grief and regret

Garbage Day

Wednesday is garbage day in my part of the neighborhood, and every Wednesday evening, when I return home from babysitting my grandsons, I wheel the empty garbage can and recycling bin back to their place on the side of my garage. And – sometimes – if it’s very late when I get home, or it’s raining, or snowy, or for whatever reason – sometimes I wait until Thursday morning. But every week when I perform the task, every single time for the past 50 weeks, I have felt some measure of emotion – from mild sadness to a gut-wrenching pain of regret – as I pull the large plastic bins up the long driveway.

On a humid August day exactly one year ago, I uttered a simple statement that ultimately resulted in my husband’s death three days later. As a last-ditch attempt to help buoy my husband’s spirits, I suggested that he do a mundane chore: bring the empty garbage cans back up to the house. They were still at the curb that morning because we had been out the night before – he often wanted a late-night ice cream at McDonald’s and anything that man wanted, I supplied. At this stage of his illness, he had difficulty making it up the two steps to our porch, and it was quite an ordeal helping him into the house and to his chair. For that reason, I had been too tired to retrieve the garbage bins and decided I’d do it the next morning.

So now, here we sat in our mom and pop chairs next to each other in the living room. I had just doled out his pills and injected his morning anticoagulant into his bruised and tender belly. He was drinking his Gatorade, playing on his phone, and he asked, “What’s on the agenda for today, honey?”

In the past three months, he had lost 60 pounds from his 6’5” 300-pound frame. His muscular calves had eroded and his legs looked like sticks. His easy chair had been replaced by an electric lift chair that helped him to rise before he leaned heavily on a wheeled walker to begin his shaky slow pace through to other rooms of the house – always pausing to rest against the kitchen island on his way. The large, burly, muscular man I married twenty years before, the brawny guy who used to lift hundreds of pounds with little effort, who I once watched climb up and down a 16-foot ladder numerous times carrying 4×8 plywood sheets, the man who enjoyed riding his bicycle more than 10 miles a day, every day, and who walked miles each morning on vacation on the sunny beaches in Florida – the strong, invincible man I loved was now a gaunt shadow of his former self.

In the past weeks, Rick had aged twenty years. And, now that he was in remission from lung cancer, the oncologist, radiation therapist, doctors on staff at the hospital, and our primary care physician were brainstorming treatments, therapies, and ideas in an attempt to solve the problem and restore him to health.

Life was good, perfect, four months earlier. It was April, and Rick was in remission. The treatments were over, and we had a new lease on life. We went to our favorite beach on the Florida gulf to celebrate. Rick’s lungs hadn’t sufficiently recovered from the 39 radiation treatments, so he wasn’t able to ride his bicycle, but he could take short walks. Despite a bit of breathlessness, the prognosis was good. We were both enjoying the respite from appointments, and needles, and tests, and transfusions, and all the other medical procedures involved in the fight for his life. We lived every moment to the fullest. We never missed watching a sunset or an opportunity to explore and be together and bask in the moment. Yes, life was grand because we were both aware of how fragile our existence really is, how short our time together could be, and we were taking advantage of that wake up call. We were desperate to claim and use our time together in the most meaningful way possible.

We enjoyed two weeks in Florida before he began having a chest pain in the same area where the tumors had been. We feared the cancer had returned, and drove back to Michigan, but were (mistakenly) relieved to discover there was no evidence of the cancer’s recurrence.

Rick had pneumonitis, a side effect of the damage from the radiation that saved his life. It resulted in loss of appetite which caused weight loss, anemia, and weakness. He was ultimately dosed with 120 mg of steroids per day to combat the pneumonitis, and the doctors’ most current thought (after weeks of puzzling over Rick’s failing health) was that he had been weaned off the steroids too quickly and that was causing his current issues. Rick was fading before my eyes.

On that August morning, things were beginning to look up. Only days before, when he was released, yet again, from the hospital, he had begun a newly increased dosage of steroids, and we began to see a small increase in his appetite! At this point, we were grasping at any hope. In the two previous days, he seemed to have a little more energy, and he was less confused. There was a glimmer of the old Rick. So, yes, we were hopeful. Maybe soon things would turn around and he’d enjoy being in remission. Maybe we’d get to take his bucket list road trip across the northwest. Maybe the tumors wouldn’t return – despite the looming prediction from the oncologist that they would  reoccur in about 6 to 9 months as they did in 90% of small cell lung cancer patients.

So, daily, Rick practiced with his walker. His strength may have waned, but Rick was the strongest man I’ve ever known – for more than just his physical abilities and massive muscles. He also had a strength of will and an emotional resilience that helped him fight valiantly until there was no possible way to battle any longer. Most people would have quit long ago, but Rick rose from his bed and dressed daily, he practiced walking several feet across the front sidewalk, after I helped him down the two porch stairs by practically carrying him on my back. He walked, panting with every breath, trying to rebuild his strength. He asked me to drive him to parks, or to diners (where he picked at his meals). He tried to grocery shop, navigating the store using one of their motorized carts. He struggled down the aisles of movie theaters for our once a week date nights. He tried valiantly to continue with “normal” life when most would have succumbed to the weakness and surrendered to their beds. He tried so hard to go on with his life, despite the extreme effort required. He tried so so hard.

