The loneliest job in the world?All hyperbole aside, I think that the job of "cancer-spouse" must be one of the loneliest that there is. In addition to all of the heartache, worry, and grief, there's an immense feeling of isolation. I think that isolation comes, in part, from the nature of serious illness itself; no matter how loving, supportive, and helpful one's family and friends are, there is nothing in "normal" life that prepares one to deal with terminal/serious illness. People whose lives are still filled with the "normal" stresses of job, childcare, friendships, social life, family can't possibly (and perhaps shouldn't be able to) understand the daily anguish: the waiting, the watching for something "new," the helplessness of sitting around while the medical system grinds ever so slowly through its cycle of appointment, follow-up, referral, long wait, test, long wait, results, long wait, treatment.
There's also no way to communicate what it's like to have the most important person in your life drift inevitably away from you--from fear, or pain, or pharmacopeia. I never realized how much of "couplehood" is anticipatory; we spend much of our lives planning ahead to the next dinner party, the next movie night, the next vacation, the dream trip once the kids are old enough. Once the illness is serious enough, all of that goes away, for the most part. Plans are all contingent on the progress of the Disease, and every hope for the future is tinged by the real fear that there won't be time for it to come true.
Finally, serious illness is isolating for the sufferer. Most people retreat into themselves when they are in pain, frightened, or heavily sedated. Someone dealing with their own mortality is unlikely to ask "How was your day?" and be able to stay awake to hear the answer. The minor triumphs and setbacks of the "healthy" partner (although that term is misleading; cancer, in particular, has two victims when its host is part of a couple) pale against the life-and-death issues they face in their couplehood.
Scariest of all is the realization that the only way to have the dreadful stress end would be to suffer an even bigger loss. To return to "normal life" would be to lose one's dearest partner and friend, and to enter a new life of even greater loneliness. Because there's a lot to be said for presence. For even five minutes of conversation. For doing the little things to ease the pain and fill the void, and for savoring the fact that at least for today, we are two who are also one.
Right now, I'm thinking of Badger. And of myself. And of our husbands, whose bravery is only occasionally and by necessity surpassed by ours.