Alone - Kate Bowler

Here's to the Happies with

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Most of my worst thoughts hover around a single word.


For a long time, I felt like I was the only person in the world who will die. It was the weird feeling that began in the haze of my diagnosis. I remember standing in the lobby of Duke Hospital, waiting for them to admit me. I was talking on the phone to my friend, Margaret, with my hand on the window.

“I feel like I’m behind glass now. And you’re all on the other side.”

Even today I still feel it in the moment between shaking someone’s hand and the spark of recognition in their eyes. Oh, it’s YOU. And then they cock their heads to one side like sorrowful cocker spaniels.

It is true that there are some things I’m always going to have to do alone. It’s the deep breath I take before they put in a fat needle into the port in my chest. It’s the sinking feeling in my stomach when the doctor holds the test results. It’s the catch in my throat when I watch a little baby curved into the dip of a new parent’s shoulder.

I am locked inside this body, which is failing me. And it keeps me from breaking through, back to the life I want.

But this is also the truth: I am never alone. You are with me.

I come home and there are cookies in my mailbox from Katy. Last week Mandy sent me smelly pencils (called “Smencils”!) and I am hooked on the grape one. Molly made me a crossword puzzle where all the clues are drawn from American religious history trivia. Rob, my doctor friend, talks me through some recent findings. Andrea, my college roommate, e-mails me funny videos to watch during chemo and my little sister Maria sends me funny articles with titles like “Types of Guys I Would Like to Date, If Anyone Could Please Introduce Me to Them.”

I was late to a meeting the other day because at the faculty meeting I had gotten too many hugs.

These little things…..they are the cure. They are the cure to loneliness. They are the cure to self-pity. They are the cure to boredom and exhaustion. These are the little whispers: youareloved, youareloved, youareloved. I can feel it in moments of divine closeness when God seems to say, I am here. And I can feel it when I open my mailbox and my sister in Toronto has sent me brown eyeliner. She KNEW I needed brown eyeliner.

I check my e-mail and there is a note from an academic colleague who tells me a funny or a sweet or a sad story and I can hear them saying: “I am here. You are here. We are here.”

The most alone I have ever been is when I woke up from my surgery. The room was empty and all I could hear was the chirping of the heartrate monitor. The hospital had, of course, taken everything that was familiar to me. My dress I love to teach in. My ring from the man I love. All I had was my hospital gown and a carved up body I hardly recognized.

And then I saw it. Something around my wrist. It was a bracelet.

But not just any bracelet. It was a slap bracelet, the kind I played with when I was ten and they were all the rage. It was such an absurd situation, the more I thought about it. Someone had crept into my room, past security, and quietly slapped it on my wrist so I would have it when I woke up. It was bright neon. It was hideous.

And all it said was: FIERCE.

So, yes, my dears, I must be brave. But you make me fierce.

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Mara Willard
6 years ago

I love you kate… oh yes I dooooo…. I love you kaaaaaate…. I love you true. Great work. Great people. God bless your lack of schlock, presence of love. I played it forward to another wonderful woman going through crummy chemo. BAH. May we all have neon slap bracelets and smelly pencils to keep us light and loved in the nights.

6 years ago

WE (includes you) are not alone.

6 years ago

Wonderfully written. You are certainly not alone.

Elly Tucker
6 years ago

You are a FIERCE WARRIOR! Fierce Warriors are never alone. You are loved by folks you don’t even know. And you are the REAL DEAL!

Julie Stroud
6 years ago

Kate, I have a confession: I am a reforming (active tense) control freak. This is my mighty list maker, demander of logic, believer that organization can rule chaos, which is so darn messy. This is the part of me that says “RAH!” to “three drug vines are much better than one.” I mentioned my reform, though, and that is acceptance of the intuitive I am. This world has a very different set of rules. Getting from A to Z doesn’t involve 24 other tedious steps. You set intent, and LET GO. It demands openness to how you get from here… Read more »

6 years ago

Aw, Kate. You ARE fierce. And you are never alone. So many people – thousands!- hold you up in prayer daily – you are living on a big pillowy love cushion of prayers from God’s people. Love you friend.

6 years ago

Hello Kate, We are not acquainted. I have read your brilliant articles about American Prosperity gospel. I know the feeling of being alone…I didn’t have too many allies on my side when I had retinal detachments in both eyes and I was on the brink of blindness. Many doctors looked at me so clinically and didn’t realize that I was nearly blind. I heard a voice tell me, “I am the Wound, so take my wound into your heart.” I listened to this voice and conformed to his words and in two days my sight was returned through surgery. I… Read more »

Rick Mattson
6 years ago

Kate, steadfast in thoughts and prayers. From St Paul.

Sameer Yadav
6 years ago

Thank you for your courage and for your generous spirit in sharing your journey with us all. I can’t adequately express how much they have meant to me, a stranger, but one who has feared death terribly most of my life, but who is learning to face my own mortality through your extraordinary grappling with yours. How can just a few of your paragraphs teach so much more about our common humanity than so many of the theology books I read? Grace and peace to you, – Sameer

6 years ago

Hello Kate…my name is Mike. I work graveyard shifts in Vancouver… I heard your story on the CBC this evening…. Oddly…I am exploring God’s place in my life now as I struggle to exist comfortably. I came across Joel Osteen on Sirius…he positive words and corny humour drew me in. I really think that I needed that. The fire and brimstone God never seemed very inviting. God has always had a place in our lives…my grandparents were quite religious but my mom attended the local United Church…she called it “Church light”…. Anyhow…you were a joy to listen to….and your kind… Read more »

Dear Kate, I met you last spring when I came to Duke and I was foolhardy enough to ask for time with you in your busy life to talk about American religion and women and gender and such and was so delighted by the brief meeting we had, your humor and warmth and exuberance. Through the American religion blog I heard about your cancer and was pointed towards your blog (and later your NYT article as well). As another young-ish woman, person of faith, academic and mother of a son I was deeply moved by your story and the grace… Read more »

Kelli Bacle
6 years ago

You don’t know me, Kate, but I have been praying for you since hearing about you from your wonderful family who attended the same church with me in TX. I have so much admiration for you and appreciate the updates you share on your blog. You are a wonderful person and I believe you are never alone because God is always with you and you are loved by so very many people. God bless you and comfort you with his love and peace as you continue your journey.

6 years ago

Yes! And I now have more adult coloring books than anyone could ever possibly need. People are awesome in their love.

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