“Will you come up the stairs a step or two behind me?” Uzma asked me one day in early September 2018 as we were getting ready to go to bed. Various chemotherapy regimens had damaged her peripheral nerves. Sometimes when that happens, a person’s kinesthetic sense is lost. That is, they can’t tell where a part of their body without also looking at it. Uzma was having difficulty feeling the floor and just knowing where her foot was without looking at it. Walking steadily without support was becoming an increasing challenge.
It started out as an off-and-on problem, but for the past three or four months, it was more often on than off. “I just don’t feel safe going up by myself today,” she explained. “Of course,” I said, and walked one step behind her as she went up the stairs. The next morning I walked a step ahead of her as she came down for the day.
I didn’t know it then, but that — me climbing up the stairs one step behind Uzma, and one step ahead of her when coming down — was soon to become a daily routine. It was as if we were finally doing the phere (rounds around the fire) that we had missed when we skipped our religious wedding ceremonies. Only the fire was one lit by cancer, and it was consuming Uzma’s body. Gradually, by late October, weakness and overwhelming fatigue started to compound the balance problems. She spoke about needing a nap after a shower. Then one day, she asked, “Could you give my bottom just a little push as I go up each step?” She could walk by herself, taking support from a wall, on flat ground. But going up and down steps was another matter. I started wondering if I should look into stairlifts.
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Mental health professionals will recognize “Woulda, coulda, shoulda!” as the words that haunt people whose lives are stalked by the twin demons of guilt and regret. These three words, obsessed over too much, lead a mind down the labyrinthine rabbit-hole of soul-numbing depression and anxiety. At least as it relates to Uzma and being there for her, the two demons don’t quite barge into my memories and dreams. But I do see their shadows, sometimes. Those shadows led to my posts about Costs of Cancer, and to my understanding of how and why a referral to hospice was delayed.
The differences of faith and national origin we overcame to be together made our love unusual. But none of what I am about to describe below was out of the ordinary. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are caregivers for their loved ones with cancer. They do all that I did with Uzma, and then some. They do it without fanfare and without recognition. I need no medal either.
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Once Uzma was told her cancer was stage 4, it was as if she had been thrown off the train we had been riding together. She was put on a different train from her family. It ran on a track next to ours. We kept pace together. We just knew that her track was gonna end before ours. When you are riding a train, you can’t really see where the track ends even if you know it will. Like many in our situation, despite being on separate trains, we held hands, stayed up together, spoke of our dreams and our fears. We tried to help each other as much as we could. I kept helping her with an increasing number of daily tasks of self-care as her train slowed. She kept helping me through life’s problems to the very end.
Living life fully with Uzma even knowing our journeys were separate is what saves me from the guilt that some feel after a loved one is no more. Guilt is uppercase “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.” We can avoid guilt by how we live and treat each other when we together. Regret is another story. It is inevitably intertwined with loss. Its focus, degree, and intensity may vary, but where there is grief, there’s regret. Once Uzma’s cancer had spread beyond the breast and its lymph nodes, her end was written. Nothing could change that fate. But I do think at times, if I had done this or done that, perhaps her final days could have been more comfortable. Regret is lowercase “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
* * *
In August of her final year with us, Uzma confided, “I am too disabled to do anything with you or the kids. I am not sure there’s any point in continuing treatment.” She was in two minds about continuing treatment. She felt tired, exhausted. The cancer treatment toolbox is full of poison meant to burn the cells that are not sticking to the plan and are doing their own thing. Though these treatments also harm normal cells — hence the side-effects — patients willingly take them.
They take them because of hope. They think, “So what if I will have some temporary or lasting damage. If this treatment ends up working, at least I will be free of cancer. And I will be there with and for my family.” But when the errant cells turn skilled tricksters, oncologists are left playing whac-a-mole with their treatments. The patient suffers a lot of hits on her body while the mole that is cancer seems none the worse for it.
The first drug Uzma took after her cancer came back kept it at bay for nine months. After that, nothing worked for more than 3-4 months. Fantasies of N.E.D. (no evidence of disease) status became ephemeral illusions. For some people, successive treatments manage to work for several months or rarely, even a few years at a time. Uzma wasn’t so lucky. Uzma was tired of the hits her body was taking without any benefit.
