I remember the second or maybe third time I went out with Kevin. We ended up at his apartment, with a bag of Fritos and a six-pack of Stroh’s Signature beer. We had both attended college classes that day, then worked an eight-hour shift at the Hyatt hotel. It was closing in on midnight and I had a class the next day at 8 a.m.
We started talking about stuff that made me think this wasn’t going to be a short-term relationship—how impossible it was to get along with our parents, plans for the future, how we would raise kids, whether we believed in God, what we wanted to be doing when we turned thirty. I remember telling him that my biggest goal was to live life with few regrets. “They’ll eat you alive,” I think I said, trying to seem deep and introspective.
I’m not sure how well I’ve done at living the kind of life my twenty-year-old-self wanted me to live. Regrets are tricky, sly creatures that sneak up on you when you think you’re doing fine. I have my share of the usual regrets—not keeping in better touch with friends, not learning earlier how to budget and save, not getting back to grad school earlier, wishing I spoke better French. When it comes to our marriage, I find regrets to be moving targets. I regret some choices or situations when I’m grieving, but those same things seem less worrisome when I think rationally. There are times when I regret renovating our house. It was a significant accomplishment. But, in the end, we should have spent the time and money sucked up by our house projects on family travel. Perhaps, I sometimes think, we should have waited a while to marry, taking the time to better establish ourselves in our individual pursuits. It could have made me better prepared for the life I’m now living.
But these are regrets as viewed through the rearview mirror, borne of tragedy, and with hindsight as my guide. They are the kinds of regrets about which I can only say there’s nothing to be done about that now.
I’ve considered the impossible-to-change regrets lately as I read Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. My reading of the book was followed by a lively discussion at my local bookstore. Being Mortal is Gawande’s look at our inability to understand and properly care for the dying, be they elderly or terminally ill. The medical community has a natural conflict, with their first priority of keeping someone alive when, perhaps that is not what’s really best. In the chapters on terminal illness, Gawande points out instances where the decision to avoid attempts at prolonging life actually led to better quality of life for the time remaining. I can only say that it is easy to proclaim with a healthy voice, the desire to “end it” if you ever were to find yourself extremely debilitated by disease, but more difficult to do so in the midst of that situation.
Kevin and I talked many times about how we both would never want to be kept alive on ventilators or feeding tubes. As the Terry Schiavo tragedy unfolded we both made sure the other understood this. But once we found ourselves in the midst of our own tragedy, it wasn’t so easy. After two spinal cord surgeries, the second of which was mishandled and led to formation of a hematoma that nearly killed him, Kevin was left a quadriplegic. Rather than say it’s time to stop, he instead implored me to keep fighting with him, his only real request of me during that time was that I never give up on him.
So I didn’t.
My regrets don’t have to do with prolonging Kevin’s life. I am grateful for every second he was here. But the choice to continue fighting meant that we were in battle mode every second. It meant that, when hospice told me he only had a few days, I couldn’t go to him and tell him that we needed to say our “I love you’s” and “goodbyes.” It meant we marched on, side-by-side, rather than face-to-face, battling disease until one of his tumors ruptured and he was gone within minutes.
I do regret that we didn’t have some quiet minutes between us; that our choice to keep going prevented us from a peaceful end.
Being involved in grief and widows groups, I have learned a few things. I have talked with widows whose spouses died suddenly from accidents or heart attacks, and those who, like Kevin, suffered for years with heart disease, cancer, or Parkinson’s. Rarely in my conversations have I found someone who didn’t have regrets about the way things ended. I hear lamentations like, “I knew he wasn’t coming back to me, so I said it was ok to turn off the ventilator. Now I wonder why I did that. I feel like I killed him.” Or, “I told him it was ok to let go, so he did. He slipped away. It was peaceful, but now I hate myself. Why did I tell him it was ok and not to keep fighting?”
I suppose what I’ve learned most of all is that is that there seldom is a truly peaceful end, one that is not fraught with sadness and grief and tinged with flecks of emotions like guilt and regret that color the situation impossible. I think, too, sometimes we all look for regrets, or at least for things we feel we should have done better or differently. It is perhaps, all tied up in wanting, more than anything, for the outcome to have been otherwise.
I’ve also reconciled (the opposite of regret?) myself to the knowledge that Kevin died the way he needed to: fighting; trying to keep disease, despair, fear, and death, at bay for just another day. He needed that. Had I said anything to him to signal my acceptance of the end, well, I can’t even begin to think of the terror it would have caused in him. I know I would also regret having done that, so how to resolve? It just isn’t possible. I suppose letting him battle on was my small gift to him, bequeathed unknowingly, that I now must live with.
So while it might have been good for some of the patients in Being Mortal to accept the end, we need to understand that this was their choice. As admirable as it is, it isn’t everyone’s. It certainly wasn’t Kevin’s.
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