Time of Death’s Nicole ‘Little’ Lencioni: Dying Is a Party of One

Time of Death, premiering Friday on Showtime, is an unflinching examination of mortality which chronicles the final days of a terminal patient’s life. It’s also how the star of the show got to know her dying mother.

D&J Productions/Showtime

I bought myself a cheap video camera for my 25th birthday because I wanted to document my party, which was really a party for my mom. Instead of presents, I asked my friends to come up to my mother’s property, five acres of beautiful land. Her one-story house sits on top of the hill and the kitchen window overlooks the only land our family has ever owned. It once pastured horses and goats with fence lines drawn tight and secure. The barn housed tools, feed, and a playground of imagination for my much younger siblings.

But, by the time I turned 25, my mother had been sick for years and was on her 78th round of chemotherapy. By then, her land was bleak like her and the fences had holes in them allowing unwanted animals to enter and destroy the garden. The weeds had spread and metastasized. It was a losing battle to upkeep. So, on the day of my birthday, the cavalry arrived fitted with work gloves, eager to help put back together pieces of the dying farm. Twenty friends and I dragged fallen tree limbs to the burn pile. We raked leaves and ran the lawn mower for hours.

My mother watched the whole time and brought out snacks for us. Teary-eyed, she hugged and kissed everybody, thanking them for helping her get back the land she loved. She explained over and over again to my friends that she used to manage it all, and it used to be so beautiful, and that she used to be beautiful, too. My heart broke for every tear of gratitude she shed and for each humbling moment when she surrendered her pride to admit that she needed help. But, I wiped my face clean of sadness with the rough denim sleeves of my jacket and I carried on.

I didn’t know what a show dedicated to death would be like. I didn’t know what a life dedicated to my mother’s death was going to be like either though. I came to find out, it’s the same thing. Hard, gritty, coarse, poetic, unscripted, crude, instantaneous and tragic, though neither was going to be a cliffhanger. They chose my mother because she was going to die. They chose me because I was going to live. We chose to film because we needed to talk about this. We knew that, in our culture, reality television teaches us by demonstrating roles and behaviors. There has always been something intriguing about train wrecks. Time of Death follows us to our crash, the collision of life and death. What is different about this from other shows is that every single viewer is on the same set of tracks too.

When I got a call in 2008 from my mom saying that she had been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, I immediately searched the Internet for answers—which I now strongly suggest people NOT do. The Internet is good for learning about world history and for finding out who your ex is fucking, but not for trying to learn when your mother is going to die. What I learned is that I couldn’t find the right answers because I wasn’t asking the right questions. So, I took a crash course on chemotherapy treatments and sesquipedalian medical terminology. I now speak cancer fluently.

The documentary project allowed us to start a conversation about mortality. We thought that maybe if society had an open dialect about it, death wouldn’t be so chilling. In other cultures, death is inherently less scary because it is accepted, and, more often than not, the whole community ritualizes a death, demonstrating the normalcy of fatality.

The end of physical existence is inevitable and non-debatable. The cells in our bodies are literally born to die. Where the emotional pain comes from is in the struggle of understanding the end of the spiritual existence. Because we no longer are a society that has our elders around to teach us and show us a path to follow, we all have to be existentialists about the whole process. We all live together, but dying is a party of one. It’s too sad and too uncomfortable to discuss because nobody wants it. So, good luck figuring it out on your own. And, if you do figure out, please don’t tell me; I don’t want to think about it.

I’m pretty sure that we treated other taboo subjects like this in the past too, like the clap, queers and professional women’s basketball… all of which are here to stay despite how little people want to acknowledge them. Death has been systematically oppressed and as a result there are so little resources available to help the dying and to help the ones who live through a death close to them. Why? Because death doesn’t sell. Living vitally does.

I drove her to appointments and took earfuls of shit if I were five minutes not early enough. But it seemed only fair because I had put her through some serious shit when I was a teenager. Serious enough that she eventually kicked me out at 13. Eventually, I was put in foster care. Eventually, I was charged with grand theft auto. Eventually, I ran away to Boston. Eventually, I turned myself in. Eventually, I went to lockdown for a year. Eventually, I stopped doing drugs and drinking. I was 15, and a half. Eventually, she took me back after I had been sober for a year and I moved back to California and back onto that beautiful property that had the first house I could call a home.

I’ve always been one to make people deal with truth and I was no different to my own mother. She was never one to talk about feelings; when I was growing up, I was about surviving problems, not dealing with them. With the camera in my hand, I pushed my mom to talk about tough and taboo things. Filming was a scapegoat for my intentions of finally getting to know her.

I spent hours filming her and listening to her talk. Without the motivation and martyrism of the documentary project, I don’t think I would have been able to deal with my reality. The reality of watching the strength in my mother’s muscles and light in her eyes dissolve. I was by her side as she morphed from a tough-as-nails, independent woman into a scared vessel of bone-crushing fear, as helpless as a lost child. I was able to distract her with jokes and give her a purpose by documenting her disease, so that her death was not in vain, but I was never able to give her relief.

I wish that my mother’s death wasn’t the catalyst for me to forgive her life. But, this is my reality.