frequently– enough, I think.

*

We go to bed, and my wife falls asleep before me. We’re both college English professors, and we both have a habit of reading something not work-related before we go to sleep– nothing we’re going to try to teach in the morning. For Emily, that usually means a short story from someone like Andre Dubus or Ann Beattie. It sometimes means that for me too, but it also sometimes means flipping through the latest New Yorker. Or humor by the likes of Al Franken or Jack Handey.

But tonight, maybe I go into my office and grab an Incredible Hulk out of my collection. Say, issue 376, which came out when I was in the eighth or ninth grade and features the “Gray Hulk” fighting the “Green Hulk” inside a space created by Dr. Bruce Banner’s fractured mind. Their goal is to kill each other, but as a reader, I know that none of them– Gray, Green, or Banner himself– will survive unless the three personalities are integrated into a healthy, complete whole. This was one of my early lessons in psychology, although I’d seen a similar process of fragmentation and reintegration on Another World, when innocent housewife Sharlene Frame developed the alter ego “Sharly,” a prostitute who cavorted with a congressman.

I could read this and remember what it was like to be a kid excited by the adventure and psychological horror of radiation-spawned monsters fighting for supremacy. Or maybe I’ll pick up The Making of Star Wars, and remind myself of how thrilling I found these movies, and how inspiring it is to realize that, when he was my age, George Lucas was not yet famously successful– there’s hope for me yet. Or maybe I’ll crack open my copy of Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera.

Whatever I decide, I will fall asleep thinking about these things that I’ve loved in the past, these things that I love even now, and that I will likely continue to love in the future. Once upon a time—when I was 22 years old—a doctor told me there was only a 40% chance that I would live to see 27. I’m 38 now. I have been very lucky, and I hope I don’t sound too selfish when I say that I hope this streak of good luck keeps going for a very long time.

If I’m really lucky, my wife will groggily roll over, put her hand on my chest, say good night and tell me she loves me. I, of course, will tell this woman I have been with for the past twelve years, “I love you too,” and I’ll fall asleep grateful and content.

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