DATE September 6, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bill Moyers talks about his new PBS series, "On Our
Own Terms: Moyers on Dying"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music; from "On Our Own Terms")
Mr. BILL MOYERS (TV Producer): I'm Bill Moyers. Like you, I don't want to
think about death, especially my own. But I've realized that death is
through the door we try to keep so firmly shut.
GROSS: Bill Moyers has a new PBS series about death and dying, but the
isn't just on dying; it's on trying to live a decent life in the face of
and on the movement to improve care at the end of life, such as new
to pain relief and hospice care. The series also examines some of the
difficult personal and medical choices faced by people who are dying and
loved ones. The series is called "On Our Own Terms." It premieres Sunday
evening on most PBS stations and continues over the next three consecutive
Over the course of the series, cameras take us into the homes, hospitals and
hospices to meet people with terminal illnesses and the doctors and nurses
care for them. One of the people we meet on the first edition is Dr. Bill
Bartholome, a pediatrician who was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, a
(Soundbite from "On Our Own Terms")
Dr. BILL BARTHOLOME (Cancer Patient): I think I went through a process.
There was a period of about six months after the diagnosis that I
a kind of grief that I had never known. I cried, you know, uncontrollably,
bawling till you have no more tears. It was suffering that transcended
I mean, it was--I had a lot of pain during that time, but it was not in the
same league as the suffering. But that didn't really last very long. You
get the rewards of your grief work, and those are that you move down the
to a place where it's OK, and you can begin embracing that reality and
discovering what it's like to live in what I've been calling the light of
death, live as a terminal person.
GROSS: I spoke with Bill Moyers about his new series, and he told me that
working on these interviews with people facing death was different from what
he'd experienced before.
Mr. MOYERS: Usually, I will conduct a series of interviews and then we'll
into the editing room and I'll watch the people on the screen and casually,
idly in the back of my mind, knowing that they're going on about their
business, the politicians out on the campaign stump, a business executive is
running his company, a writer is sitting in her study writing. But in this,
after we'd done the interviews, everyone that I interviewed in the course of
the year of reporting died, before we--or while we were editing. And so we
were seeing these people on our AVED machines, on our editing machines,
they were gone. And it was a strange experience of seeing the image after
reality, of knowing--actually, it just made me realize that one day
somebody'll be looking at my image on an editing machine and I won't really
around any more.
So I was constantly processing this, constantly being reminded of my own
mortality and thinking, `One of these days I'm going to have to set aside my
professional reaction to this subject and really deal with it personally.'
GROSS: You did a survey of what Americans' biggest fears of death are.
were the results you came up with?
Mr. MOYERS: Whatever their backgrounds, people said they most fear reaching
the end of their lives hooked up to machines. They just want a gentle
closure. They want a dignified death. They want not to die in a nursing
or a hospital. In fact, the survey you're referring to, I think, said that
percent of the people said they would prefer to die at home, not in a
or a nursing home. However, the fact of the matter is that four out of five
of us will die in a hospital or a nursing home or some other institution
outside our own home. That's what people fear.
GROSS: Pain was one of the things that people seemed to fear most about
death, and pain is the subject of the second edition of your series on death
and dying. And I thought there were some interesting distinctions made
between hospice and its approach and palliative care. Palliative care is
dealing with pain within a hospital setting, as opposed to a hospice
What are the differences you came away with between hospice and palliative
Mr. MOYERS: Well, it's a very fine difference. When you're in a hospital
doctors are either trying to save you or trying to comfort you, they bring a
great deal of professional skill and training to the task. So it's
institutionalized care, even if it is palliative or comfort care.
care is comfort care. You know that the person can't be cured, so you will
try to comfort that person as she dies.
Hospice is a way of just providing human comfort. It uses very little
technology--no technology. Hospice is the human touch. So is palliative
care, but palliative care relies more on the medicine and on--well, let me
give you an example.
