"The one thing we have in common is that we are going to die. We don’t know when we’re going to die, but we are going to die." – Karen O'Shaughnessy
The thought of our own mortality is deeply uncomfortable. But for members of the Tuesday meetings at the Maggie Centre in Dundee, it is a pressing eventuality.
Amy Hardie's documentary TUESDAYS follows the group’s five attendees as they come to terms with their diagnosis of incurable cancer and the prospect of their own imminent deaths. It is something that both terrifies and intrigues them.
"For me, [joining the group] was to see what it was like to die from cancer," admits Ruth Cave, who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2004.
Death is the uniting factor – the women are drawn together from different backgrounds and beliefs by their own impending mortality. The group reflects this, having shrunk from eight to five within just a year, and protagonists speak frequently and candidly about preparing themselves and their families for death. How does one come to terms with the reality of leaving children and life behind forever?
"We suggested the group when we were attending a group for first stage cancer at the Maggie centre. After we got diagnosed with secondary cancer asked if we could create a group specifically for people with secondary cancer," explains Ruth. "When you are first diagnosed you want to hear positive stories of people getting cured, you don’t want to have to hear about people dying, you’re still hopeful. It’s just too depressing."
But as the group goes deeper into confronting their independant mortalities, it becomes clear that the process of dealing with death presents a more immediate challenge – how to deal with life. From the small things - choose the correct wig, panicing when your nails fall out - to the bigger things - how to keep on living after a group member passes away, and making the most of the short amount of time left - the group therapy sessions become a meditation on living as much of on dying. At times it the realisation of the "illusion of life", as Ruth calls it, is more painful and jarring than the possibility of death.
And death brings a surprising gift – the gift to truly appreciate what it means to be alive.
"In the beginning it's hard to have cancer," muses Kathleen Taylor. "As time goes on its not like that at all… It’s a new beginning. There is life after cancer and it can be much better because there is so much more to get out of life... It’s a new chapter and I hope it gives everyone else a new beginning."
Death in practice is somewhat sanitized in the film. The participants are well looking, functional people. Death is reported on and mused, but never witnessed. Knowing death seems impossible to the observer. Artist Damien Hirst's aptly titled artwork The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is the corpse of a tiger shark suspended in a glass tank of formaldehyde, but represents something alive. Does the impossibility of knowing death mean that in our minds we never die?
The Q&A session is the first time I am really confronted by the reality. The youngest member of the group, active and full faced in the film where she weeps with terror at the memory of a 'close shave', is now wheelchair bound, thinner and frail. Her transformation is striking, but she is dressed bravely in a bright pink jacket and feather boa. Is this a desire to be remembered boldly, or a celebration of life? Her composure surprises me and I find her captivating, beautiful, awe inspiring. I wonder how long she has left, what it feels like to be so near the end, and whether her calm is a well worn mask to help the rest of us feel less afraid about death or whether she has really come to accept it. She seems old beyond her years. Does dying make us wise? Not merely the fact knowing we're going to die, we all are someday, but really dying? Does it hurl us into a place of clarity? I want to ask her these questions and more, but it is not the place. In the mind of the living, death remains unimaginable.