The Big C

TPQ regular Sean Mallory reflects on the death of a loved one taken by cancer.

From several years ago, I recall a television series entitled The Big C starring Laura Linney as the character Cathy Jamison and Oliver Platt as Paul Jamison.

It took a humorous and satirical approach to a mother being diagnosed with cancer, its inevitable progression to terminal cancer and her interactions with her family and life in general as she went about dealing with the knowledge that she had a finite amount of time to live.

In our home and at that time we thought it was funny and entertaining. That was that time and now is now. Our home is different.

Recently, a member of my own family, having initially been diagnosed with cancer and after a very brave fight succumbed to the disease’s terminal effects and much to our anguish and heartbreak passed away.

Like Linney's character Cathy, she was also a mother, but not of one, but of four young children. And also like Cathy, she was young. Too young.

There are so many comparisons with The Big C and yet so many contrasts. The fun aspect being the most obvious disparity.

Cancer is not funny irrespective of how it is approached. In fact it is brutally unambiguous in its prognosis and it is only through personal experience that we come to understand just how bloody horrendous it really is.

It is a disease that alerts us to our own fragility and in its course of destroying its host, its attack ultimately leads to its own self-destruction. Not only does it strip the life out of the victim, but it rips the heart and soul out of the immediate family, relatives and friends. There never is just the sole victim and it leaves behind an awful trail of grief, regret and a terrible sense of injustice and the inescapable Why?

Like The Big C, Cathy and Paul's protection of their son Adam from such harrowing news, from her initial diagnoses, her children were not fully informed of the terminality of their mummy's illness in order to save them from any anguish or distress.

But like Adam, they realised as her treatment went on that something more serious was afoot and it was towards the end that they fully grasped the serious nature of her illness.

The one aspect of The Big C that portrayed as true a reflection as possible of the disease is the scene where Cathy finally succumbs to its eventuality. Surrounded by her family, who having like most families when faced with this condition, having spent the time from diagnosis to her actual passing, seemingly in denial and full of desperate hope, openly acknowledge her eventual demise with their tears and cries of despair. The scene ran counter to the satirical theme of the series and only through experience we understand now why.

When you have sat in a hospital room and watched children beg their mummy not to go and her husband declare his undying love through tears of despair and desperation you fully understand that scene. Unlike reality The Big C ended there.

After the wake, the funeral and the initial mourning, when all those paying their respects leave to continue their own lives and the house quietens down, eyes sore from tears, you are alone. It is then that the full impact of the ‘Bean an tí’s passing fully hits home.

It's her living room

It's her curtains

It's her wall paper and paint

It's her kitchen

It's her sink

It's her cooker

It's her kettle

It's her cups

It's her shopping in the cupboards

It's her washing machine

It's her shoes by the sofa

It's her sofa

Simply, it's her home.

At times you catch yourself turning to ask her a question, expecting her to be in her usual place doing her usual thing but only to find an empty space. No more her laughter, no more her smile, no more her warm welcome or no more her regretful goodbye.

As the days pass by she's in and out of your mind, popping in and out at odd times, and you think of her family left behind. Tears suddenly well in your eyes to be quickly wiped away to avoid embarrassment in public places. A phenomenon a friend of my explained that would continue for several years. A death is very hard to live with but we learn to cope but never get over it.

Later while scrolling through your phone you come across her number, her message trail and her e-mails, her Whatsapp, her Facebook and her Instagram - Still alive in a virtual world.

You think to yourself, what you wouldn’t give for your phone to beep one more time.

Cancer is a bitch.