My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.
Psalm 88:19 Book of Common Prayer
To be honest, I have never felt this degree of isolation. I have experienced a horrible inversion of it, days when I wished my friends and neighbors would go away and leave me to the darkness. Not for very long, just for a little bit, and only on a day when I wanted to be left alone. Some days, I yearn for human contact, some distraction to get my thoughts traveling on a different path.
I’ve had days when I could barely stand other people and wasn’t fond of my own company either. I do not know what prompts such days; I only know that by the time I am eating breakfast and reading psalms, I am praying my most desperate prayer: please don’t let me hurt anybody. Because I know that I am capable of wounding those I love, carelessly and with glee.
Many years ago I heard a performance piece of a Vietnam veteran’s story. He’d adopted a puppy while overseas; each night he would twist the dog’s paw until the poor creature cried. He justified his actions by explaining that he wanted something else to hurt as much as he did. (Thankfully, his actions didn’t square with the person he thought and wished himself to be; he gave away the dog.)
When I listened to that piece being performed, my face twisted in horror, but now I understand that serviceman’s feelings. I occasionally want to lash out at someone else, too, to make them feel as hurt and bewildered as cancer has left me. Where did that come from? What did I do to deserve that?
Nothing. You did nothing, and neither did I. These miserable days are hard to explain, even to myself—emotional ambushes, like snipers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There is just this darkness that comes.
Several years before I was diagnosed, a friend of mine was undergoing treatment for cancer, losing weight and strength as well as hair. I just wanted her to eat. I’d take her pretty food that I thought would be easy to get down, easy to digest; if she ate any of it, I’d leave with a sense of pride. When I was in treatment, I finally understood why she didn’t care about eating. I apologized to her for being so “helpful.”
Does this mean we shouldn’t take food to people on chemo, or invite them to outings, or call them to check in? No. Everyone responds differently to treatment and to kindness. Most days, I am more than glad to hear from friends and neighbors.
On very bad days, which don’t come often, I can only pray that people will stay away or that I will have the grace to be kind. I try all my usual remedies: music, chocolate, the cats, a walk in the woods, a cup of tea, a nap, and writing. I pray not to hurt anyone. I wait for it to go away, listening for the sound of a rescue plane.