My own mother died last year, 1999, at the age of 91. It took her three
hard years to die. I'll never forget the day three years earlier when she
literally stopped aging, in my mind--literally stopped aging and started
dying. I was sitting at her bedside, her forehead wrinkled, her eyes
her jaw slackened, her fingers curled into a fist. I mean, the person that
had known for 60-some-odd years of my life just suddenly disappeared.
I made a lot of mistakes during those three years. I didn't know enough
the breakthroughs in palliative care, comfort care. I mistook the
inscrutability of the doctor for authority. My doctor would not give my
mother enough pain control, enough pain management. I finally had to let
go and bring in another doctor. This doctor said, `Mr. Moyers, your
not going to make it. You should call in hospice. Hospice will make sure
that she has as much comfort as is possible.'
The striking thing to me, Terry--here I was, a man in my early 60s, worldly,
wise, traveled, experienced in government and politics, publisher of a
newspaper, 30 years a broadcast journalist, and I didn't know how to take
of my mother. I didn't know about hospice. So fortunately, I called in
hospice. And what is hospice? Hospice are nurses who are trained in dying,
in helping you die a gentle death, and volunteers who come to provide a
personal presence, to be a witness to your death. That survey you mentioned
earlier--people fear dying alone. Well, a hospice volunteer makes sure that
you don't die alone.
And my mother died on the very first day--April 12th of last year--the very
first day that we were filming for this series. I was interviewing Frank
Ostaseski, whom you'll see in the first show, at his hospice center in San
Francisco. And my wife was with me, as the executive producer of the
and she interrupted us when we were changing tapes and said, `You have a
message.' I went out into the hall, and she said, `Your mother's dead.'
Well, my mother died quietly, holding the hand of the hospice volunteer,
remarkable woman named Jenny Mahud(ph). The last thing Jenny Mahud said to
mother in that nursing home was, `You know, Mrs. Moyers, your family really
loves you.' And my mother, who hadn't spoken or indicated much response
the last three years, a tear, says Jenny Mahud, formed on my mother's cheek
and quietly crept down her cheek. And I thought, what hospice did, what
Mahud did was to provide a witness to my mother's death, a friend who was
present at that moment. And that's what hospice does.
GROSS: Was there a part of you that felt really bad that your mother was
holding the hospice worker's hand and not yours?
Mr. MOYERS: No, I didn't feel really bad. I wished I had been there, but I
doubted that I could be there whenever it occurred because of the
and unpredictable nature of the journalist's life. I'd spent a good bit of
time, as had my wife and our grandchildren, with my mother over those three
years that she was with us. It just so happened that I was gone on that
particular day. There was no way to predict that day. I made sure that in
those three years, while she was just 10 minutes, 15 minutes from our house,
that I would spend as much time as I could.
The sad thing is that as my mother disappeared into her death and I would
by her bedside and talk to her, I couldn't get a response. Now you never
be sure that the dying person isn't hearing. In fact, doctors and hospice
workers will tell you, `Be careful what you say in a hospital room or the
death room or at home where your loved one is dying because they can often
hear when you don't think they could.' But I got no response from my
despite spending many hours of being at her side. And I think the great
of being there was for me.
But back to your point about palliative care. In the second broadcast,
see some teams of palliative care physicians and nurses who do it right.
They've got it right.
GROSS: Well, what interested me about that distinction between hospice and
palliative care, getting back to that, is that, you know, if you sign on to
hospice, you are signing away your ability to, say, call 911 and get an
ambulance; you're signing away your ability to have any real medical
intervention outside of dealing with the pain. And I think for a lot of
people, that's really terrifying. It's saying, like, `They've totally given
up on me. And all the things that one relies on in medicine are no longer
mine. All I can get is the comfort care.' And I'm not sure whether that's
because of the philosophy of a hospice or because of the definition that
insurance companies have placed on hospice so that they're limiting their
Mr. MOYERS: It's a combination of all of those factors. We did a survey in
which--well, we saw a survey in which only 14 percent of doctors said that
they ever talked with their patients about their terminal diagnosis. And
of the reasons they said that they didn't, apart from their own caution,
own inability to talk about it--and we can come back to that later, the hard
time doctors have of talking about death--but one of the reasons they don't
is because they don't want the patient to feel that the doctor's given up.
