“Growing old is a privilege,” Cathy tells her aunt, one of the guests at her surprise 43rd birthday party, in The Big C. We all know Cathy (played by brilliant actor Laura Linney) might not live to her next birthday because she’s been diagnosed with advanced melanoma, so we understand just what she means, even if her aunt doesn’t. We’re in on the secret. No one else is, except Cathy’s dotty next-door neighbor.
That’s precisely what makes the new Showtime series so compelling. We become Cathy, thinking what we’d say and how we’d act if we had a terminal illness. Would we keep our cancer a secret from everyone, including our family? Would we act on all our impulses, including having wild sex with a relative stranger, installing an in-ground pool in the backyard, buying an $80,000 convertible and eating and drinking with abandon?
Cathy helps us confront our mortality, and although the show is somewhat unnerving, it forces us to remember (at least for 29 minutes once a week) that we’d all be wise to make the most out of every minute. After all, what really is the difference between someone who is terminally ill and someone who is not, given none of us has a guaranteed expiration date stamped on our forehead?
I’m learning to look around me more closely, to listen more intently and to relish all the good stuff I’m privileged to have (including growing older). Cathy is intent on cramming all her living into the limited time she has left. She wants to make sure her teenage son has the right values, her need to be loved is fulfilled, her brother comes to terms with their selfish father. She wants everything to be in order when her time is up.