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Solitary Confinement - Part 1

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Message Jan Baumgartner
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"Here is no water but only rock." - Thomas Stearns Eliot

Solitary confinement comes in many forms. And all bad. I cannot pretend to know or understand what mandated imprisonment feels like, to be behind bars and forced to exist alone. I don't believe anyone should live a life alone. Man is a social animal for the most part. Being alone for too long, or a lifetime, is not good for one's soul. Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule, but few and far between.

I have seen, however, a different form of imprisonment that surely qualifies as a form of living hell. The form of solitary confinement was imposed by terminal illness, a crippling disease. This incarceration I witnessed firsthand, but not as the unfortunate victim. And, he was a victim in a singularly horrific way.

Trapped body.

This solitary place was an entrapment, a cell, a suffocating prison with walls, floor and ceiling bearing down upon one's psyche. We do not have to touch these walls to feel the power and weight of their confinement. A cell is a cell, whether created from a paralyzed body or societal mandates.

My husband's prison was his body. Paralyzed from ALS, he lived in a motionless body of skin and bone, unable to move even a finger, trapped alive by a disease that leaves only an active and vital mind to funtion in a sea of stillness.

For days and months, which eventually bled into years, I watched as my husband's body continued to waste away. A quadriplegic, I saw his cell become smaller and smaller each day. A prisoner within his own body, his cell not of cement walls but of dead muscle and useless limbs. From a brain that screamed "move!" a body ignored and lay frozen.

Did he feel like an animal caught in a steel trap? On the most unbearable of days, did the trapped mind envision the gnawing off, the severing of the caught limb to escape the torment? Better free than trapped? That is what I saw, some days. A caught animal.

I do not believe in suffering. Sometimes, one will do whatever it takes to be free. Sometimes, one says in a voice so small it is almost invisible, "I think it's time to go." Sometimes, we have to watch those we love free themselves from their solitary confinement. It is not always easy to accept the emptiness of the steel trap, no matter how horrific it was. Empty or not, it claims its victim.

We tend to compare. We presume one form of suffering to be worse than another. Some will argue it is far worse to deal with a failing mind coupled with a healthy body. Others will say far more ghastly to have a vital brain and a crippled body. We assume, compare, weigh and measure, but in truth, nothing good comes from prolonged suffering no matter how it is dealt.

Whether from a dying body or a mind that wreaks havoc, they are all painful places. They are small and dark. Perhaps worst of all, they are lonely. And no matter how much we want to enter these dark lonely places of those we love, we can only bear witness from the sidelines.

Excerpt from the memoir, In the Heart of the Lily, copyright 2007, Jan Baumgartner.

Content cannot be reprinted without express permission from the author.
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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a grant (more...)

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