The Stairlift: A Tale Of Regret

“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. She 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. By then this had been going for some time. 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.

* * *

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 don’t seek a medal either.

* * *

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 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 one day, “I 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 things to poison and burn the cells that are doing their own thing, not sticking to the plan. 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.” 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 were vanishing illusions. For some people, successive treatments manage to work for several months or rarely, even a couple of years at a time. Uzma wasn’t so lucky. Uzma was tired of the hits her body had taken 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?

* * *

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 down, and the resultant weakness meant she could never keep any of those appointments. Between September and December, medicines caused enough bone-marrow suppression that she needed 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.

* * *

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. 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 speak 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.

* * *

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 ould see 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.

The Hardest Thing About Grief

If you were my patient, and you were grieving, I would comfort you. Most of the time, I would know the words to say and the ones to skip. I would help you think about loss, grief, and life in a way that would spur you to action. I would help you fit your thoughts and feelings differently than when you came to me. Hopefully, this would help you live better with your grief. I would say to you, “I don’t want to make you forget about your loved one. I hope to help you live better with their memory.”

Accepting the loss of a loved one is the first task of grieving. For weeks after Uzma died, I wanted to see her when I turned around the various corners in our house. I waited to hear her voice. It still feels off not to have her next to me in the car, on a plane, on road-trips, and vacations. I am often half-lost without her as my problem-solving partner. All this still happens. But time dims its frequency and pain. Repetition is the mother of learning, they say. When reality keeps dashing the hope of a loved one’s presence, the heart eventually gets it. It accepts the permanence of loss.

Adjusting to life without the loved one — another task that every bereaved person must eventually master — is a bit harder. Accepting the reality and finality of loss does not make this easy. Uzma and I were equal partners in life. But even equal partners split the tasks of life in unequal ways. Their differing interests, skill, and circumstance decide where the line gets drawn.

Uzma worked part-time since our oldest was born. But that was outside the house. Inside, she was the engine behind our family’s social calendar, the kids’ extracurricular activities, and most of the day-to-day planning and organizing of our life. I helped with all of them, but she was the wizard who made it all work. Adjusting to life without her means figuring out how the trick works after the magician s gone. Someday I will get the whole illusion, but today isn’t that day.

A surviving parent must also adjust to life by taking on the sole responsibility of helping children grow up adequately adjusted. They must grow up reasonably content. Capable of love. Practiced at enjoying life. There’s one plus to being the only parent. One doesn’t need to check every new thing about the kids with the other parent. But there’s a significant downside. One doesn’t have anyone equally invested in the same kids with whom one can when one wants, discuss every new thing about the kids.

It could be something as simple as figuring out the right age for each child to have her first mobile phone. One must decide upon the best way of teaching her to be on time, to be a good judge of character, to consume media critically, to manage money properly, and a million other things. Usually, parents complement each other in small and big challenges like these. Each fills the gaps in the parenting temperament and skill of the other parent. While self-aware parents are always trying to improve on this, the loss of one’s parenting partner makes all this harder. Having said all that, young kids at home do force one to move on with the first two tasks of grieving.

Failing to navigate grief properly is risky. One must give grief its due, but no more. Otherwise, one gets stuck with what counselors call “complicated grief.” Complicated grief is grief possessing the survivor in a way that she has a hard time returning to normal life. She becomes too focused on what reminds her of the dead. Or just as obsessively tries to avoid anything that reminds her of her loss. She pines so hard for who and what she has lost that she becomes detached from the living.

She wishes she had died with the one she loved. She is consumed by sadness. Not just in the immediate aftermath of her loss, but months and years later. About seven percent of the bereaved end up with complicated grief.  Though no one is immune, being a woman, being older, having a lower income, and losing a child or a spouse, especially to cancer, all these increases the risk of complicated grief.

For most of us, the passage of time makes the most of the work of grieving easier. However, there’s one part of navigating grief that seems to get harder with each passing day. It is the hardest part of grieving — keeping a connection with the dead while moving on with life. This task overlaps with everything else one does, whether adjusting to life again or accepting the finality of loss. Every social visit, road trip, vacation, everything one does to have fun, every step, and every breath to tackle life anew risks blurring the memory of the loved one. Meeting this challenge is critical to avoiding complicated grief. This, the thing that appears to get harder with time is the hardest thing about grieving. I hear me saying to myself, “I don’t hope to make you forget about Uzma. I hope to help you live better with her memory.”