Even when a patient knows she's dying, she's not sure that she wants the
doctor to know that she--to think that she's dying, because the doctor then
might not do something that would make a difference.
Mr. MOYERS: But the fact of the matter is that when you do reach that
like Bill Bartholome, the pediatrician in the first show reaches, you do
to yourself and hope that your family admits to itself that death is
approaching and that it's a mistake, a serious mistake, to try to prolong it
with a lot of intervention. And that moment is very difficult to reach.
moment is very hard to decide. That's why this is an art and not a science.
Dying is an art, it's not a science.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Moyers, and his new
series, "On Our Own Terms: Moyers On Dying," premieres on most PBS
stations Sunday, September 10th. Let's take a short break here, and then
we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers, and his new PBS series, "On Our Own Terms:
Moyers On Dying," premieres on most PBS stations Sunday, September 10th.
Your new series looks at, you know, many different aspects of the process of
dying: emotional aspects, medical aspects. When the series was over, did
re-examine, like, your own insurance policy, your living will, your own
funeral plans, things like that? Did you do, like, a tune-up in your own
Mr. MOYERS: I started--yes. My wife and I--one of the first things we did
after coming back from interviewing Dr. Bartholome in Kansas City, who was
dying when we interviewed him, was to update our health proxy, our advanced
directive. Even a sophisticated and knowing man like Bill Bartholome
in the course of his dying that he didn't have enough coverage for hospice
that his advanced directive, his health care proxy, his instructions to the
people around him, had a loophole in it that might mean despite his wishes,
efforts would be made to prolong his life. So he came up with what he
a naked, durable power of attorney, something I'd never heard of, but it
it very explicit that, in this case, his wife, Pam, had the sole and
controlling and total authority to make the decisions for him.
My wife and I came back, went to the lawyer, had our advanced directives
fine-tuned to that distinction, so that there's no doubt now if something
happens to her or if something happens to me, the other of us has the power
make those decisions, not the doctor, not the hospital, not even a member of
our family if one of us is there. We did that.
The interesting thing, though, is, you know, we--death is still the last
taboo. It is still very hard to talk about, even though the last time I
looked, the death rate remains the same: one per person. We still don't
to talk about it. And there was a time when we'd finished the series, when
Judith and I were sitting on our couch in the apartment and I said to her,
`You know, we have never really addressed the issue of where you want to be
buried. Where do you want to be buried?' An hour later, we were still
discussing the issue, but we hadn't closed it. We hadn't come to that point
of a declaration; `Well, this is where I want to be buried.' She said to
`Where do you want to be buried?' And, `Well, I have made a decision that I
want to be cremated.' `Well, where do you want your ashes spread?' `Well,
So even though we have been through this experience for the last two years
working on this series, we still have a hard time closing the deal, so to
GROSS: Is it easier for Bill Moyers, journalist, to talk about death than
Bill Moyers, husband and father?
Mr. MOYERS: Yes. I think one of the reasons that I've been a journalist
long is that it enables me to deal with a lot of subjects that personally I
not want to confront myself or don't understand myself. I mean, we
journalists are licensed to explain things we don't understand. And there's
lot I don't understand, and there are some things that I just simply have a
hard time individually and humanly coming to terms with. This was one of
them; I don't think it is anymore.
GROSS: Getting back to the example you were giving a moment earlier about
power of attorney that Dr. Bartholome, a former pediatrician who was dying
cancer of the esophagus, had given to his wife--he wanted his wife to decide
when medical intervention should be stopped and he should just be allowed to
die. Now in the series, you ask her how she felt about having this awesome
responsibility. Tell us what she said to you. And also, was she called
to actually use that responsibility and decide when medical intervention
should stop and he should be allowed to just die?
Mr. MOYERS: She said to me--I asked her if she thought it were unfair that
she had to make that decision, and she said, `No, it's not as unfair as it
would be if some stranger had to make it, if the physician had to make it,
a nurse had to make it'; that she thought this was part of their
and part of her responsibility. She was fully present and participating in
the last hours of his death. I don't think that she was confronted with
stark moment when it was go or no go.
