“He needs a colonoscopy soon, Marjorie.”
I think about these words all the time. My dad said them to me probably a month before Shawn’s diagnosis, after some tests had revealed that there were tiny bits of blood in Shawn’s stool. At the time, I told my dad that Shawn had one scheduled for January.
“I’d do it sooner,” he replied.
Our talk that day scared me a bit, but I brushed it off. Shawn had a doctor here in DC, and he was getting on a new antibiotic to help his pain. I didn’t need to worry too much.
Why didn’t I make him go get the colonoscopy right away? It wouldn’t have changed his diagnosis, but maybe it could have eased his suffering. Why didn’t I push for an earlier appointment?
God, there’s so many times I say to myself, “why didn’t I?” I know that it’s not useful to think this way and I know it’s counterproductive to my mental wellness when I allow myself to go down the rabbit-hole of guilt.
And yet I hear that question in my head. “Why didn’t I?”
Why didn’t I go with him to the hospital that first time? Why didn’t I call a neighbor and show up, so he’d know I’d always be there for him? Why did I stay home with the kids and let him get sent home without any painkillers? He didn’t need that extra week of terrible pain he endured before his diagnosis. I would never let one of my kids be in the hospital by themselves. Shawn never let me be in the hospital by myself, even if it meant leaving our kids so he could be there. But I didn’t go to the ER with him the first three times he went. I took care of the kids. I went to work. I didn’t grill the doctors and I wasn’t there when he got the first scan, the one that suggested he had cancer. I wasn’t there, and he was alone.
And in those long days in the hospital, why didn’t I spend every moment telling him that I loved our life together? Yes, I said it a lot, and he said it to me. But we mostly talked about mundane things (I vividly remember a specific conversation about a broken chair that went on for multiple days.) We usually just read and hung out and watched TV and did nothing. I should have entered that hospital room every day and said, “knowing you and having you as my husband has been the best thing that ever happened to me, Shawn Brimley.” But I didn’t.
The guilt. It’s there for me just as it is for almost every widow I meet with in person or talk to online. At least once a day, someone writes me privately on my blog and mentions the guilt they feel over what they did/didn’t do before their partner died.
And then there’s the guilt people feel after their partner dies and it’s time to start living again. Rather than, “why didn’t I?” questions, I hear, “why am I?”
Trust me, I feel that too.
Why am I able to wake up some mornings, go on a run and hug my baby in his bathrobe and feel like the world is a good place? Why can I splash in the summer fountains with my boys or braid my daughter’s hair and feel joy in my daily life? How can I possibly feel that way when Shawn isn’t here?
Why am I able to look at men again? Even if it takes me a long time to hold someone’s gaze, why is it even possible for me to think about what it would be like to have someone else’s lips on mine? My God, I never thought like this when Shawn was alive, even if I found someone attractive. Why am I able to do it now? Does it mean that my love for Shawn is fading?
Why am I excited about the future sometimes? There was a long time – over a year – when I couldn’t see any sort of good future. But I can see it now. I feel glad I can feel a bit of hope, but what does that say about my life with Shawn? What if I live 60 more years and our time together was just a fraction of my time on this earth?
These two questions: “Why didn’t I…?” and “Why am I…?” swirl in my head all the time. For anyone who sees me at the coffeeshop and thinks that I’m moving forward in a positive way, I appreciate that. But the guilt remains.
So for all of you out there who still feel the guilt, just know that I feel it too. It doesn’t fully go away. I think all we can do is try to live with it, push back against it when we can, and find some peace with the complicated nature of our emotions.
The guilt is normal. I know that Shawn would understand that. I also know he wouldn’t want me to be burdened by it. He’d want me to keep on living, even if part of me living in this world is living with the guilt.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.