Wednesday, May 09, 2007

As she lay dying

One of the great American icons of my teenage years will probably die very soon -- Tammy Faye Bakker. Here is a news account and a link to the letter on her site. The doctors have stopped treating her cancer and she's down to 65 pounds, which is about as bad as medical news gets. Excerpts from the letter:
Thank you for the rooms full of flowers, the tables full of cards, and beautiful little gifts laying everywhere. Thank you so much! I know I have missed so many gifts I should have sent for these special occasions. And then, trusting God to heal my sick stomach. Please try to understand.
The doctors have stopped trying to treat the cancer and so now it's up to God and my faith. And that's enough! But please continue to pray for the pain and sick stomach ... They don't want me falling down the stairs. I am down weight wise to 65 pounds, and look like a scarecrow. I need God's miracle to swallow. ...
To those of you who are suffering as I....."don't give up"!! ... You see, God gives out his promises, they do not lie, they do not fail. We do not have to BEG him for them, they are FREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
She and husband Jim were at the center of the PTL scandal, one of the biggest religious news events of the 1980s. Like many a teenage cynic I lapped up every detail as Jim Bakker's televangelist empire was brought down by greed and lust. More recently, I watched every episode last year of the reality-show "One Punk Under God," about Jim and Tammy's son Jay Bakker. Partly because I was interested (and not in a good way) in Jay's "Revolution Ministry" and his changing it to a "gay-affirming" stance. But more, as the show wore on (there were just 6 or 8 half-hour episodes), because of the old memories of Tammy Faye, and how the show redeemed her.

Yeah ... back in the day, like many a cynical Gen-X teenager, I doubled over in laughter at footage of Tammy's on-air crying fits, the running mascara, the squeaky voice, and all the rest. I can still mentally play the footage of her standing outside the courthouse the day Jim was convicted of fraud, singing the chorus to "The Solid Rock" ("On Christ the solid Rock I stand / All other ground is sinking sand") and then chirpily saying "it's not over til it's over." She wasn't Kitschy; she was Kitsch. Everything about Tammy was over-the-top, so it's not surprising that she became a bit of a camp hero about a certain ... ahem ... type of man. Some film-makers even made a touching documentary about her that played in theaters, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," with RuPaul as narrator.

But what the One Punk series and the Eyes documentary showed was that this was who she was. The letter shows the same even to the very end. In her letter, she's thanking everybody and apologizing for not sending back cards. Her sense of humor about herself is intact -- joking about looking a scarecrow, and the doctors not wanting her to fall down (she and Jay are constantly joking about her health throughout the show). And the multiple exclamation points ON EVERYTHING!!!!!!!! It's Pentecostal enthousiasmos, something that still strikes this Catholic Gen-X'er as profoundly alien, even as I've learned to admire and in some ways envy it.

"Tammy Faye" wasn't a role or a persona for the sake of a ploy or a scam, like many of us assumed was the case when we heard the stories about the air-conditioned doghouses, the cinnamon rolls baked only for their smell, etc. Tammy was someone so effervescent that she only knew how to be over-the-top. Anything worth doing was worth overdoing. She didn't have the element of cynicism, guile or calculation that keep most of us in check. She was so loving and so trusting a person and so guileless that it never occurred to her to ask whether it was a good use of money to air-condition a doghouse; it made the dog comfortable.

Tammy Faye was a cartoon in many ways, but she wasn't a fake. By the time of the One Punk series, her body was starting to give out from cancer. Son Jay requested, during Episode 5 if memory serves, that she appear no more on screen, as she could barely move around the house or even talk without effort. The dedication to Tammy Faye at the end of the last episode of One Punk read like an epitaph.

But still, throughout the show, she was loving and lovable. When the same attitude is overflowing from an old, sick body that knows it's not long for this world, it's different. The naive good-heartedness that made her so laugh-at funny in the 80s makes her inspiring in old age. Tammy has stayed naively authentic and good-hearted to the very end. She couldn't "reinvent" herself because she was who she was -- a Pentecostal to the bone who saw nothing but God's gifting hand in everything around her. It would be false to say she chose not to be bitter, because the word "bitter" just wasn't in her vocabulary.

Now, everything is in God's hands; all other ground is sinking sand. May God be with her to the end, and beyond.


thomas tucker said...

Great post.

bill bannon said...

Very nice....will pray.

wnp said...

Thank you for reminding us of the intrinsic dignity even of people we perceive as caricatures.