What’s the Story with Cancer?
Showtime’s The Big C, Revisited
A few days before Mom started chemo, she asked Dad to help her pick out a wig. To hear him tell it, with the slight slur of the night’s third scotch, is to picture him as the unexpected hero of the story, surrounded by middle-aged women cooing over his willingness to learn “the four Cs” of the hairpiece: cut, cap size, composition, color. Of course, to hear her tell it is an altogether different experience. Mom’s version carries the same slight slur — this may be the pain medication she’s been on since they implanted the port through which the antimetabolites and mitotic inhibitors and corticosteroids will flow, four staggered courses of treatment in the next 12 weeks — but it’s quieter, loping and ungainly, still in search of a through-line. It’s a little fearful, and deservedly so. I wonder if she’s come to acknowledge, as I have in recent weeks, that one day she will die.
Reducing all the pauses, chuckles, and spiraling repetitions of this conversation to two competing stories, both contained in a single paragraph, is an act of wishful thinking on my part. If only this were a matter of style and cadence, of arranging the distinct perspectives to harmonize the whole; if only I could make my mother live forever by taking a scalpel to this sentence, and the next one, and the next. A modicum of ease before the blank page is the only talent of note I can be said to possess, and yet it has not meant one lick, because there is nothing I can say or write that will shrink the size of a tumor.
What is, after all, the story with cancer? Do malignant cells hold inside them a narrative worth hearing? Do 12 weeks of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation and a year’s worth of injections and a lifetime of worry that the other shoe is bound to drop constitute the beginning, middle, and end that our composition instructors once required, or is cancer ultimately — and here I suspect is the root of my panic, of Mom’s fear — an experience for which those who come closest to it confront only a blank page? For a disease that will newly affect more than 1.6 million people in the United States this year, according to American Cancer Society estimates, from Mom and the other 234,189 stricken with breast cancer to the 6,250 afflicted by acute lymphocytic leukemia, describing its presence still seems to me remarkably rare. We walk for it, battle it, and sometimes succumb to it, tape nightly news segments on how to prevent it and how to treat it, derive inspiration from those who survive it and mourn those who don’t, hope, or pray, or plan one day to cure it, and yet simply being around it can compel us to silence.
In this sense, to hear Mom’s version is to approximate at least one consequence of cancer more closely than any double-blind study or race for the cure, which is beginning to understand that stories are ugly, feeble things, but the ones we tell are all we’ve got.
“I’ve always really loved my hair,” Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) tells her oncologist, Dr. Todd Mauer (Reid Scott), near the start of Showtime’s The Big C, reaching up to her lovely blond tresses. “I cry every time I get it cut.” It’s meant as a response to the doctor’s menu of unpleasant options for treatment, a bulwark against the bleak prognosis for Stage-IV metastatic melanoma, for Cathy’s perception of the world is now colored by the intense emotions and waves of memory that often come with bad news. I suppose it was this heightened affect that drew me back to The Big C after Mom phoned to discuss her diagnosis, yet another attempt in a life now chock-full of them to displace my most raw anxieties onto someone else’s art. In creator Darlene Hunt’s underrated comedy, this is, as I wrote on the occasion of the series finale, the narrative’s “structuring logic”: the acknowledgement, before we’ve even come to know our heroine, that one day she will die.
As presentiments go, Cathy’s is among television’s most unassuming, peppered with faintly flirtatious laughter, and the rest of the series premiere strives for humor that’s both sharp-tongued — full of “fucking cunts” and “skinny bitches” — and sentimental, clinging to the notion that the approach of the end is an invitation to live more fully. Cathy separates from her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), punks their adolescent son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), and berates her crusty neighbor, Marlene (Phyllis Somerville), before finally pouring red wine on her pristine white couch as if it’s an act of rebellion. “I want to be the one to spill the fruit punch,” she says longingly, the ache of Minnesota’s short summer setting in, and if Linney carries off Cathy’s suppressed desire to tear up the rulebook, The Big C nevertheless appears, at least at first, content with this rather hackneyed view of her last days. And so Cathy, the otherwise unremarkable suburban schoolteacher, closes her retirement account to buy a convertible and digs a hole in the yard for the pool of her dreams; hectors her rakish, self-righteous brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), and mentors a snarky student named Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe); drops Ecstasy, smokes pot, and takes up with another man (Idris Elba), not so much spilling the fruit punch as shattering the bowl, flipping the table, and setting it on fire. She lives, as Tim McGraw advised, like she were dying.
