“We all have an expiration date. If we didn’t, nothing would ever get done.”—”The Big C”
If you know anything about me at all, you know that I love entertainment. Pretty much any form of live performance or media is something I am going to enjoy (although I don’t much like sci-fi or action/adventure flicks, and have been known to walk out of a movie theatre or a play if it’s just that bad.), and it even extends to books, magazines, journaling, and of course, social media.
In particular, I love television. I always have. It sounds incredibly lame, but when I was a little kid, I used to pretend the people on my favourite shows were real. They were my friends. I talked about characters on TV sitcoms the same way I’d talk about someone in my kindergarten class. I had an Oscar The Grouch stuffed animal that lived in the laundry hamper in the hallway. I’d pass by and have conversations with him. I slept with an ALF doll, and had nightmares about the Whammies on “Press Your Luck”.
I’ve always felt an affinity for TV, that it was this consistent thing in my life I could always count on to be there for me when everything else in the world was chaotic or falling apart. I may have never moved to Atlanta if it weren’t for the TV show “Frasier”. When I got very ill about a year and a half ago, and wrote letters and journals about fearing I was going to die, I didn’t get through the fear because I thought of my family or friends or all I hadn’t accomplished in my life, or that dying at that point in my life would be a sad and terrible waste of potential. No. I thought, “I need to hang on and make things get better, because I want to see who gets kicked off Big Brother this week”. In a time where virtually nobody could stand to be around me and I thought I might either be losing my mind or my health, and getting out of bed was a challenge, turning on my TV and entering a world populated by strangers in a Big Brother TV studio every night made me feel connected to the world. It made me feel stronger to feel a connection with characters that weren’t even completely real, the same way it always did as a child.
Ironically, many of my past romantic partners have not liked TV, or felt it was a distraction, or felt intellectually above staring at a box with sound and pictures. I think I never quite understood myself well enough to know “Must Love TV” needs to be part of the equation, if someone is the type of soulmate I’m meant to end up sharing the primary part of my life with. Just as I couldn’t relate to someone who didn’t care for music, or thought theatre and art and performance was stupid, or never read books, I’m pretty sure my household will always have TV.
As happens every May, many of the shows I’d been watching ended. Unfortunately, many of them have been canceled for good, which always makes me sad. However, I know that in about a month, there will be new things for me to get slightly obsessed by, and I look forward to that.
In the absence of all my normal shows, I started looking around On Demand for something to watch tonight, and noticed that Showtime had started showing “The Big C” again. It’s on its fourth season, but it’s being advertised as a “limited series event”. Looking at Wikipedia, I see they’ve only made 4 hour-long episodes in Season 4 to wrap up the show. (previously, the show was a 30 minute deal.) The last one is airing May 20th.
“The Big C” is not the kind of show that’s for everyone, but it’s definitely my cup of tea. It’s full of sarcastic, intelligent, black humour. The show starts off with a middle-aged suburban housewife (played by Laura Linney, who is wonderful) being diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma, and given a year to live. It starts off in a way that indicates the end at the beginning; each season goes through a different season of the year. However, they don’t really follow through with that, and it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the show has to end with the main character’s death. There are a lot of plot twists along the way. And, strangely, for most of the show, it’s a dark comedy. A majority of the show is very witty and very funny.
So, I was shocked when I started watching Season 4, and found myself sobbing through most of the episodes. Suddenly, it isn’t funny anymore. It’s dramatic and tragic and all those things you think a show about a terminally ill person would be.
One of the themes the show repeats often is that each and every one of us is dying, every day. For a very long time, my tagline on many of my social profiles is a line from a Cake song that particularly resonated with me: “As soon as you’re born, you start dying, so you might as well have a good time”.
One of the reasons the show is painful is because it doesn’t sugar-coat anything. It reminds you that whether it’s cancer or a heart attack or a car accident or plain old age, at some point, every person you know and have ever known will no longer be here—including yourself. It is a sad thought, and a terrifying thought, but the premise behind the show is “If you knew you only had a year to live, what would you do with your life?”.
It then reminds us that perhaps every single person should live that way, because all the years are precious. Most of us don’t know we have a certain amount of time to tie up loose ends and do everything that matters. We have an expiration date, but for most of us, death comes as a surprise for which we’re unprepared. As I get older, I notice that not only just in myself but in those around me, the process of aging becomes a surprise for which we’re unprepared. Visits to the doctor start to feel a little more serious. We start to have a few more wrinkles. Sometimes, we pass by a mirror, and no longer see the child, the adolescent, the carefree young person. Instead, we start to see our mother, our father. There’s a realisation that time is not infinite and the clock keeps on ticking—and that’s if you’re lucky.
In the show, there’s a scene where Laura Linney’s character is in the hospital, and her son pieces together a collage of photographs from her life, so it’s the first thing she sees every day. I wonder if I am, on some subconscious level, more acutely aware of how short life is. I’ve lived in a room with a wall that has been collaged with my favourite memories since I was 26. It’s been a pain to take the wall down and reassemble it whenever I move. But it’s also really important to me to always feel like I’m surrounded by moments when I was happy and young and vibrant, and to see the faces of the people I love—even if they don’t always remember I love them, or how much I care. I think I’ve always thought, “If I don’t wake up tomorrow, I want the last thing in my head to be that wall.”
