This time of year — the last two weeks of May through the first of June — is very meaningful for me. It’s a cluster time of death. My father and a brother died on May 31 (19 years apart), my niece’s mother died on May 20, and my husband died on June 2. During my work as a hospice nurse I learned that this phenomena of “clustered deaths” is not unusual.
So I’m already primed to be thinking about the topic of ultimate termination and my thoughts are getting ample amplification from a wonderful show currently on the Showtime network, “The Big C – Hereafter.” It stars the superb Laura Linney, an actress I have watched mature from a country waif in the 1993 PBS series “Armistead Maupin’s Tales from the City” through the intelligent and worldly Abigail Adams on HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries which aired in 2008.
In “The Big C” we have watched Linney’s character, Cathy Jamison, cope with the diagnosis and treatment of melanoma. Cathy has gone through the classic five stages — anger, denial, depression, bargaining, and acceptance — in some rather unclassical ways, like buying her 14-year old son a classy, bright-red Mustang convertible for his 18th birthday. She places the car in a storage locker and then keeps adding more and more presents, all tenderly wrapped with cards. Soon the car can barely be seen under the barrage of gifts for future birthdays, holidays and major life events.
In this final mini-season, Cathy is definitely into acceptance and with good reason. Her melanoma has become more aggressive and so has the chemo. The combination are ravaging her. Linney has no qualms about showing the effects of terminal illness. Her appearence is startlingly different from the end of season three. According to an interview on NPR, she purposefully lost weight and cut her hair. Makeup helps complete the look as do her mannerisms. At one point the character develops a paralysis in her right leg. Linney’s response to this is both heart-wrenching and hilarious.
The actress has clearly thought about her role carefully. “It’s human nature to — thank God — not have [death] be the first thing you think about every single second,” she says, ” but there is a reality to it. And as I’ve been aging, and parents are dying and I’ve unfortunately lost friends who were way too young to go — you realize what a privilege it is to age. And that’s not a message we hear a lot in the United States.”
Thanks to Linney and the writers at “The Big C” it IS a message being conveyed in this brief four-episode season. The last episode is Monday night and I know that I already want more. I’ll miss Cathy’s quirkiness and her lovable extended family. But that’s how death is. All too soon it takes what we love. Thankfully Laura Linney will go on, hopefully long after Cathy Jamison has left us. It will be a privilege to watch her continued growth. ☙