I Apparently Inspired a Scene in A Million Little Things’ Series Finale — Watch How I Found Out

Before last weekend, I had no idea that Gary Mendez’s death and my mom’s had anything to do with each other.

(This is a TV story, I promise. Just stick with me.)

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Last week, I had the honor of moderating some panels at ATX TV Festival in Austin, Texas. I love moderating, funneling a ton of preparation and research into what — if I do my job right — becomes a fun and illuminating conversation. One of my panels was titled “TV Screens for Cancer,” and it was sponsored by Hollywood, Health & Society. Despite what might at first glance seem like very grim subject matter, I was really looking forward to the opportunity to ask a bunch of TV writers about the cancer storylines they’d crafted over the years.

I had a personal reason for wanting in on the discussion, too. My mother, Susan Roots, died in May 2021 from Stage IV breast cancer.

The fact of that sentence, by the way, is still as surreal to me as it was the week she passed. I don’t have much memory of when, in a fog of grief and distracted by funeral arrangements, I contacted ABC publicity to let them know I couldn’t make a prearranged phone interview with A Million Little Things creator/showrunner DJ Nash. I’d covered the show since its start; I vaguely recall being grateful, given the tight timelines related to broadcast finales, that our Season 3 finale call was moved to a time more convenient for me.

The conversation I eventually had with Nash, though, stands out in clear detail in my brain. I sat at my parents’ white kitchen table, wearing a shirt of my mother’s because I hadn’t brought enough clothes with me when I rushed home. I was about to launch into my questions when he gently interrupted.

“Tell me a story about your mom,” he said.

If you’ve had the experience of witnessing a loved one in the terminal phase of an illness, you know how tough it can be to think of any time when your shared lives didn’t revolve around the soul-grinding details, and how hard it is to think about anything else once the person has passed. When to administer morphine. Which hospice nurse is coming today. Which setting on the hospital bed brings the least discomfort. Nash’s kind, simple request delivered me from that for a moment.

I told him about a car ride I’d had as a kid with my mom, her mom and her aunt. The horn malfunctioned while we were on the highway, honking randomly, loudly and with abandon at the unsuspecting drivers all around us. My mom, grandmother and great aunt couldn’t stop laughing. My mom gasped for breath, wiping at her streaming eyes as she tried to hold it together so we didn’t run off the road. I cackled too, partly because the horn really was ridiculous, partly out of the novelty of seeing these three women lose themselves in such unhinged fashion.

Nash listened. He chuckled. When I was done, we went on with the interview as planned. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great conversations with people who make TV over the years, but that one stands out — even more so now, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

For those unfamiliar with A Million Little Things, it was an hour-long drama that ran on ABC for five seasons. It followed a group of friends in Boston. At the end of the series, one of the friends — Gary Mendez (played by James Roday Rodriguez), whose experience as a breast cancer survivor was an integral part of the show — died of lung cancer.

As A Million Little Things’ boss and the arbiter of Gary’s fate, Nash was a great fit for the ATX panel last weekend. He was joined by fellow TV writers Erica Green Swafford (New Amsterdam), Adam Weissman (The Good Doctor) and Stephen Hootstein (Chicago Med), all of whom generously engaged with my questions about how to balance realistic portrayals of cancer and making good TV.

Remember how I said I like to be super-prepared for panels? Nash knocked all of that askew when, in front of the audience, he revealed something he hadn’t shared before.

“There’s a moment in the finale that was put in for you,” he said, referring to our conversation years before. “When Walter says to Rome, ‘Tell me a story about Gary.’”

ATX (which is owned by TVLine’s parent company, PMC) filmed the event, so you can see my surprise in the video at the top of this post. I was touched. I was flummoxed. I turned an even deeper shade of red than I normally do while public speaking. Reporters are taught to cover news, not make themselves the center of it. So while I was (and am!) flattered by Nash’s gesture, it was a little unsettling suddenly to find myself on the other side of things.


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Most of all, though, I felt a deep gratitude that my mom’s existence was, in an indirect yet careful way, immortalized in a medium she adored.

When the panel was over, after making Nash swear to me yet again that he was telling the truth about the origin of Walter’s line, I confessed that I’d since stolen his story thing and used it when I didn’t know what to say to someone who was grieving. I recommend it.

So there you go: A brief moment of human connection in an industry that traffics in transactional conversations left us both with something meaningful. And somewhere, my primetime-drama-loving mom is absolutely overjoyed that she’s now a part — however far removed — of TV lore.

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