Bob Samuels looks as though he would once have been a handsome man. Now his disheveled white hair, creased brown pants and too small plaid shirt, along with his sad eyes and almost shuffling gait, gives him the appearance of a man who has grown old before his time.
“I read your book,” he begins. “I thought maybe you could help me. You know about loss. But I worry that you don’t know about regret. You don’t mention it much.”
I immediately flash on some of the regrets I have regarding my husband’s treatment of prostate cancer and heart disease: Should we have chosen surgery rather than radiation? Why did no doctor ever tell us about the possible false negatives from chemical stress tests? Yes, I have regrets, but they don’t plague me. I accept that no one is infallible; no one can anticipate or control everything. I say nothing and wait for Mr. Samuels to continue.
“My wife died of ovarian cancer five years ago. She was diagnosed five years before that. In the beginning she put up a valiant fight, although I always wanted her to pursue more alternative treatments in addition to the chemo. I don’t mean anything way out there. Stuff like nutrition. I thought she should become a vegan, try juicing, stuff like that. But she couldn’t deal with it. And then in the end, when the cancer came back again and then again, she called it quits. Said she had enough. She stopped all treatment and just died. I wanted us to go to Europe and try some of the experimental treatments that aren’t available in the States. But she said she couldn’t, said she was done.”
I think about my husband’s words when he too decided to stop treatment: “It’s enough already.” He had fought for years to stay alive. But he reached his limit. Although I was grief stricken, I understood his decision.
“Sounds like you’re angry at your wife for giving up,” I say to Bob.
He startles. “No, no,” he says. “I could never be angry at her. I’m angry at myself for not being able to convince her, for not being able to make a good enough argument. I’m inadequate. I couldn’t make her see.”
“You couldn’t make her see what?”
“That there was a chance. That there were still things we could do.”
I believe that Bob is angry at his wife for letting go. I also believe that he can’t let himself feel that anger, that he blames himself rather than her. And he can’t tolerate the helplessness we must all deal with in the face of death. But these interpretations are all too premature.
“It sounds as though you miss your wife tremendously,” I say instead.
He sobs. Reaching for the tissues he tries to control of himself. “I’m sorry,” he says, his voice breaking.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” I reply.
“It’s five years. I shouldn’t be like this anymore. But I keep tormenting myself. What if I’d done X? What if I’d say Y? What if I was enough of a husband for her that she wanted to stay?”
“You think if she loved you enough she would have fought harder?” I ask, wondering if his wife’s decision to stop treatment felt like a narcissistic injury to him.
He cocks his head and puts a finger to his lips, pondering my question. “I think I always loved my wife more than she loved me. I mean, she did love me, but I adored her. She was the only woman who really ever mattered to me. So do I think if she loved me more she would have continued to fight? Maybe I do. I don’t like to hear myself say that. It sounds so selfish, so much about me.”
“You know Bob, in the end, none of us can defeat death, no matter how much we might love or how much we might want to stay.”
“I wonder if you do. I mean I’m sure you know intellectually that we all die, but I wonder if on a gut level you feel that if only we do enough, if only we try harder, somehow we’ll be able to continue on.”
“I don’t know.”
“Bob, my sense is that we jumped right into this very painful, difficult topic because you’ve obviously been struggling with these feelings for quite some time. But I wonder if we could go back a bit so I can get some sense of you, of your life, of who you are.”
He takes a deep breath. “Where would you like me to start?”
“Wherever you’d like.”