Healing Aloneness

By C. John “Jack” Miller, October 1987, a difficult period immediately after Jack was diagnosed with cancer.

It was one of the toughest and yet most wonderful seasons in my life. I had decided for life on Monday, October 19 (the Black Monday of Wall Street fame). I ate more food that afternoon and evening than I had in a long time, but the food tasted flat and my appetite was still poor. Yet I knew I must eat to live. How was this going to be possible with my aversion to the taste of food.

Ruth [Jack’s daughter] sat at my bedside … She is a nurse, and after I had my snack she helped get me ready for bed while telling me how her family was doing. She has three young boys … and they supplied her with lots of humorous anecdotes. Not long before she left she said, “Dad, you know there are people against chemotherapy. It’s got its problems, but it’s still the best thing going. It’s helped you a lot.”

“And?” I asked. She concluded, “maybe your purpose is to give hope to people who are taking these drugs. Many cancer patients have lost hope; they’re really scared and hurting, feeling alone, and wondering if chemo really helps. They need what you have to tell them. Give these sufferers some hope.”

After she left I made up my mind to do what I could to help. It was time to get back to work. I enjoyed the thought of writing something to help people going through tough times. The next day I made a telephone call and hired my daughter Barbara to work with me as an editorial assistant. I told her that I wanted to write an article called “Personal Crisis.”

The same day I pushed my IV pole ahead of me out the door of my room. I was taking my first walk with it. It was slow going. I did not want to turn the thing over or pull my IV needles loose. But it was good to be up and about. Practically everyone I met in the corridor smiled encouragement. By the end of the day I had taken three trips up and down the corridor, each lasting about ten minutes.

That evening my telephone rang. I picked it up. It was Roseann, my oldest daughter. “Dad,” she said, “I’m coming over to the hospital. Can I bring you anything?” “Roseann,” I answered, “You sure can. Bring me a dozen boiled shrimp.”

Chuckling could be heard from the other end of the line and then a question: “Are you getting ready for nausea?” I laughed too and said, “I’d like the larger ones. And I like that red sauce that goes well with them. In an hour or two I’m supposed to be nauseated from the drugs. Well, who cares! Nausea or not, I’m planning a little party. Come join me.” Roseann replied, “I love it. I’ll get the shrimp and some other goodies and be on my way.”

It was a wonderful little party. Roseann brought a big supply of shrimp and plenty of other tasty things. I provided the entertainment, mostly by making a pig of myself and acting a little giddy. Perhaps the best humor came through my stuffing myself with shrimp and sauce when my stomach was supposed to be hypersensitive. I don’t think they expected me to get away with it. I’m sure Rose Marie and Roseann were sitting there waiting for me to lose it all.

But it did not happen. When Roseann, her mother, and I had eaten the shrimp and the other food, the time for the nausea had passed, and I had not even felt a touch of it.

I had now learned some things about fighting cancer, lessons which could be applied to any crisis. Let me list them:

  1. First, note that suspicion and love don’t mix. Take reasonable precautions in your relationships with others, and then reject unwarranted suspicions of those who provide medical care or any other help. Constant questions of the motives of other people is exhausting — and possibly unhealthy.
  2. Second, develop a well-planned diet under competent guidance and get at least limited exercise when you are faced with a debilitating disease. But first check out your exercise with a doctor who knows your physical limitations.
  3. Third, plan some happy times every week, and if possible every day. Do something different no matter how trivial it may seem. For example, in the hospital I saved my tea from breakfast and drank it leisurely while I read the daily newspaper. Or listen to music. Have friends provide tapes of music that you enjoy and that relax you.
  4. Fourth, in a crisis of any sort there is a healing power to be found in work, especially if you can serve others with your work. If you can possibly manage it do some work everyday. Help others whenever you can. For instance, you can do much to encourage others and help yourself by writing thank-you letters to your friends and relatives during a time of crisis.

Still, there are times when we cannot seem to follow any useful directives.

The visitors come and sit at our feet; we become fixated with their presence. Life is no longer a party. We feel that being alive is an intolerable burden. Existence seems to equal misery. You don’t trust anyone. Your humor is cynical, not light-hearted and refreshing.

Even during these days of recovery I had some times where negative attitudes returned and threatened to conquer my spirit.

I found it hard to accept my bodily weakness after I came home from the hospital at the end of the [first] five days [of chemo]. I was distressed to find that I was no longer strong enough to pick up my two grandkids. Too, I was increasingly isolated, and my visitors had to be few in number and wear surgical masks to keep from infecting me because my immune system was so suppressed. Too, I had once more lost more weight in the hospital, and my skinny frame frightened my close friends. One told me that he was afraid I was “sliding down hill physically.”

Then a slight fever turned into a higher fever. Because of this mysterious elevated fever I went back to the hospital for ten days. A very scary time because fevers are symptomatic of lymphoma. There were no rooms available on the oncology floor, and I ended up on a floor where I knew no one. I knew the temperatures were ranging around 102 and I was losing weight. Because of the danger of the infection, visitors were more severely restricted in number.

This was my time of isolation. Was the party over? It was a brutal setback for me, a time of anxiety. But I kept on working on my article for people caught in crisis. And would you believe that I finished it during this time of isolation?

Soon I gave it to a cancer patient who had asked for it. She wrote me a letter telling me the article … had given her a reason for existence. She had duplicated it and was handing it out to all her friends and discussing it with them. It had given her a purpose for living! She had moved from seeing herself as a cancer victim to seeing herself as a support person for other sufferers.

So the party was not over. It was just beginning with a deeper purpose. Once more, then, I had clarified my perspective on the nature of love and loving. Consider this summary of what I was now coming to see:

Love at its highest is joyous, vicarious self-giving.

Vicarious? What does that mean? The word suggests acting as someone’s spokesman or representative.

There is a unique kind of identification with others in which the sufferer becomes their representative. As Richard Wyatt [Jack’s friend] had said, I was suffering for others and I had with them a marvelous closeness even when my susceptibility to infection kept them at a physical distance.

Of course, it did not seem to me that I was much of a champion in the struggle. But I could see that in some mysterious way I had a vicarious role in my battle. My friends were fighting for me, but I was fighting for them as well. This is close to the essence of loving.

Love of this deeper sort can only be experienced through episodes of isolation, what I have called “healing aloneness.”

Ours is a generation of talkers. Talk, talk, talk, and all too often we have not had the experience to justify our talking. For instance, we talk a great deal about the right to privacy, but few of us use our alonenesses to learn in quietness to think about what matters most in life.

In fact, we are very careful to avoid silence. We need noise and talk to shield ourselves from self-knowledge. You will remember how this fact struck me on the third day I was in the hospital the night before I went into surgery. It seemed to me that I had talked too much and experienced too little of the reality of love.

But in my time of isolation I saw where my life was going, as though guided by a secret plan. My little parties, my eating five or six times a day, my determination to keep walking no matter what, my writing the article for other sufferers — it was life lived for others.

I was now experiencing a love that went beyond anything I had previously known. And it was in my isolation that I had the time and the will to think it through.

Here there was little talk. But plenty of time for listening and understanding. Sometimes in the quietness I tasted a joy that was so exquisite that I can only describe it as “love’s party time.”

Those who have suffered deeply and long will understand me. The patient who manages to be cheerful when he knows he is dying, who, in spite of his weariness and fears, concerns himself with others’ welfare, that person understands what I am saying.

Those around his beside feel his caring and realize that love is a mysterious power at work in our midst. They realize that the sufferer is, in some mysterious way, their representative.

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