She was just--he had already decided on his descent. They anticipated its
arrival, and they faced it together. And then Bill just quietly--with her
presence and her participation, Bill just quietly died. He died, she
the way he wanted to die. He had some struggle. He had some difficulties.
Even though he was a knowing man who had made all the preparations he
were right, he still had some struggle. Everybody does.
Look, we do search for a good death, but death is almost--death is rarely
easy. And that's why one can't be too glib about it. You know, we can talk
about a good death. We can seek a good death. We can make plans for a good
death. But at the end, it is so final--as far as we know--and it is
so--there's so much loss attending a death: the loss of loved ones, the
of presence, the loss of participation in what's going on around you. It's
And he had a hard time. Most of the people that I interviewed had a
time right up until they had passed that moment of finally acknowledging or
receiving the knowledge of death. And then most of them did die a more
peaceful and quiet death than I would have thought. And Bill Bartholome
Bill Bartholome, by the way, taught me so much in the course of my many
of interviewing him. People have asked me, you know, `Was reporting this
series depressing?' And I honestly say no because the dying have taught me
much about living. And Bill Bartholome was 50, as you'll recall from the
film, when he was diagnosed with incurable cancer and given just a few
to live. But he managed to survive another five years. And he said to me
the interview, which you have seen and the audience will see when the series
starts on Sunday evening, `Living in the light of death is the most
experience in my life,' he said. `If you don't expect to see spring and
you see it, you don't experience it as spring. You experience it as a
GROSS: But you know what I thought was really interesting? His wife said
that it's not that kind of miracle for the person who's close to the dying
Mr. MOYERS: That's the agony of survival. I mean, there was a moment in
film when we caught her--he comes home and talks about his diagnosis and
about his difficulty. And she makes a very human, spontaneous remark:
what about my diagnosis?' Something to that effect. And I asked her in the
interview, `Isn't it hard? If he's living in the light of death and he's
experiencing that, you're living in the shadow of his death. How is that?'
And she said, `It's hard. It's really hard, not only to watch him die, but
have the light so focused on him. He, the dying, occupies center stage.
for the period of the dying, it's his show. It's his script. And
is focused on him.' And she said, `You know, I understand that, but it's
to take it.' And I found that so true in so many other experiences as well.
GROSS: Bill Moyers' new PBS series, "On Our Own Terms: Moyers On Dying,"
premieres Sunday on most PBS stations and continues over the next three
consecutive nights. Bill Moyers will be back in the second half of our
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bill Moyers. His new
PBS series, "On Our Own Terms," is about death and dying and new approaches
end-of-life care. The series begins Sunday evening on most PBS stations and
continues over the next three consecutive nights.
You're trying to lead a national discussion now on the subjects of death and
dying. Was death discussed in your family when you were growing up?
Mr. MOYERS: No, not explicitly. Death was all around. My mother lost
of her children before they were two years of age. My brother--my older
brother died at the age of 39 in 1966. He was just seven years older than
My father lost his father in the flu epidemic of 1918. Death was a constant
reality in the lives of my family, and it was just there. We didn't talk
about it as--death as death. It was just talked about in terms of, `Well,
Pace--Mr. Paul Pace died last night.'
My father was very active in the little Baptist church where I grew up in
Marshall, Texas. And anytime any member of the church died, the elders of
church organized themselves to provide a round-the-clock vigil for them. My
father always took the 1:00 in the morning or 2:00 in the morning shift. He
would go down for an hour and just sit there in the presence of the corpse.
Even though my father would get up at 5:00--5:30 in the morning and go to
as a truck driver, he would do that. Other men in the church did it, too.
Death was to be witnessed. Death was to be attended. It wasn't so much to
GROSS: What did your brother die of in 1966?