Carpe diem. Live life to the fullest. Live each day as if it were your last. That our lexicon makes room for so many variations on this idea may be, for some, the foremost evidence of its enduring wisdom, but I have always thought the opposite. It is, rather, the inoculation that never takes, and so must periodically be made anew in the hope that this time we’ll listen. It is a notion so well-intentioned, and yet so far removed from the actual experience of living, that it begins to suggest the shriller notes of a scolding. Because if you have ever come to the end of a day in which every task, every thought, was more difficult than it needed to be — if you have waited in line at the post office or filed your taxes, hidden under the covers to block out the sun or allowed some petty resentment to creep into your brain — then you have, by this cruel metric, failed.
The first season of The Big C thus struck me, once upon a time, as an all-too-familiar form of coping, a profoundly fictional constellation of reassurances that we might be made whole by incinerating the accumulated debris of obligations and expectations, anxieties and fears, that make up what we call “a life.” “Summers in Minneapolis, they are very short,” Cathy tells Marlene in the series premiere. “They’re here, and then it’s over. They’re just over. And I can’t tell you how mad that makes me.” This was, I thought, its story of cancer: the seizing of the day, the raging against the dying of the light, the living of life to its fullest. I convinced myself that only the subsequent seasons, as Cathy endures treatment, celebrates remission, and finally accepts death, alternately buoyed and tortured by those she holds dear, offered any wisdom worth secreting away for the future.
I was wrong.
No one tells you, or at least no one told me, to prepare for cancer’s strange rhythms. Time elapses at a different rate on the border between biopsy and treatment, before, during, and after each new infusion of drugs, at least as viewed from 800 miles away. The flurry of appointments becomes a blizzard of tests, procedures, surgeries, a squall of new terms. Whole days disappear between significant developments in the diagnosis, then the hours grind to a halt, tucked into the space between Dad’s photo of Mom at the start of her first cycle and his text from the other side, a cascade of emojis (party hat, shamrock, heart, thumbs up) to tell us she’s feeling fine. Her symptoms ebb and flow, halt and speed up. She snaps a photo of a rainbow one day and then, seemingly in the next moment, Dad reports that she’s “hit the wall.” “The breakthrough” arrives, only to be tempered by the news that my grandmother fractured five ribs in a fall. There are, as I write this, fewer than two weeks remaining until the second cycle begins.
In the interim, I attempt to arrange the unfamiliar details — sentinel lymph node biopsies, hormone therapies, side effects; trastuzumab, HER-2, life expectancies, survival rates — into a story that scans. Here’s one, from the rational neurons that fire when I find myself forced to speak of it: she gets better. Here’s another, from some dark, almost sub-neural place, the one I converse with as I lay awake long after the French Quarter’s tourists have stumbled home and the only noise is the burble of the fountain in the courtyard: she does not.
Intellectually, at least, I’m sure she must share these doubts, that all the messages of support she’s received cannot completely wall off her own dark, sub-neural places, and yet Mom is, as Cathy Jamison once described herself, a “brave bitch.” Five feet even on the tallest day of her life, with a taste for cheap Chardonnay and instant coffee and an abiding love of solitude, she once struck fear in our hearts with a mere disappointed sigh. She ran a tight ship and brooked no foolishness, such that she earned the nickname “The Little General” from Dad, and though she’s mellowed with age, she remains an icon of rectitude in my eyes. She and Dad, high-school sweethearts, have been together 40 years, and though his is the more forthright presence in the room — warm and gregarious, the original friendster — I know that he would not be the person he is without her. None of us would.
