What would you do if you knew when you are going to die soon?
Actress Torri Higginson is the lead in CBC’s family drama, THIS LIFE, which deals with some heavy subject matter. Torri portrays single mother Natalie Lawson whose cancer-diagnosis upends her life. Torri went through a similar experience years ago and can relate to Natalie’s struggles. We spoke with Higginson this week.
SDTC: How does your experience parallel that of Natalie’s?
TH: I had an Anaerobic lung infection that became life threatening as it was not diagnosed until it had spread through my entire respiratory system.
My response to the time I spent in the hospital connects me to Natalie: I was hooked up to drains and unable to move or feed myself or do anything for myself (the first week, I also had a tracheotomy so was unable to speak – which added to the feeling of isolation commonly felt when diagnosed with an illness).
During that time I had to give up all control, forcing me to look at my mortality face on and find a way to accept it without anger and to try to find gratitude for the life I had lived up until then. I didn’t want to spend my possible last days racked with regrets, anger or pity. I was surrounded by death; every night someone in the unit died. I remember so clearly looking out the window from my bed and coming to terms with that being my last view. And my heart grew from the gratitude I felt for appreciating that view.
My illness doesn’t parallel Natalie’s, but I believe the struggle I had with accepting death and questioning what state of heart I wanted to be in at the end of my life is a lot of what Natalie is going through.
Why do you think death and dying remain a taboo subject in our society?
It’s hard to speak of this and not spout out clichés, so cliché warning ahead alert.
I think we are mostly afraid of speaking of death because it means we have to actually take ownership of our life. If we truly believe we are going to die and have that knowledge in our hearts/heads/cells on a daily basis, then we have to live in a very different way. We have to be absolutely okay with how things are; how we are living. Knowing our time is finite, it’s harder to procrastinate, or to be petty or bitter or blame others for our shortcomings or our failings. We would strive more to be filled with gratitude and living with all that ‘goodness’ is exhausting! It takes a lot of work to keep it all in check.
So essentially I believe in that cliché, “the fear of death is really a fear of living.” I think it kinda nails it on the head.
The baby boomers are creating a very large population over the age of sixty-five, and I think that is helping us as a culture be less afraid of this dialogue. It is helping us shift away from our adoration and fantasy of youth/staying young forever. I feel lucky to be around now when our storytelling is changing quite a bit.
What do you hope audiences will take away?
I hope people relate and see the humanity of Natalie and her struggles with fear and hope. I hope they recognize those struggles and needs, which we all have with control: controlling our destiny, our life, our bodies, other people. I hope that some find comfort in feeling that we are all in it together and that the beauty of being human is that we succeed and fail at all of it, every day. And we can be okay with that.
How do you grapple with your own mortality now?
At the start of each season, I find the daily meditations of mortality quite uplifting and strengthening; reminding me to be grateful for everything, even the challenges. Though, I admit, by the end of the filming season, I end up feeling a bit panicked with mortality. I ask, “What am I doing? What is my purpose? Why can’t I be grateful every day? Why do I still get snippy over small things? Have I failed the lessons thrown at me? Life is too fast and how can I do everything I need to do to justify the space I have taken?”
Then I am relieved the filming is over and I can go back to procrastinating and pretending that I may live forever. It’s a relief to believe that again, just for a while.
When I do find myself overwhelmed with the bigness, unknowingness and scariness of it all – I handle it by doing an extra session or two to calm the fear and re-grab the grateful. Or some days it’s a five-mile run, or sweaty yoga, or a bottle of wine (preferably champagne, cause really, we don’t know how long we have so it’s best to go out big.)
THIS LIFE premieres its second season Sunday October 2 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).