I think about being a thing that has an expiration date a little too much, and it scares me sometimes. My grandmother passed away when she was 50. I was a little over two years old, and it is one of my earliest childhood memories, being in a dimly-lit, sepia-coloured room with a tiny little woman with her head wrapped in bandages. Above her bed was a cross, making everything seem very somber and austere. My mother tells me I could not remember this; children don’t remember scenes in detail at that age. But I do. That is the only memory I have of my grandmother. She died when my mother was only 33. I spent most of my life thinking I was adopted, because I don’t physically resemble anyone in my family. When I was older, I saw a picture of my grandmother, and realised how much I looked like her. I think it’s why my mother always criticised me for being too small, too pale, too thin, too fragile-looking….things I could do nothing about. I always thought she was just being my mother, the type of person for whom even the smallest flaw is worth noting and compliments are rare. As I get older, I realise I must remind my mother of the mother she lost so early in life, and that she’s always been afraid that my small frame and fragile health meant she’d lose me early, too.
For what it’s worth, it turns out I’m a survivor, at least so far. I’ve been in a car accident where the driver was killed, another where my entire family was injured but me, and a third where my head literally went through the windshield, leaving an Alayna-shaped headprint. I’ve had tubes put in my ears, suffered a ruptured appendix at 9, and then developed an infection requiring another surgery. I had my knee completely reconstructed at 15. I need surgery again for a torn ACL. I have virtually no sweat glands and am prone to both hyper-and-hypothermia without feeling it. I get flu-like symptoms when I get rained on. I went to the beach and came back with 2nd degree sunburn on 60% of my body, and an infection that turned into a rare inner ear disorder. I’ve had enough “female troubles” to last a lifetime, and apparently, my heart beats too fast. I’m pretty much a walking medical disorder.
Yet, all things considered, I grew up to be a relatively strong person. I’d like to think even though I am not the healthiest person around, emotionally or physically, I’ve always been a fighter in my own small way.
If there’s one thing that scares the hell out of me, though, it’s death. I have had dreams in which I see my death—not the scary kind, where someone is chasing you, the building explodes, the car crashes, or the murderer pops out from the closet—but the kind in which I am almost able to experience the process of dying. It is never frightening, but almost calm and surreal. The thing always notice most about death is that I feel sad about leaving.
I had one dream in which I saw my death in that same way I see many of my “psychic dreams”, and that of course threw me for a loop when I woke up. It shocked me to see me as someone who was very old, and very small. I was surrounded by people I didn’t really know or recognise, but they were my family (apparently, in my dream, I have a daughter and two grandchildren and a very unruly great-grandchild, which is almost as shocking as the idea of me living to be very, very old.) My daughter doesn’t look like me, or what I imagine I’ll look like at that age. She is taller and stronger and more imposing, and has olive skin and black hair that is starting to show streaks of grey. I can’t imagine her being related to me, because she seems very strong, and I am old and tiny and look very fragile. The nurse tells me it is a few days after my birthday, and there are icicles on the tree outside the hospital room window. (which we have in the Northeast, but rarely here in Atlanta.) I ask her if New Year’s Eve has happened yet. New Year’s Eve is one of my favourite holidays, even though it seems to be a rather cursed day for me.
I do not believe my dream is truly a “psychic dream”, although numerous psychics and palm readers and whatnot have told me I will live an exceptionally long time. The hereditary factors in my family—people either die relatively young or live to be exceptionally old in my family—as well as my history of health problems, and my natural constitution, do not point to a long and robust life. For the longest time, I was convinced I wouldn’t live past 30, and I was OK with that. Now I am older and wiser and know how important it is to stay healthy and keep living and creating and sharing my life with those who matter for as long as I can, I am suddenly terrified of the idea that I might die.
It is not helped by the fact that I’ve lost many friends and acquaintances who passed away suddenly, at relatively young ages. I have to visit the doctor on Monday, and I am filled with dread about doing so. I feel so sorry I spent a lot of my life taking health and the gift of being alive for granted, and instead made many stupid choices, some of which *should* have killed me. I suppose that’s everyone when they’re young, but there’s an age where you stop feeling invincible. There’s an age where you realise you never were, and the fact that you’re still here and took that for granted all along isn’t something that should continue.
“The Big C” turned devastatingly sad because it stopped being about characters on TV, and started being about everyone. We may seem so different, but the one thing we all have in common is that one day, we will die…and hopefully, there will be people who are terribly sad that has happened. No amount of preparation, money, lifestyle choices, or prayer will change the fact that we all begin life and end life in a way where the timing isn’t run by us for our approval.
I suppose it’s everything in the middle that matters. That is why all I’ve ever wanted, really, is for my “everything else” to have mattered to someone, somewhere.