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Throwback Thursday - ER - On the Beach

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Throwback Thursday, a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from over the years.

If you’re wondering whether 15 years is long enough to no longer feel overwhelming, gut-wrenching emotion while watching Mark Greene leave this world, let me help you out: NO. Apparently that wound is just as fresh as it was in 2002. I basically just ripped the scab off to let the river of ugly cry tears flow out once again.

“On the Beach” is not about saving Mark. That ship has sailed. It’s about Mark trying to save his relationships before he dies. In the episodes leading up to this one, Rachel has been a bit of a challenge. She’s rebelling, drinking, popping pills and thinks anything that comes out of her parents mouths is worthy of an eyeroll. Basically, she’s being a teenager… and she’s good at it. Mark is hoping to reconcile with her and point her in the right direction of life before he dies. In fact, the last thing on his Bucket List is “Fix Rachel.”

With limited time, Mark and Rachel head off to Hawaii, where he lived as a child. It’s a proverbial walk down memory lane. He’s showing her part of his life, offering her firsthand insight into his childhood while he still can. She’s mostly bored and wants to watch TV or talk on the phone. Again, she’s good at being a teen. What she doesn’t know now is that she will one day cherish every second of these days, wishing for just a minute more with her father. Mark persists, teaching her how to surf and how to drive a stickshift; basically all the fatherly things he’ll never get to do. He’s trying to jam a lifetime of memories and lessons into a few days. As if that wasn’t impossible enough, Mark is also attempting to make up for lost time. He was absent for much of Rachel’s childhood and is trying to remind her of things they used to do: their former home, their dog, him rocking her to sleep, her love of balloons. Of course she was too young to remember these things, so this is just a one-sided memory fest. Or, as Rachel so eloquently put it herself, “stupid, useless boring crap.” Got it.

Tired of seeing Rachel treat a dying Mark like this, Elizabeth steps in with some step-motherly tough love. She reasons with her, explaining that Mark will be dying soon and that Rachel is missing what little time she has left with him by being…. teenager-y. (I’m trying to be nice.) “This is it. This is your last chance. If you blow it, you’re going to end up hating yourself for the rest of your life.” Truer words, Elizabeth.

Things are much better with Mark’s other daughter, Ella. That’s because she’s only a toddler and has no idea what’s going on. (I did some math. If this little actress or actresses who played Ella were 1 at the time, they’re now 16 and driving. So I hope you all now feel as old as I do.) Mark savors every single moment with Ella, rocking her to sleep and singing her a special lullaby: Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

After Mark has a grand mal seizure, Elizabeth is convinced the family needs to pack up and return to Chicago so he can be looked at by his doctors. Mark, however, isn’t having it. He refuses to get a CAT scan or even blood work. He’s slipping and already knows the inevitable is upon him. While Elizabeth is desperate to prolong Mark’s life, Mark is just as desperate to preserve his quality of life. He doesn’t want to spend his remaining days in a hospital bed, hooked up to monitors and IVs. He’d rather spent it with his family in Hawaii. It’s in this moment that Elizabeth realizes just how close she is to losing him.

Nearing death, Mark asks Elizabeth to write letters for both Rachel and Ella so they can open them on special days like their graduation or wedding. (Here’s where the tears start for me.) Rachel then goes to Mark at night, the gravity of his death finally hitting her. It’s here, just the two of them in the room, where Mark imparts his final fatherly advice: generosity. “Be generous with your time, your love, your life. Don’t cry for me. Be generous. Always.” It’s advice that he himself never really took throughout his life. He spent days on end at the hospital, saving other people’s families at the expense of his own. He was generous with his time to strangers, but not necessarily his own loved ones.

Rachel promises she’ll follow his words. She also reveals that she remembers the lullaby he sang to her when she was a child: Somewhere Over the Rainbow. (Cue my tears falling even harder.) It’s here that Israel Kamakawiwo’ole takes over and the ukulele of emotion begins. The song, the one he sang to his kids, plays as Mark walks through the empty hallways and rooms of the ER, rooms where he spent a majority of his adulthood, saying a final goodbye. He also visits Elizabeth, Rachel and Ella. The same lullaby Mark would sing to his girls is the one that lulls him to an eternal sleep. The song continues playing at Mark’s funeral, where people from his past and present gather. Each dropped what he or she was doing to pay tribute to their former colleague, leader and friend. This song still turns me into a puddle. All I need to hear are the first few strings of the ukulele and I can feel the ugly cry bubbling up.

After an episode of Mark trying to connect with Rachel, the show has a purposeful ending. Rachel forces the limo to pull over following Mark’s funeral. She sees a balloon tied to a “For Sale” sign, picks it up and releases it… just like Mark told her she used to do. It was a simple, but sweet gesture and tribute from a daughter to her father.

So this walk down memory lane was painful. I haven’t seen that episode since it aired in 2002… and I probably don’t need to watch it again for another 15 years. It’s a fitting goodbye to a character who was such a pillar of ER, perfectly written and acted. My swollen eyes just can’t handle it.

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