There’s an oxygen tank in the corner of my living room. It’s useless now, but not meaningless — a reminder of an adventure that’s only just concluding.
The 25th anniversary Doctor Who story was super-exciting. The Doctor and Ace were caught up in a battle between two factions of Daleks at the Coal Hill School in East London. One of the factions had possessed a little girl and incorporated her into a computer that would use human creativity to gain the upper hand. Meanwhile, the Doctor had returned to claim the mysterious Hand of Omega.
The Coal Hill School was the location of the show’s first ever scene, broadcast on Saturday, November 23, 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. By 1988, Doctor Who had been demoted to a Wednesday night, just after Wogan. Every Wednesday, we’d pull out the sofabed after dinner, and my whole family would watch from under a blanket. My dad would usually fall asleep. Afterwards, I would go to bed. I was nine.
They pulled Doctor Who off the air after one more season, for reasons I couldn’t understand. We moved to North Carolina for a year, where I devoured the 1970s episodes, starring Tom Baker, on PBS, and when I returned to Britain it was gone from the schedules. My imagination had been fueled by the limitless adventures of an outsider with pacifist tendencies and an unpredictable eccentricity. As a perpetual outsider conspicuously lacking in male aggression, I felt like the Doctor had been my hero, someone I could root for. In its place ran Eldorado, a ruinously expensive soap opera about expats in Spain that lasted a year.
I turned to the New Adventures of Doctor Who books, created by the show’s writers to fill the void, and waited.
When Doctor Who finally returned in 2005 (after a false start that is barely worth mentioning), I watched it under a blanket with my mother. She had moved back to California, so each year I recorded every episode. At Christmas we would run through the season, on the sofa, like it had always been.
In 2008, I was visiting my parents over Christmas when my mother was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Fibrosis is a condition in which organs develop excessive scarring; pulmonary means it was happening in her lungs; idiopathic means the cause is unknown. All the doctors knew was that it would become progressively harder for her to breath, until — at some point — she wouldn’t be able to. Pulmonary fibrosis claims as many lives as breast cancer each year, and there is no known cure. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is between two and four years. It wasn’t fair: She didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, always ate well and did plenty of exercise. And morally, spiritually, she was the best person I knew. Mother or not, she was someone anyone could admire.
When she began to need supplemental oxygen, I moved to California. Partially, I wanted to help: She was becoming less able to lift things and move around, although she continued to teach elementary physics until the very last moment she possibly could. But also, I wanted to have as much time with her as possible. Her prospects were not great; the only potential cure was a complete lung transplant, a risky procedure in itself. Always a close-knit family, we prepared ourselves for the worst. Although I tried to put on a brave face, I found myself crying uncontrollably in corners and spare moments, when nobody could see me. I was watching my mother being ripped away against her will.
Through it all, the Doctor Who continued.
We still watched every episode together, even when she was on 15 liters of oxygen a minute and could barely walk from her bedroom to the sofa. We rolled our eyes at Amy Pond and smiled at the reappearance of the Daleks, insane and imprisoned in an asylum in deep space. With excitement, I joined the dots between the Christmas special and a story about Yetis on the London Underground from 1968, while my dad snored beside us.
Late one February night, the hospital called. They had found a lung match. It wasn’t perfect — it would need to be cut down — but it was the best chance they had. My parents drove straight to the hospital, while I took my car and drove for two hours by myself in the dead of night to pick up my sister. It was trivial compared to everything else, but one of the things going through my mind was this: I can’t watch Doctor Who if she isn’t going to be here anymore. It wouldn’t be right.
It took a day to determine whether the lungs were a perfect match. At around four in the afternoon, they wheeled her away. We all acted like we would see her soon, but her last words to me were to look after my dad. I wanted to go back, desperately needing to rewind time and talk to her again, find out about all the things I wanted to ask her. But as any Who fan worth their salt knows, it’s too dangerous to cross your own timeline. The Blinovitch Limitation Effect, the show calls it. You’ve got to keep moving forward: Treat the time you have as an adventure.
I don’t believe in miracles, so I consider it a scientific wonder that the double lung transplant was a success. The next day I put my phone on speaker and sat in my mother’s room in the Intensive Care Unit while my sister played a gig downtown, asking her audience to give both her and the surgeons a round of applause.
A lung transplant is an ongoing adventure in space and time. It’s not over yet; all of us, especially my dad, have been spending all the time we can in the hospital with her, and during the times when she’s been discharged, walking with her around Golden Gate Park and the Inner Sunset. Soon, the adventure will spread its wings beyond San Francisco, and there will be new challenges and a new life ahead of us all.
This year, Doctor Who is 50 years old. The anniversary story will be super-exciting. I intend to watch it under a blanket, with both of my parents. I expect my dad will fall asleep.