Mr. MOYERS: He had throat cancer. He was a heavy smoker. And he went too
GROSS: What was it like for you to have a--your brother die at such a young
Mr. MOYERS: It was totally unexpected. It was like receiving a
visitor--death from another world. It was--you know, you don't expect your
39-year-old brother to die. You want--you just don't expect it. You expect
to grow old together. And there was a sudden loss; a sudden emptiness; a
sudden disappearance from your life. And it took me a good while to come to
terms with it. And I don't think death is ever accepted. I think it should
GROSS: Well, just a few years before your brother died, you were close to
of the most traumatic deaths of the century, the assassination of JFK. I
think you were even on Air Force One with the body, carrying him back from
Texas. That must have thrown your life into upheaval.
Mr. MOYERS: It did. It was one of those events that erupts that changed
direction, when you don't consciously change it yourself. I mean, when you
come out of that experience, the road that you were on is closed. And there
are new roads open that you're on without even knowing that you've chosen to
be on those roads. And that's what happened.
I was having lunch on the 22nd of November in Austin, Texas, with the
of the state Democratic Executive Committee and future lieutenant governor
Texas. And we were celebrating the very significant success of John F.
Kennedy's trip to Texas. I had been down there to advance that trip at
President Kennedy's request. And we saw that it was going beautifully.
had big response in Houston; a big response in Ft. Worth and had landed in
Dallas on a blue, clear day and large crowds. And we were celebrating at
lunch when we were interrupted by a phone call from this friend of mine in
Austin, the manager of the local station, who said, `Something's happened in
Dallas.' So I called the Secret Service--Bill Payne, the Secret Service
agent in--with whom I was working. And he said, `There's been a shooting.
And we think the president's hit.'
So Frank Irwin(ph), the chairman of the state Democratic Executive
and I raced out to the local airport in Austin, chartered a plan, and flew
Dallas. Halfway between Dallas and Austin--over Waco, Texas, Robert
think it was Robert Trout--said, `Ladies and gentleman, the president is
dead.' I did land at Love Field; go on Air Force One for the swearing in of
Vice President Johnson as president. And we flew back to Washington--Mrs.
Kennedy and the coffin and Kenny O'Donnell and Larry O'Brien. All of the
loyal Kennedy folks were on that plane.
It was a strange time; like passing through some underwater passage
that--where all sound was muffled and all sight was unfocused. And there
an eerie silence on the plane. No one seemed to know how to respond or what
to say. Larry O'Brien and I began to talk--and Kenny O'Donnell, who almost
always never had anything to say. And I did go back once to where the
was. And Mrs. Kennedy was sitting there. The blood stains still on her
dress. And suddenly the world had been silenced by death, and changed by
death. And none of us knew at that moment what had happened, what was going
to happen. All we knew was that the president was dead. And dead was real.
GROSS: A lot of Americans took a day of mourning. A lot of businesses,
theaters, were closed. And, of course, family is supposed to take time to
mourn and to fall apart if they need to. But as a political professional,
was your job to make sure things didn't fall apart and to keep things moving
Mr. MOYERS: And we did. It was almost automatic. Liz Carpenter was on
plane. Jack Valente was on that plane. Ladybird was on that plane. The
president, of course, was on that plane. And decisions started being made
automatically, but always in the context of apprehension that we
wouldn't--we'd be moving too fast into that circle of grief from which
the--Mrs. Kennedy had not yet recovered. I mean, it was the most awkward
moment I can imagine a president ever being in; of having to start
immediately, not by choice, but by circumstance to make decisions, even as
widow of his slain predecessor was on that very same plane. I will
always--whatever Lyndon Johnson's great, outsized flaws were, I will always
in deep admiration of the sensitive way he began to be president, even as he
knew in the minds of many people on that plane he could never be president.
mean, I said to him at one--he was on the phone with the attorney general,
Robert Kennedy, in Washington. We were on the phone with J. Edgar Hoover
trying to get information about what the FBI knew regarding the Kennedy
assassination. We were on the phone with Robert McNamara. The president
talking to a variety of people.
