Monday, January 19, 2009

For real: Alone

Oatmeal is the loneliest food.

It's difficult to believe that oatmeal became a symbol for much of the unhappiness I experienced as a child. But that's exactly what happened during those early and bewildering hospitalizations.

There was pain, and fear, and grief, of course. But loneliness was the most pervasive emotion I endured. It had a physical presence that I still recall clearly: a frigid weight that radiated from my stomach, a sort of sick anticipation that tingled in my arms and legs and left a watery metallic taste in my mouth. It echoed inside me. It made me shiver.

I was eight years old, in a huge hospital, many miles from home. My parents spent countless hours with me, but they had two other children and jobs and lives that had to be tended whether I was sick or healthy. They sacrificed much during that time, more than I will probably ever know. But I still spent many cold hours by myself, waiting for someone to come. Waiting for everything to be okay again.

And of all the lonely hours, breakfast was by far the worst part of every single day. After the doctors made rounds early in the morning, but before my parents arrived, a dietary aide would bring my breakfast and place it on my tray-table. And there I would sit, alone, with the head of my bed elevated. I was groggy from pain medication and weak from lack of activity and awkward from IV tubing and rubber drains. My head and face were heavily bandaged. My jaw didn't work properly and I couldn't get the food from the tray to my mouth without spilling all over myself.

I wanted help.

I needed help.

No help came.

So instead of eating I would stare at my gelatinous oatmeal swimming in a pool of tepid milk, feeling the lonely sickness. And I would cry for my mom. No one ever saw these tears.

Other meals were bad too. Once a nurse thought it would be "good for me" to join the other patients in the day room for lunch. It was a miserable room that smelled of antiseptic and dust, with brown-tiled floors, a black-and-white television, and ancient board games on the bookshelf. I did not want to be there, and to escape I decided to read a book while I ate. The nurse snatched the book away and scolded me harshly for reading at the table. She called me "rude," she made my stomach hurt. I stared at the table and blinked back tears and knew I was in this alone.

There were times, of course, when generous people who could perhaps sense my loneliness tried to help. They did help. But somehow their acts of kindness also served to highlight my isolation.

For instance, there was the Sunday afternoon I lay in bed staring at a football game on the television. Alone. Sad. A custodian came in to sweep. "I like football, too," he said comfortingly, pulling up a chair. And he sat with me and held my small hand, bruised from IV's, in his big brown hand. We quietly watched the game together.

But he wasn't my dad.

And I adored Nancy, one of my nurses. She was 28, she told me, and she was beautiful, with long, dark-brown, feathered hair. Bedtime was lonesome; I always felt lost. No one ever told me "good night" or tucked the blankets around me. I was left to fend for myself and usually just fell asleep to the blue glow of the tv. But one night I was particularly restless and sad, and climbed over my bedrail and navigated my IV pole down the hall, the tile cold on my bare feet. When I got to the nurses' desk, Nancy smiled sadly at me. I started crying and meekly asked if someone would please tuck me in. "Oh, sweetie," she said, and picked me up and carried me to bed and rocked me to sleep.

But she wasn't my mom.

Repeated hospitalizations never entirely numbed me to the loneliness of being hurt and scared and sick in a big, fluorescent institution, but I got used to it. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I wanted desperately to know that I wasn't isolated in my experience. I wanted someone to understand, but it quickly became clear that no one did. No one could. At a young age I came to a resigned understanding that I really was alone.

At some point, I stopped waiting for everything to be okay. Then, what had begun as enforced isolation in the hospital morphed into a more generalized voluntary solitude that eventually became a source of comfort. It was easier to remain alone than to open myself to the insensitivity or rejection or cruelty that I frequently encountered. Friendships became difficult to establish, exhausting to maintain. I spent a lot of years isolating myself to varying degrees in the interest of self-protection.

I don't isolate myself anymore. I socialize, and have friends. But to this day I remain a bit of an outsider; I am just as happy to be by myself as with others. Maybe I have some lingering trust or self-confidence issues; I guess such problems would be natural. But they are minor now, and generally transient when they do arise.

No, mostly I am just very accustomed to being alone. It is peaceful. I am okay with that.

I have grown, and by some miracle I am secure. But still, there is the oatmeal: thirty years later, it brings tears to my eyes when I try to eat it. I cannot stand oatmeal.


  1. I am so very sorry T, there just are no words...the depth of the wounds that pierced to the very core of your being. I only wish we could have somehow been there for you, that this somehow could have been prevented...all of it, that this precious little girl would never have had to suffered any of this.
    with love always

  2. Again, it is hard to believe I know you so well but have never heard these stories. We shared a room at this time! Can you believe that? Your little, unknowing sister who could do nothing but admire and love everything you were and are. I knew nothing of the pain. It goes without saying, but thank you for sharing.

  3. I know Ali. I started reading your blog here and there via her blog and got hooked, and it helps me procrastinate chores. I'm also a peds nurse. I've almost commented before but stopped since you don't know me. When I read this entry it made me cry and I had to comment. I hope I've been or will be "Nancy" to someone. In any event I will remember your perspective each day I work.


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