A couple years ago, a friend of mine told me she had been diagnosed with cancer. While it was not an absolute worst-case scenario, the diagnosis was still not good, and it meant that she was facing a difficult regimen of surgery, chemo treatments and radiation that would extend into the summer. As an 18-year cancer survivor myself, I know how challenging chemo treatments can be, so I knew that I wanted to be there with her for them – I knew that having a familiar face there would make the sessions go faster and maybe a little easier. Happily, she completed her treatments and is now another breast cancer survivor. It was not always easy, but she was a real inspiration, and we both found our time together to be special and fulfilling.
It’s hard to describe what I felt the first time I walked into the room with her where she would receive her infusions. My own treatments were 18 years ago, in a different hospital, under the care of a different doctor, but there were enough similarities between her situation and mine that I sort of gasped that first day. I was immediately thrown back 18 years, and I was a little stunned at how vivid all those 18-year-old memories still were. The smells were the same. The sounds were the same. The lights were still very bright. The chairs were still large and plastic and not entirely comfortable. The room was still chilly. The nurses were still young and sweet. And it was still a very diverse mix of patients and visitors. Old, young, women, men, black, white, Asian. And the patients themselves, though all different, still had similarities. Mostly bald. Pale. Sleepy.
My husband had recently been hired and was working at a new job for far more than 40 hours a week when I was going through my own treatments, so my mother was the one who took me to all my sessions, sat in the guest chair by my side for the four hours each session took, and provided the company that helped pass that time. Having her there each time was a treasure for me – she made it comfortable and manageable and okay. I used to wonder how I would have done it without her there, but I don’t wonder that anymore. She WAS there. And I endured it because she offered what I needed during those moments: a hand to hold, conversation, silence, care. As the chemo provided a solution, she provided the strength.
As I walked into a different chemo room 18 years later with my friend, the memories flooded back. I looked around and saw the patients, the nurses, the doctors, and the visitors – all those people, like my mom, who were sitting beside their loved ones offering that same care. And then I remembered one patient from 18 years ago whose face I will never forget. She was different from all the rest of us, because she sat in her own big, plastic, uncomfortable chair, all alone. The guest chair beside her was always empty. She came to her treatment sessions alone. She took a cab to get there in the morning, and a nurse called for a cab to take her back home when the session was finished. No one ever came with her. No one ever gave her a ride. No one spoke to her except for the few spare moments a nurse could stop and chat before moving on to the other patients.
I remember how much that burdened me. It seemed so wrong, so unfair. I knew firsthand what she was dealing with physically, but I had no idea how she was doing it. I knew that my mother’s presence took the edge off all of it for me, and all the other patients, with someone sitting in the guest chairs next to them, too, were also comforted by a presence – a person willing and wanting to offer the hand, conversation, silence, or care. But this woman didn’t have that. I couldn’t imagine how that felt. I wondered if she ever asked herself, “Why bother?” And in truth, I avoided imagining it. The journey through cancer is hard enough, but the idea that she might be coping with that pain and sickness without having someone to either celebrate a good outcome or console in a bad one was heartbreaking.
I was reminded of that woman as I walked in with my friend for her first infusion, and I was so glad I was there with and for her. Certainly, she has an amazing husband and many friends, and she would not have been alone through her experience, but in that moment, I was so grateful that I got to be that companion for her.
King Solomon speaks about that very thing in his book of Ecclesiastes. In verse 8 of chapter 4, he says, “There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother.”But just before that, in verse 7, he first says, “Again I saw something meaningless under the sun…”Among all the truths of life that his wisdom showed him was the fact that being all alone is meaningless. He calls it a “miserable business.”
We were never meant to be alone, ever. In Genesis we read about how God created the heavens and the earth, and as He created each part, He stepped back, looked at it, and labeled it “good.” He created the light and called it good. He created the land and the seas and called them good. He created all the plants and vegetation and called it good. He made the morning and the night and called them good. He created all the creatures in the sea, in the sky, and on the land and called them good. But then He created man, and put him alone in the garden of Eden, and for the first time, He said it was not good – not good for the man to be alone.
That has not changed. It really is not good to be alone. Solomon, in his wisdom, gained that understanding. He declares that, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.”He goes on to say that, “If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.”So true, so true. I think of that woman 18 years ago, falling onto a journey of pain and sickness and fear and uncertainty. I can’t help thinking that she would have had a greater chance of success with someone seated by her side. And success would not necessarily have meant a cure. For her, or for anyone enduring overwhelming hardship or pain or loss or challenge, success may be finding the ability to put one foot in front of the other on that path through that valley. That effort might truly be meaningless without knowing someone cares.
Another friend suffered an immeasurably devastating loss a couple years ago. She and her husband were instantly surrounded by many people offering the care and strength that would help them endure it, and it was amazing to see so many people with hearts longing to climb into their yoke with them and share their burden. One of them said something that I thought was profound and which has stuck with me. As she held and cradled this woman grieving with such pain, she said, “If I could, I would lift you out of this dark pit you’re in. But since I can’t do that, I’ll climb down and sit in it with you for however long you need.”
The pits of life are often dark and unbearable. We all have them from time to time – Jesus warned us that that would happen. We can’t escape them, we can only endure them. But I know that, for me, those dark pits are made less dim when there is someone by my side in them. As Solomon also said, “A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer.”So I do two things: I make sure I have people in my life whom I care for and I know will care for me, and I don’t ignore opportunities to come alongside someone in need of a companion. I assume it’s God’s desire for me to be there, and I know the blessings that follow will be deep.
Jenny Buelow and her husband, Bill, have attended Hope for 18 years. She is involved in several ministries, including the Production Team, Women’s Evening Light, and the Visitation Team, and she and her husband have hosted a weekly Bible Study in their home for 26 years. Jenny is a grateful 19-year cancer survivor.