And then there was one moment when he fell into a very obsessed silence. He
was preoccupied in his own mind. And he was staring out the porthole. He
had raised the shade a little bit. The--we were told to leave the shades
down on the flight back. And we did, mostly. But occasionally we would
out to see what we could see. And I found the president in his cabin
out the porthole. And I said, `Mr. President,' which was awkward in itself,
although it came naturally, because I think that title just goes to the man
who's taken the oath. But I said, `What are you thinking?' And there was a
long pause, and he said, `Are the missiles flying?' And I realized he was
struggling with was this a Soviet attack? Was the--was our Cold War nemesis
behind this? Could this be the precipitation of some conflict; some--of
Of course, we were quickly assured that it wasn't. But I was intrigued by
how that played on his mind.
GROSS: You know, in your early career you were in politics as an aide to
Then you were in network news, covering political issues. Your programs
gotten so much more personal. Your programs have discussed the meaning of
myth, religion, health, now death and dying. How do you explain that shift
your professional subject matter from the political to the more personal?
Mr. MOYERS: I don't really know, Terry. I'm not sure, except that you are
caught up in politics and government in a cocoon in a world of language that
isn't quite real, isn't quite descriptive, of concocted language and
that it takes a while to remove yourself from that programmed world, from
intense and starkly focused world where everybody's trying to do the same
thing: govern or win or pass legislation. When I got out, and I was in
so early, so young, I was 26, I think--29 when I went to the White House
the president, that my world was very circumscribed, and for seven years I
lived in that caldron, in that cocoon.
And when I got out and went back to my first love--I had started at a
newspaper at the age of 15 in Marshall, Texas. When I went back to publish
a newspaper at the age of 33, I went back--I allowed myself to move more
slowly but more deliberately into a wider sea of experience than politics
government. And I'd always known, growing up in a little town, Marshall,
Texas, how the most important news was routine news: who was born, who was
married, who joined the church, who died, who's sick, who went off to war.
And so as I began to practice journalism in my own right, those old--that
earlier awareness of what really matters to people is mostly what is
that began to inform my journalism. And I began to cover stories and issues
that you just don't think about in government and politics, and that
journalism, if one is lucky, offers one a license to explore. So I began to
take my stories from life and not my stories from the dramas of politics and
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers. His new PBS series, "On Our Own Terms:
Moyers On Dying," premieres Sunday evening on most PBS stations. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bill Moyers. He has a new PBS series about dying and
end-of-life care called "On Our Own Terms."
You know, after investigating, you know, religion, myths, poetry, medicine
the mind, death, has doing all those shows had a big personal impact on you,
mean, even in terms of what matters to you most about your career now
to what you thought would matter to you most about what you wanted to
in your career by this time in your life?
Mr. MOYERS: I didn't think so much of a career as I thought of work.
Mr. MOYERS: Work is so wonderful. I just love it. For me, it's a
course in adult education. And I just--I approach my--I don't think less of
work now than I ever did because I'm older. I have done these things, as
said. I still do something because I learn from it.
On the other hand, it is true that I have the sense of the narrowing tunnel
time. Believe me, Terry, I know. Somewhere during the course of our
I think it was in Shreveport, Louisiana, after I'd come back from
Jim Witcher(ph), whom you'll meet in the third broadcast in this series who
dying a difficult death of Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS, I was sitting in my
hotel room on the Red River there looking out not far across the way to my
home where I'd grown up just 30 miles away. I think it was at that moment
that is struck me that every night I'm pitching my tent a day's march nearer
Now imagining that moment of my death has helped me to see that, first, what
want for myself is what everyone wants: a general dignified end, free of
pain, witnessed by the people I love. I want time to say, `Thank you' to
people who've enriched my life. I want to ask those I've hurt to forgive
And I want to say, `Goodbye' to those I love. But imagining my death--I
the greatest impact of this series on me is been to imagine my own
made me far more aware of the time I have left, so that every moment, as
Bartholome said, matters. This moment matters. This moment between you and
me at this moment, it matters. It's not something I'm doing on the way to
somewhere else. It matters. And if I don't connect at this moment, I won't
get it back. This is not melodramatic. It's not like a vision from heaven.
