Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know what happens in Miss You Already, stop reading now.
It was one of those rare times when I had a child in bed and a few hours of TV to myself. I went looking for something that did not involve science fiction, superheroes or something with characters singing very! happy! songs! and came across Miss You Already.
The movie starred Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette and the description promised me that it followed two women as they laughed and cried their way through a lifelong friendship. I think Toni Collette is a goddess visiting the Earth, and like anyone who was a teenage girl in the 90s, Drew Barrymore can do no wrong in my eyes (although in high school, I was more in the Winona Ryder Club). With Drew and Toni, I was sold.
The movie starts when Jess (Drew) and Millie (Toni) meet in whatever the British call elementary school and follows them through young adulthood. They’re best friends the way that only young girls can be, and eventually grow into young women. Millie pairs off with a rock roadie who gets rich off of some sort of music-related business. Millie is gorgeous, glamorous and has the picture-perfect family and home. She mostly communicates by shouting how BLOODY AMAZING HER LIFE IS!!!!!
Jess is much more subdued. She does something environmentalisty. She is dutifully supportive of everything Millie does. She’s the wallflower to Millie’s queen of the rock star prom, always buying presents for the kiddos and never getting annoyed at Millie’s volume level.
(Here is where the spoilers start)
And about 15 minutes in, we find out that this is a breast cancer movie. Millie has it. This was not what I was expecting, and if I’d known I probably would have passed on it, but I decide to soldier on. I want to enter the TV screen and ask all the questions that I now know to ask. Ok, but what TYPE of breast cancer is it? What is the stage? Are you HER2 positive? But, I can’t do that, and the movie doesn’t want to bog itself down with such concerns, which is understandable because these things are only interesting to people who have cancer and doctors.
Whatever type of cancer Millie has, it’s different than mine was. Millie has what must be called Fabulous Cancer, because you go through chemo but have the added bonus of looking like Toni Collette, and having perfect winged eyeliner.
It was at this point, that I almost shut it off. As a teenage girl in the 90s, Barrymore was my goddess, and Collette is one of my favorite actresses ever, but it was hard to swallow this woman going through chemo while continually barking about her BLOODY AMAZING LIFE!!! I just wasn’t feeling it. But then, things started to get real. For minor stuff that Miss You Already got wrong, it got the major stuff right. Really right.
Once her cancer treatment is over, and the mastectomy incision is healed, Millie starts to go somewhat off the deep end. She shags a bartender. Then after too many drinks, she and Jess decide that they absolutely must drive to the moors of Yorkshire because that’s where the Bronte sisters grew up. They not only have to do this, but they have to do it right now and they pay a taxi driver to take them there all the way from London. In reality, Millie is chasing after the same bartender mentioned previously who decided to head off into the country for whatever reason, but Jess doesn’t know about this. Until she walks in on them the next morning in the country inn where they’re staying.
A fight ensues at what looks like part of the Hogwarts set, which includes the line “You made me drive 250 miles so that you could get laid by a barman!” Millie says that this might be the only time she gets to do such a thing. It’s one of the most real moments I’ve seen in a cancer movie. I haven’t had the particular urge to run off into Harry Potter country to shag a bar tender, but I totally understand where Millie is coming from. (And also, good on Jess for calling Millie out, cancer or not.)
You hear a lot with serious diseases about how they make you understand what’s really important. That’s true. But when you think about how you can die at any time, suddenly there are lots of little things that seem important. You wonder if every birthday and holiday is going to be the last one. You want to create the perfect trip to the pumpkin patch and find the perfect Christmas tree because what if you die and your child doesn’t have this memory? People who aren’t thinking about their mortality don’t buy ice cream for their children wondering how many more times they’ll get to do this. You wonder if this one crazy thing you do will be one of the last crazy things you do. So yeah, I get why Millie felt so strongly about running off and doing something totally irrational, because when everything could disintegrate in the next moment, what constitutes a good thing to do can look very different. Suddenly, the most minor, stupid shit can be of the utmost importance.
Living every day like it’s your last looks a lot different in real life than when it’s on a motivational poster. It might not involve standing on a dock in front of a crystal clear lake, but it might involve having a giant pile of laundry because you’d rather spend the day at the park than putting anything away.
What Miss You Already also gets very right is the stark wall that comes up between those who’ve had cancer and everyone else. The fight between Millie and Jess isn’t really about the bartender. It’s about everything but the bartender. Millie feels terrified, resentful and lonely, and it can be easy to take those feelings out on the people around you, even when they don’t deserve it. You’re mad about the cancer and you’re mad about the treatment. You’re mad at yourself for getting cancer. You’re mad when someone on the street asks you where they can buy cigarettes and because here you are with burning skin from radiation treatments under your shirt and here they are stuffing carcinogens into their body. You’re mad about the friends and loved ones who have decided to put you on ‘ignore’ during your darkest time, so you lash out at the people who are there because at some point you just break.
Moreover, the reality is that when you go through cancer, you go through it alone. No matter how many friends and family you have helping you, those people are not in your brain hearing all of your thoughts. Those people aren’t the ones having gods only know what pumped through their veins and having to face the world without any hair. They don’t have to face another day of crackers and sparkling water because it’s all they can keep down.
It’s not easy to support someone with cancer. It’s asking a lot. I don’t know what my caregivers went through. I don’t know what sort of conversations they had while I was asleep at chemo, and I don’t know what my parents and husband talked about when I was in surgery. I don’t know how my husband took care of me, remembered to ask all the questions, got the toddler bathed and in bed every night and made dinner without cracking under the pressure, but somehow he did. I suspect part of the answer is that he’s a far better person than I am.
And they don’t know what it meant to be me. This is not an experience that I share with my mother, sister, or any of my aunts, cousins or grandmothers. I cannot turn to them for advice or experiences, because, thankfully, this doesn’t run in my family. None of my friends have had this. And that creates a wall.
That wall can make relationships difficult. Jess keeps her own significant news from Millie, and similarly, I had loved ones who kept things from me.
When the Walgreens cashier has a survivor lapel pin, I can point at it and say “Me, too.” I can fist-bump, hug and even cry with total strangers over this shared understanding, but I can’t do that with anyone else in my life.
I understand now how cancer can ruin marriages and friendships. It’s really no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is.
Life doesn’t stop for cancer, and there can be a lot of collateral damage left in its wake, which is what Miss You Already gets really, really right.