Over and over, the scene plays out in my mind. Just beyond my eyes, I see Keith lying on the giant sectional couch, frail and pale. Just a shadow of his former self. The vibrant man with a face that could speak volumes was buried under mountains of blankets. Only the top of his head could be seen peeking out of the covers. I sat at his feet, watching TV as I layered on the nail polish when his soft voice floated out from his resting spot. “I love the smell of nail polish” and he was asleep again. Here we were, me wanting to rub his feet like I used to in his healthy days and knowing I couldn’t because of the pain he would feel so I chose to keep my restless hands busy with painting them. Then he made that small statement in the final days of his life, reveling something about himself that in all the years we were together, I never knew. I though, this is something I should have known. What else do I not know about him? I think that frequently – what else would I have learned about him, had he survived the cancer? What else could we have discovered about each other?
Any one who has walked this path, laid to rest someone they love, can attest to the would have, could have, should have. It infects your brain sometimes. It makes you stare at the ceiling in the late hours of night, desperate to close your eyes and make those questions disintegrate into the inky dark.
The would have, could have, should haves don’t start until they are gone. In the moment, you are just the referee making the call from the field during this sorrowful game. Then you watch the instant replay – almost obsessively – again and again and again, until it becomes its own kind of cancer. Your friends and family watch the replay with you. I am witness to a few friends who are going through the death spiral of their sick loved ones. I was witness to a few who recently paced through those harshly lighted hospital halls, trying to make the calls that would let the game end peacefully. All I can offer to them is this – if the would have, could have, should haves strike – take solace in knowing that they are not whispering in our ear out of regret. They whisper to you that you would have wanted them to stay forever, you could have loved them for that long, and you should have faith in the fact that they are with you always.