When she said she was in two minds about continuing treatment, I said, “You have suffered a lot. If you stop treatment, I will support that decision. I won’t think you love our kids or me any less just because you stop treatment.” It seems like the right thing to have said at that moment.
But I think it would have been better to say, “I love you. You’ve suffered a lot. You think you have to keep going, to take that one more chance that our kids won’t grow up motherless. But you are taking a beating. It might be time to be a bit selfish and choose comfort over another treatment.” One might think, what’s the difference? The first way of saying implies that the decision to quit treatment is hers, and I am there just for support. The second way is one where I help her think and feel through this decision.
I thought of saying something like the second way, but then, despite all the love we had nurtured over the years, or maybe because of it, I bit my tongue. I thought, what if she sees that as me picking a side against hope? What if she sees that this isn’t just her husband saying this but someone who also happens to be a physician? Does the physician in him see no hope at all? Is it that bad? Am I so far gone?
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The reason I feel regret but not guilt about this is that I still believe that oncologists should be responsible for bringing up hospice in a timely manner. Patients and families don’t know a lot about hospice, about it can help. They think of it as only as a death sentence. The fact is the oncologists know that the death sentence is stage 4 cancer whose odds of responding in a timely manner keep going down with each successive treatment failure. An intense cloud of emotions envelopes patients and families dealing with terminal cancer. They can’t see things as clearly as their doctors can.
Uzma made some physical therapy (PT) appointments in October, hoping that PT will help her gain her strength and balance back. However, her unrelenting cancer kept grinding her body down. The resulting weakness meant she could never keep any of those appointments. Between September and December, medicines caused bone-marrow suppression. She had to have multiple blood transfusions. Though I can tell the various ways in which both of us were clear-eyed about her prognosis, there are also ways in which we didn’t want to buy it.
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Even before Uzma’s oncologist finally stopped treatment and referred her to hospice, the writing was on the wall. In early December, I started calling business outfits that installed stairlifts. Because it was the holiday season, everything took longer. Visits to take measurements took longer to schedule. Quotes took longer. Actually scheduling the installation took longer.
The emotionally toughest decision around the stairlift was whether to rent or buy. By this time, Uzma was too tired and drained all the time to participate in any household decision. To rent or buy had to be my decision alone. The total rent for about eight months was to be the same as the cost of buying outright. Was she going to live eight months? What was more important — a rational decision about money, or letting Uzma know that I thought there was still hope?
Part of me just wanted to buy. Part of me wished health insurance covered stairlifts. Then the insurance overlords would make the decision. And I would accept the decision while blaming them for limiting our choice. But stairlifts are home modifications, not medical equipment. So, no insurance company knight-in-shining armor. I decided to rent it. At least that decision made choosing the company I went with easier; of the ones I got quotes from, only one rented them. I dreaded what I would say if Uzma asked if we bought or rented the stairlift. Would I tell her the truth? She always wanted to wrestle with the truth, no matter how difficult the match. Or would I tell a white lie that would not hurt her? To this day, I feel that dread. But Uzma didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell.
The stairlift eventually came in late December. Immediately, I saw how much easier it made things for Uzma. She no longer felt nervous going up or down the stairs. To this day, I regret not having pursued the matter of the stairlift when I first thought of it in October.
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Grief is a mixed bag both when death comes unexpectedly and when it is long and drawn-out. In the first kind, it’s as if a nuclear winter falls over a family. The old world goes dark in the snap of a finger. A sudden loss is incredibly tough on the grieving; it has the potential to complicate mourning with a mountain of regret.
In the gradual type of loss, death first casts a shadow on a family. The shadow gets imperceptibly longer each day. Sometimes years and months pass with barely noticeable changes. Then just towards the evening of the loved one’s life, the shadow seems to lengthen so quickly that it feels like only seconds. The evening mist that one was far in the distance is suddenly upon us. And just like that, our loved one is gone. The speed of the final stages of dying creates opportunities for regrets even in this kind of loss. The only hope is that the regrets are few and fleeting.