It's just a realization that when you camp every night a little bit closer
your own death, that moment, that camp, that evening really matters. And
that, I think, has had a more important impact on me than I would have
when, as a journalist, I was going out to report this story.
GROSS: Yeah. Of the people who've been close to you who've died, have you
seen both traumatic deaths and more peaceful deaths? And I guess I'm
wondering if witnessing people, not who've you met as a journalist, but who
you've known as friend or family, if that's affected what you think of as
experience of dying, what you've prepared yourself for.
Mr. MOYERS: Well, that's a very good point, because, you know, every life
a particular life and every death is a different death. We all die our own
death. So that there is no universal death that occurs in the same way in
very life. My brother's death in 1966 was traumatic. My mother's death in
1999, after three years of suffering, was just one of those slow, painful,
agonizing deaths that none of us, you know, want. My father fell and
punctured his lung. It was in Marshall, Texas. I was in New York when we
the call. And he died of--had a painful experience in the nursing home and
then died with just professionals around him in the hospital. You know,
family has a different set of issues to deal with and every death takes its
And here's the thing that has struck me--and it strikes me as I'm just
to you now, putting in perspective the varieties of death that have affected
me--the path to our dying depends on the decisions of so many individual
people. I mean, the Institute of Medicine conducted a three-year study some
years ago and concluded dying patients are not receiving the care they need
and physicians are not prepared to provide it. That's one reason that we
so many different kinds of death.
So all of these deaths together have forced me to try to imagine my own
Look, I'm 65. I'm one year past the time when the federal government would
have deemed my death to be premature. It is no longer premature.
is the time at which, you know, death no longer becomes premature. So I
to be aware of that and I try to look at these deaths I have experienced and
witnessed or known about in my own personal circle and I say, `What kind of
death am I going to have?' And so help me, Terry, I can't figure it out
because there's no way we can really know.
GROSS: That's right. That's right. You know, having done your series on
death and dying and examined the medical system and a little bit about what
insurance covers within the medical system, what are some of the conclusions
you've reached about what most needs to be fixed?
Mr. MOYERS: The one thing we can do to improve dying would be to pay
caregivers a living wage. Most of it is...
GROSS: You mean home caregivers?
Mr. MOYERS: Well, I'll come back to that, but all caregivers. I mean, most
deaths are witnessed and attended by people who are underpaid for it,
it's in the home or, you know, a nurse in the hospital. But what we
need--yes, we need to pay caregivers a living wage. Second, we need to
Medicare. It's our system. We can change it. We should change it. We
to change Medicare so that care for the dying at home receives the same
priority that is afforded those who are rushed to the emergency room and
hooked up on machines. I mean, I'm more likely to get adequate coverage if
am stricken right here and taken to the Mt. Sinai emergency room up the
than I am if I'm dying a slow death at home. We need to make it possible
people to die at home with the comfort and care and attention that they
Hospice is largely limited, not exclusively, but largely limited to the last
six months of life. You have to have a diagnosis that you're going to die
within six months in order to get coverage for hospice care at home. We
to change that. Joanne Lynn, who is a wonderful advocate for changing the
provisions that cover death--insurance, Medicare, all of that--she says,
know, if we don't recognize that it is our system and that we need to change
it so that we can make sure that dying is financially not--doesn't wipe
out, that people can afford the care that they get, then we're going to have
real crisis when the baby boomers reach that point,' not of retirement, but
mortality. So there's a lot we need to do.
And by the way, one of the reasons we did this series was, first, to get
people talking about death and dying, because talking about death is the
weapon against our fear of death. And second, to try to trigger, as you
earlier, a national conversation about the inevitability of it and how we
prepare for it, how we can prepare for it emotionally, spiritually,
psychologically and financially.
GROSS: Well, Bill Moyers, I thank you so much for talking with us and good
luck with your broadcasts which begin on Sunday. Thank you.
Mr. MOYERS: Thank you.
