I discovered this essay in an e-mail file from August 2010, just days before my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a year and a half before I would lose the husband I wrote about. I can say now that I had no regrets. David died knowing he was truly loved. I am blessed to have been loved like that.
I had no idea last year when I contacted LitNuts founder Mike O’Mara to speak at the Faith Writers conference this February, I was contacting the same man who’d been collecting essays for this anthology some ten years before.
Interesting, too, that just weeks before he died, David had expressed an interest in sharing our marriage story with others, knowing our experience of a revitalized marriage could give others hope in their own relationships. While I do just that in my book Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage, this unpublished essay serves as a condensed version.
Author’s name : Mary Potter Kenyon
E-mail address :firstname.lastname@example.org
Mailing address :816 East Butler St., Manchester, IA 52057
Telephone number :563-927-3999
Anthology : Saying Goodbye
Title of Story : Without Regrets
Word Count: 1081
“I wish I’d treated him better.” Those words would come back to me years later.
I was at my grandfather’s bedside when he died, while my grandmother sat in the hallway lamenting aspects of their marriage.
I’ll never know why my father thought it was a good idea for me to accompany him on the trip. At 18, I’d never even known anyone who’d died, much less viewed someone’s death. But my mother had already said her good-byes to her father and I don’t think she could bear to do it again. When the hospital called and said the end was near, she wanted someone there to represent her family. Whatever the reason, it was me, my Dad, and two of my great-aunts at my grandfather’s side when he looked up toward the ceiling, took his last breath, and died.
It wasn’t a particularly peaceful death; it actually seemed as though he was gasping for breath those last few seconds. It wasn’t a violent death either. I like to think it was angels he saw at the last, for it certainly was not us. He no longer seemed aware of anyone in the room as he looked upward.
I squirmed uncomfortably with the realization it shouldn’t be me; a grand-daughter he barely knew in the room with him. Instead, it should have been his wife grasping his hand in comfort until he passed.
We shuffled out to the hallway, none of us eager to be the one to tell my grandmother. She sat in miserable silence, wringing her hands. Her red-rimmed eyes met ours expectantly, and I had to look away. Was she still hoping for a miraculous recovery?
It was my stoic father who announced the death and held her as she cried. That surprised me as my grandmother had never hid the fact that she’d always found him to be beneath her daughter. Grandma suddenly seemed smaller, shrinking in her grief. While sympathizing with her, I felt a flash of anger at her next words “I wish I’d treated him better.” To my arrogant teenaged self, that seemed too little, too late.
I’d never understood my grandparent’s marriage; Grandma the stern disciplinarian in stark contrast to my grandfather’s gentle demeanor. My most vivid memory of her was when she slapped my hand as I reached for honey at the dinner table. I’d already spread butter on a thick slice of bread fresh from the oven.
“Butter or honey. Not both,” she’d admonished.
Grandpa snuck me boxes of Chiclets gum from his pockets, holding his finger to his lips and whispering it was our little secret, a secret I never dared share with my grandmother for fear of her sharp-tongued retribution. My grandmother once spotted him caressing my long hair, heard his soft comment about how beautiful it was. For the next five years, whenever I saw her, she harped on how I should get my messy hair cut.
In the hospital after my grandfather’s death, I turned away from my grandmother’s obvious distress, vowing never to hold the same regrets with my own spouse.
Thirty years later I sat next to my husband in a doctor’s office and heard the word cancer. The echo of my grandmother’s words reverberated in my head: I wish I’d treated him better. I glanced at my husband and thought I hope it’s not too late.
We were quiet on the way home from that doctor’s appointment, absorbing the shock of the news. I had plenty of time to consider our 27 years of marriage. I was 19 when we got married, 20 when I had our first child. For the first few years of marriage we played house as struggling college students. Between our classes and work, we spent many hours at a local restaurant, drinking coffee and holding hands across the table, much like our early dating days.
First one baby, then two, joined us. We talked while we fed them bits of crunchy butter toast and boiled eggs from our 99-cent breakfast special, entertaining them with ice cubes they slid back and forth on the shiny metal tray of the highchairs while we talked some more.
Gradually, real life and increasing responsibilities intruded on our domestic bliss. By the time our 25th anniversary arrived in 2004, I was no longer sure our marriage was cause for celebration. We were the parents of eight children by then. Juggling bills and babies had taken a toll on our relationship. I felt a constant irritation, aimed at both the state of our union and my life in general.
Everything changed while David was in the hospital recovering from an invasive surgery that left him unable to speak for eight days. I learned to search his brown eyes, and my heart, for meaning during daily visits. While I used to urge him to get to the point in our hurried conversations, I waited patiently while he struggled to write with a shaky hand on a dry erase board.
I began searching thrift shops for clothing he would find pleasing. I prepared for each visit carefully, applying make-up and fixing my hair, spritzing perfume on my wrists and behind my ears, realizing with some amusement that I was courting my own husband. ln the hospital room, away from the cacophony of a house full of children, I fell in love with my husband all over again.
The dance of courtship continued as I cared for him through weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. I changed bloody dressings, cleaned wounds, doled out medications and became his hand-holding companion during chemotherapy treatments. By the time his treatment had ended and he returned to work, I was head over heels in love with him. That was four years ago, and we still feel like newlyweds. Poignantly, he recently turned to me, took my hand, and told me that if he had to go through cancer for us to be like this, then it was all worth it.
I was able to say good-bye to the dear and gentle man who was my grandfather. I never had the chance with my grandmother. She died alone in a nursing home many years later. By then I was ashamed of my rash judgement of her years before, never knowing what circumstances had led to her lament.
I’m grateful I didn’t have to say good-bye to my husband four years ago. If I face that someday, I won’t have cause for the same regret my grandmother had.
But without cancer? I might have.