"I want to write about my work on this night before surgery and on this night that I have realized that the cancer has spread enough into my ribs and spine so that I feel its effects for the first time there--not pain, just aches . . . I learned that I had a recurrence of cancer in my skull April 1. That meant I had a terminal--terminal--yes, terminal disease.
"And you know what I did--I reached for the phone and asked Daddy if he wouldn't finally let me try to turn the book he and I are trying to get published into a TV series. What I'm trying to say is that if one finds a career one truly loves and that uses one's most creative sources, when one gets into trouble, it will help."--from the journal of Rollyn Osterweis Krichbaum, May 20, 1980
Rollyn Osterweis Krichbaum--an editor, wife and mother--decided to live the last two years of her life through her work. "The first thing that happened," she wrote in her journal, "was that a curtain came down on the future. The next thing I experienced was a surge of creativity . . . my family drew closer than they have ever been, and my marriage to Dan, which has always been very good, became spectacular."
Knowing that her breast cancer was spreading, she persuaded her father, Yale professor and debating coach Rollin G. Osterweis, to turn his lectures and book manuscript on American oratory into a television series. She kept a diary and a journal of its progress--and her own.
She died on Feb. 4 last year. She was 39. Her father, who had prostate cancer, died three weeks later.
Tomorrow night the project that neither father nor daughter saw finished airs on Channel 26 at 6. It is "Freedom to Speak," a PBS series of 12 half-hour programs celebrating American oratory. James Earl Jones delivers Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and in another segment, John Houseman appears as Benjamin Franklin. William F. Buckley, the conservative columnist whom Rollin Osterweis once taught, is the host. The Osterweises are listed as script consultants.
"I don't think it prolonged her life, but I do think it gave her a reason to live," says Rollyn Osterweis' identical twin, Ruth Selig, who lives in Washington. "After Rolly got cancer, she was able to sort out the priorities quite quickly. She decided where she wanted to put her energies, and where her unfinished business lay. At the top of the list was 'Freedom to Speak,' although it wasn't called that then. It was Dad's manuscript. She wanted to give him that. It was a manuscript based on his whole career. It meant a tremendous amount to him."
The manuscript, and now the show, traces American history through the orators whose speeches defined and changed the course of this country. There are excerpts from speeches by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Franklin Roosevelt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Al Capone, William Jennings Bryan and Albert Einstein. The first half-hour segment is titled "The American Dream."
Rollyn Osterweis Krichbaum was an editor in the publications department at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She was married to Dan Krichbaum, the director of Detroit's recreation department. She had a son, Steven, now 5, and three children from her husband's first marriage. In May 1979, doctors discovered cancer in her breast and performed a mastectomy. In April 1980, when the cancer recurred and she was told it was terminal, she persuaded her father to do something he'd only scoffed at before. "My father never believed it could be a TV show," says Selig. "He just thought Rolly was dreaming. He was humoring her. She was sick. He said he'd do anything for her."
The next month, she had an operation that sometimes leads to remission. It gave her some hope, and she continued her work.
"Couldn't do much all day--not because of anything physical--just seemed to stop--took me three hours to get dressed--kept stopping to read things . . . went out to lunch with Steven, Matt and Dan--have been having trouble lately thinking about eating--seem slightly nauseous at thought--finally get nauseous from not eating, and then I eat a normal meal--but without much relish--melons, ginger ale and ice cream taste good--maybe it's summer--then took a nap--and bath--took another couple hours to get dressed again--by afternoon began to feel weepy--slow realization that the operation didn't work."
--from the diary, June 7, 1980
In August, as the cancer cells continued to grow, the doctors in Detroit gave her an extra big shot of adriamycin, a chemotherapeutic drug. They put her in a small isolation unit so she wouldn't be so susceptible to infection. It worked. The cancer cells stopped growing from October 1980 until the following summer. During her remission she did the groundwork for the show. In July 1981, AT&T signed a contract, agreeing to help fund it.
"In many ways," says Selig, "she was able to become the person she always wanted to be. She was able to risk a little more, to take on a big project. She said she became much more of a self-confident person . . . she once said to me, 'In some ways, we'll all be the better for it. The family will become closer, and we'll know each other better.' . . . She was such an ordinary person. And yet, she saw this as an extraordinary experience. It was not fun, watching her dying of cancer. But it was inspiring. I grew so proud to be her twin."
In August 1981, a month after her father had been diagnosed as terminal, she realized her remission was ending.
"This morning Dr. Samal told me I was nearing the end of the amount of adriamycin I can be given. I felt as though he was taking away the rope by which my boat was tied to shore and leaving me to float out to sea all alone. I started bargaining--asking him to give me a few more shots than is the practice now . . .
"I feel once again that life is going to be intensified for me. I figure I have about three months more like this and that I have certain things I want to finish and some planning for the future I want to do. How hard it is to bring half a life to a fully rounded conclusion--but my nature is to tie up the loose ends and I shall first have to do the best I can, knowing that Dan will do the rest."
--from the diary, Aug. 7, 1981
That fall, she and her father knew they'd be too sick to finish their work on the series, so they spent that time finding someone to carry it on. They found Brooks Kelley, an Osterweis colleague at Yale, to serve as historical consultant. Most of the real work on the series--the writing and filming--wouldn't start until the following year.
On New Year's Eve 1981, Rollyn Krichbaum went to a party. On Jan. 1, 1982, while she was watching a movie, a pain began in her leg. On Jan. 2, she outlined her goals for the year in her diary--among them, to reach her 40th birthday in April, her son's fifth birthday in November and the completion of "Freedom to Speak" in September. On Jan. 4, she was readmitted to the hospital, where X-rays showed the cancer had spread even more. A month later, when the cancer reached her liver, she died a sleepy, peaceful death.
"My mother was with her," says Selig. "Rolly kept squeezing her hand every 20 minutes, and then just eventually stopped." Her father, who was very sick in New Haven, Conn., was told of her death. "He said, 'I will not live with that,' " she recalls. "And then, three weeks later, he was dead."
Two months ago, Rollyn's mother died during heart bypass surgery. Selig thinks shuttling between a dying husband and a dying daughter didn't help. But to her, the death of her twin was the worst. "I always had a best friend," she says. "She says the same thing in her journal. For the first time in my life I'm without my twin. It feels like I've lost a big part of me."
Selig is an education specialist in the anthropology department at the Museum of Natural History. She lives with her husband and two children in Foxhall Village. She has two other sisters.
She keeps copies of Rollyn's diary and journal.
"I do feel, reading her journal, that we are much more alike than I realized," she says. "I learned a lot about her--and a lot about myself."
Tomorrow night, she's giving a party at a friend's house in honor of the series. Some old Yalies and a number of her father's debaters will be there. Selig says it reminds her of the old days in New Haven, when the debaters would come over to the rambling house for bloody marys on Sunday. Ruth and Rolly were just girls. It was very exciting.
"I don't feel sad," she says. "I feel as if Rolly is here, saying, 'Live.' "