And throughout the cancer ordeal, he NEVER complained. NEVER. He often said he was “lucky,” because of his circumstances, because he could concentrate on his treatments without other responsibilities getting in the way. He met younger people at the chemo center who had to leave for work after treatments, or who were raising children. He often remarked, Hey, look how lucky I am – a retired 60-something who isn’t burdened with work or schedules or responsibilities. He’d say, I’m so lucky that I can just get treated and go home. That I can rest whenever I need to. I’m lucky to have good medical insurance. I’m lucky I have a wife to take care of me. 

Lucky.

During the chemo treatments he also said he “felt like a fraud,” because after enduring four rounds of daily chemo it “only” resulted in nausea and lack of appetite (and low platelets, and blood transfusions and shots and exhaustion). He said he saw weak, emaciated cancer patients every day, yet here he was still strong and “healthy” after weeks of infusions.

His attitude kept him going. His spirit and outlook were all he had left as his body failed. And that fateful morning, exactly one year ago, when he was feeling ever so slightly stronger than he had three days before, when he was so happy that there was some improvement, and we were both so hopeful that – just maybe – things were going to keep getting better, he stopped fiddling with his phone and turned and asked, “What’s on the agenda today, honey?”

And in a split second decision that I would regret the rest of my life, I came up with a chore, a simple chore, that just maybe would help the man I loved so much feel like himself again. And I said, “Hey, do you think you could bring the garbage cans up to the house?”

And I can recall with vivid detail the way his face lit up. The hope, the happiness, at my suggestion. “Yes, I can do that!” The man who was once the strongest man in the world was now excited about pushing some empty garbage bins up a driveway. And I was so happy for him. So proud of my great idea.

So hopeful.

And as he dressed to ready himself for the chore, I began my shortened workday in my home office. The family leave act had been a blessing. I worked shorter hours and was able to work from infusion centers, hospital rooms and home. I was afforded the luxury of assisting Rick through the cancer treatments and caring for him daily at home in the past months. And most of all – I was able to spend valuable time with my husband in the months before he died.

So, I went down the hall to my office, and I opened Outlook on my work laptop, and I began writing an email to my boss telling her that I saw some signs of improvement, and that I would possibly be able to come into the office for a few hours in the coming weeks because, just maybe, they had solved the problem, and, just maybe, Rick was going to start getting better.

And I heard the front door shut, and thought, Wow! He didn’t even ask me to help him down the steps! And I heard the deep rattle of the empty bins. And then I heard the scream.

And three days later, Rick was dead: complications from a broken hip. Fat embolisms released from the femur and filled his already compromised lungs. He died from the complications caused by a fracture that occurred when he attempted to do a stupid chore.

And in the year since that fateful morning, I’ve returned the garbage cans to their place next to the garage possibly 50 times – maybe only 48 or 49 times, give or take weeks when I’ve been out of town, or when my nephew stopped by to cut my lawn and took them back for me. Which means that 48 or 49 times, as the wheels of the empty bins rattled up the driveway, I’ve replayed that scene in my living room over and over and over in my mind.

“What’s on the agenda today, honey?” “What’s on the agenda?”

And in the first weeks after his death, I sobbed uncontrollably. And any neighbor who glanced out a window probably wondered why the crazy widow woman was so distraught while performing the simple chore. But week after week, it got a little easier because time (and months and months of grief counseling) heals all wounds. And I still remember the words of my son one day, shortly after I expressed my guilt and regret (How could I have been so stupid? I should have known he was too weak! Why did I make the suggestion? Why? Why? Why?) And when I was done speaking, my son said, Mom, you didn’t kill him. The cancer killed him.

And over the past year, week by week, on garbage day, I revisit the question. And, week after week, as I roll the cans up the drive, I repeat my mantra to myself, “The cancer killed him.” “The cancer killed him.” “The cancer killed him.” And I rarely cry any more.

Because I know, now, that I didn’t kill the man I love. I know, now, that guilt is normal, and I’ve accepted that hindsight is 20-20. And I also know that no amount of second guessing or regret will bring Rick back. And large, strapping men get sick, and accidents happen, and I cannot control the universe.  But week by week, as I push those cans back up the driveway towards my house, I wonder if – one day in my future – garbage day will ever just be garbage day again.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on Amazon.com.

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at www.TheWritingWidow.com.

Comments

  1. You have such a wonderful way with your words. I can relate on several levels after losing my husband to esophageal cancer 2 years ago this Monday the 13th. I hope writing helps you sort through your emotions. I write also and it helps me tremendously. I feel most connected to him when I write. Thank you for sharing such intimate thoughts and feelings. xoxo

  2. Once again you capture what I think many of us go through. And address the guilt we tend to experience. The “if only” thoughts. If I had only stayed up all night…
    So easy to see in hindsight when we know the outcome.

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