“I don’t know what’s worse, the cancer or the loneliness,” he said. “Because at night, when Lolly (his wife) kisses me on the forehead and puts me to bed and turns out the light, it’s just me and this disease. When I leave the doctor’s office, it’s just me and the cancer. When people visit, they leave and then it’s just me and the disease.”
There is something isolating about the experience of cancer — or, I suppose, any serious illness. If you catch a cold, there are plenty of people who can commiserate with you about the runny nose, the sore throat and all the familiar symptoms. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a cold. Talking about those symptoms with someone else is an exercise in community.
Not so with cancer. The majority of the people you meet have never had it — or, if they’ve had some other form of cancer, their symptoms can easily be very different from your own. Sitting in the chemo chair, you look around and realize that only the people reclining in the other chairs have the slightest idea of how it feels. Not even the nurses, who pump that goop into people’s veins every day, know how it feels.
But there’s some consolation, as Mike Di Ionno points out. There are people — a very small number of people — who hang in there with you. They can’t sympathize, because they haven’t been through it. But they do their best to empathize:
“I have learned that the obituary words ‘surrounded by family’ are the most beautiful phrase in this newspaper. It is the only thing that eases the loneliness of the disease. It comforts, when medicine fails.”
“When someone is in the final stages, we all feel helpless and uncomfortable, and worry about being intrusive on private pain and grief.
We ask, ‘What can we do?’
My answer today is, ‘Show up.’
Show up and hold their hand. Show up and say the things you’ll regret not saying, even if they are whispered in the ear of a comatose person. Leave nothing unsaid. Leave nothing unsaid.
Show up in person, call on the phone. Prove to them they were loved and that they mattered.”
Here endeth the lesson. Amen.