GROSS: Bill Moyers' new PBS series about dying and end-of-life care is
"On Our Own Terms." It premieres Sunday night on most PBS stations and
continues on the next three consecutive nights.
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the folklore surrounding words believed
to have racial origins.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Word origins
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Internet is supposed to be a medium of information, but it sometimes
as if half the traffic on news groups and Web pages consists of rumors, tall
tales and urban legends. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg recently came across
of these, a curious tale about the origin of the word `picnic.'
Not long ago, a Stanford colleague forwarded me a posting that his niece had
run into on an African-American Internet discussion list. It urged people
stop using the word `picnic,' which it claimed was derived from the phrase
`pick a nigger.' The story was that white people used to do lynchings as
family affairs where they would take a lunch along and play music, then pick
black person to hang from a tree.
My colleague's niece had asked if there was any truth to the message, and he
forwarded to me, in my capacity as the local expert on curious word lore. I
wrote back to tell him that the etymology was bogus. In fact, `picnic' goes
back to a French word for a potluck dinner that was coined in the 17th
century, a couple of hundred years before lynching became an American
My friend sent my message to his niece, who, in turn, forwarded the
information to the list where she had read the original posting.
But I don't have illusions that this will do much by way of discrediting the
story. That `picnic' etymology has been circulating on the Internet for
years, despite the numerous rebuttals that have been posted. The tale even
surfaced in the press a couple of months ago when African-American students
the State University of New York at Albany objected to calling a student-run
event a picnic, a story that conservative columnists were naturally quick to
pick up on as their PC excess of the week. But that doesn't seem to have
slowed it down either. That's typical of the way these tall tales move
in cyberspace, always a step ahead of the corrections. But I also have the
sense that, in this case, the rebuttals missed the point.
Of course, the picnic etymology is silly and, unlike most urban legends,
one can be checked out just by opening a dictionary. But then it isn't
factual plausibility that makes for successful legends, urban or otherwise.
What matters is their dramatic plausibility, and the picnic story has got
down perfectly. It's a familiar theme in these tales where inoffensive text
or images are always turning out to conceal some sinister sign. There are
dust clouds in "The Lion King" that are said to form the letters S-E-X. The
Snapple label that contains a picture of a slave ship and an emblem of the
Klux Klan. The anti-Islamic message that appears when you turn the
logo upside down. And what could be a better example of the process that
idea that a word as innocent sounding as `picnic' contains the first
of that ugly word `nigger,' as if to suggest that even the most wholesome
institutions of American life are tainted by our history of racism.
It's a paranoid style that's common in urban legends about race whatever
point of view. But it's particularly compelling when you give the story a
linguistic form as if the word has a secret original meaning that's hidden
its syllables like a virus in an e-mail attachment. It's an idea that's in
the background whenever people are concerned with the occult powers of
And it isn't surprising that it should come up now in connection with a
language we use to talk about race and gender, which is just the most recent
episode in our age-old obsession with the way words can magically alter
experience. That's why the rebuttals of the picnic etymology seem beside
point. In the end, these are really stories about syllables, not origins.
Not long after I had my exchange with my colleague about the picnic story,
mentioned to me that he had a professor who always tried to avoid using the
word `denigrate,' since it comes by it's meaning via a Latin route that
to blacken. I asked him if he thought his professor would have had the same
feeling about atrocious, which comes from the Greek word for black. He got
the point right away. `No,' he said, `I guess it's just that denigrate has
that syllable `nig' in it.' It's the same kind of sound contamination that
led Washington Mayor Anthony Williams to fire a white aide last year when he
used the word `niggardly' in a discussion of the city budget. The press had
high time ridiculing the mayor on that one and they were quite right to
out that niggardly is an innocent word of Scandinavian origin that has
to do with a racial epithet. Still, it's a little disingenuous to pretend
that you can pronounce a word like `niggardly' now without evoking the
of its homonyms.
In the end, people ought to realize that phonetics always trumps etymology.
That's a principle that we all learned back when we were six years old and
discovered what a scatological pleasure there could be in pronouncing the
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Sanford University and the Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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