It’s this, perhaps, that tightens the knot in my stomach in those predawn hours, or as I listen to her voice on the days when it’s not going well: the knowledge that even Mom, the one person in this world I know, or thought I knew, to be unbowed by the vagaries of life, should be subject to the same frailties as the rest of us. Cancer disrupts every story you’ve told yourself about how people tick, a rent in the fabric of experience that exposes the structuring logic you find in life as inadequate to the act of living. “Everything happens for a reason,” Mom often told us — convinced, though she would not have put it in quite these terms, that narratives matter — and because I am more than anything else my mother’s son, I believed her. I saw fate, destiny, design in the arrangement of events; I understood it as “telling” when I called her on my first day of college, only minutes after her father died, because I had been his first grandchild and we’d always been close. I agreed, though I have never shared Mom’s faith in God, that there must be some plan in the works, some meaning in things, even as the explanation of that meaning remained at arm’s length. The story that scans is a seductive notion, predicated on the comfort of morals and motives, planning and purpose — it is whole, healthy, beautiful, unbowed, closing the circle unto perfection. Cancer is the opposite, broken and sick and unwieldy, and for all the ubiquity of pink ribbons and charity fundraisers, preventative measures and inspirational figures, no one tells you, or at least no one told me, just how frightening this turns out to be. I realize now that I haven’t heard Mom say “everything happens for a reason” in quite some time, but this is a “telling” detail from a story I’ve long since abandoned.
Late in the first season of The Big C, Cathy, having kept the news of the advanced melanoma from her family all the while, determines to confess her sins. Though far from devout, she attends a service at Andrea’s church during which the pastor invites the members of the congregation to stand and ask their fellow worshipers for prayers, and when she rises from her place in the pew it has the feeling of a reckoning. “Pray for me,” she pleads. “I’ve lied a lot… My life is very complicated right now. There’s some stuff that I can control and then there’s this other stuff, it’s killing me.” Linney’s gasping delivery in this moment tells you all you need to know about Cathy’s dark, sub-neural places, the ones she’s unsuccessfully papered over with the impulse to live like she were dying. The fact that she is has finally caught up with her.
Watching it again now, The Big C strikes me not as an expression of the cliché but as a salvo against it, buffeted by the same uneven rhythms and changes of key I recognize in Mom’s course of treatment. For each soused luncheon, impromptu vacation, and commitment to seizing the day, there are mistruths and arguments, doubts and regrets, debts to call in and others to pay; at each turn Cathy is thwarted by the understanding, as she chides a support group, that “Cancer’s not a gift! Cancer is not a passport to a better life. Cancer is the reason I’m not going to have my life.” She buys the convertible and drives it for a single day before pulling it into a storage unit, leaving a card for Adam on the hood (“Happy 30th Birthday”) that he finds in a flood of tears in the season finale.
I keep seeing myself, my family, in The Big C this time around, and I wonder if I’m just projecting. I suspect I am not. The series ultimately strikes a note of uncommon empathy, ready to consider any of the questions we might ask about cancer — about Sunday services, support groups, alternative medicines; about old friends, new dalliances, family ties — without landing on a single answer. That one of Dad’s colleagues from work enlisted the prayers of his “foot soldiers” in Christ from “Amsterdam to France to Maui” frankly enraged me, the presumptuousness of his faith being something I do not have, nor want, and yet it was so heartfelt, so appreciated by Mom, that I came to understand each of cancer’s stories as valid, even if only to the teller. The story with cancer is that it has no story, except insofar as the narration thereof allows us to battle or succumb, prevent or treat, inspire or mourn, hope, or pray, or plan, and thus to break our silence. This is mine, and mine alone. The Big C, to wit, is episodic, multi-genre, tonally wild, messy as fuck. It resists narrative, much like cancer itself.
Mom got a new haircut Friday — cropped, chic, with a frosting of Cathy Jamison blond, Dad sent us a picture before they headed to happy hour mezze at the local Greek joint — and generally seems in high spirits. Her prognosis is good. The days are getting longer and summer’s just beginning and, today at least, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know this will change when the second cycle begins and Mom again feels like she’s been hit by a truck, but unlike her and Cathy, I’m not the brave bitch I fancied myself. I must continue to arrange the details into a story that scans, even if it’s shadowed by the knowledge that no one is immune to the vagaries of life. I am my mother’s son, and because of her I know you tell the story you have, and not the one you hoped for.
Matt Brennan is the TV critic for Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in Slant Magazine, L.A. Weekly, Slate, Deadspin, and Flavorwire, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.