I remember the morning of the day my young husband was transferred to a hospice facility with perfect clarity. I remember walking into the house after the bus picked up the kids for school. I remember the way my hands trembled and my heart beat too fast and my head was too full of noise. I remember how tired I was in my heart and soul and body.
I remember how I just needed ten minutes. Ten minutes to let myself feel tired and scared and sad. Ten minutes to let myself break down and fall apart—because I knew I wouldn’t give myself the chance again. My husband and my kids would need me to be their steady presence in the darkness that was coming for our family.
I lay down in a little circle of sunlight on the kid’s playroom carpet. I lay and let the depth of the word “hospice” sink in. I stopped running on auto-pilot after twenty months of fighting a disease that beat us at every turn and let tears roll down into my hair. I took ten minutes to think about that final, nightmarish spinal MRI, that sometimes, even years later, haunts me in that space between awake and asleep. I took ten minutes to fall apart.
Ten minutes because I thought I had time to fall apart. Ten minutes that I didn’t realize I’d want back.
After I’d gathered up the pieces of myself, I looked at the time. My husband’s transport from the hospital to hospice was to leave at 10 a.m. I knew that if he left on time, and if I left right then, there was a chance I’d miss him, that we might very well cross paths going in opposite directions on the highway, and that I wouldn’t be there for his first moments in hospice. For twenty months, I’d been his caretaker, his constant in a sea of unfamiliar nurses and doctors and specialists, and I didn’t want to fail him this final time.
So I made a decision.
I decided not to drive to the hospital. I decided instead to pack pillows and blankets, picture frames and stuffed animals, and drive to the hospice facility to set up the room that would be my husband’s last. To make it feel like home. To let him know he was surrounded by love.
I should have known that 10 a.m. didn’t mean 10 a.m. in hospital time. I knew hospital plans were always subject to delays—nothing ran on time; I’d learned that lesson a hundred times in the twenty months since his first brain surgery. But somehow, for some reason, I thought in this, for this, for a man—a young father and husband—being transferred to a hospice facility, the timeline would hold. 10 a.m. would mean 10 a.m., if only because the hospital was short on rooms and overrun by patients in need.
I waited. For hours. Frozen in indecision, wanting to go and be with him, afraid that if I left, he’d arrive and I wouldn’t be where he needed me. For not the first time since he’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, I wished I could be in two places at once, and despaired that I couldn’t be.
When he arrived, so much later than I’d expected, he was asleep or sedated or comatose—I still don’t know. He didn’t wake as he was transferred from stretcher to bed. He didn’t wake to see the pictures the kids drew for him hanging on the walls or the pieces of home warming every corner of the room. He didn’t wake as the afternoon faded to evening, and as evening stretched into morning, and as the kids and I—and various friends and family—sat vigil in his room for the next nine days; the room I had made feel like home, the one I had hoped would feel like love. The room that I had set up after taking ten minutes to myself.
Ten minutes to be scared while my husband was speaking his last words to strangers, to doctors who didn’t love him the way I did. Ten minutes to fall apart, while he was falling into a coma from which he wouldn’t wake.
Ten minutes during which he needed me to be strong, and I wasn’t. Ten minutes to regret for a lifetime.
For a long time, I’ve been working to forgive myself for those ten minutes, for making that bad decision. I’ve tried to convince myself that I couldn’t have known that his last morning at the hospital would be his last awake hours—after all, just a week earlier he’d had a successful brain surgery to remove the majority of his third brain tumor. Just the day before the doctors had told me he had weeks, not days, left to live. Just the night before he’d eaten a Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich and been as engaged with the world as I’d seen him be in months. And I have largely forgiven myself, because there is no shame in being human, in having nothing left to give, in needing to recharge and take ten minutes.
But the truth is, even if I have forgiven myself, I will probably always wish I’d made a different choice—chosen to go rather than stay, chosen to hold on tight to the pieces of myself rather than fall apart. But also, I will always be grateful that the choice I made allowed me to have the strength to set up a room, which, in retrospect, was as much for my kids sitting vigil over their father as it was for him; the strength to be the first voice he heard in hospice, even if not consciously; the strength to be the steady presence my kids needed when their world flipped inside out.
Regret is a dangerous thing. It’s a poison that can spread and corrode an entire life if left to its own devices, if allowed to take over. But, regret doesn’t define my story. It exists, certainly, but it’s only one small part of a story that is filled with so much more. Regret exists in my story, but I won’t let it be my whole story.