The "What If" Question

June 12, 2006

As anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows all too well, “what if” questions can become the bane of your existence. At every turn you are faced with some thought or question that makes you wonder if things could have turned out differently. Did you miss an indication or opportunity? Was what ultimately happened fated or could it have been delayed or avoided?

Being human I have wrestled with many what if questions in the last eight months. They all follow largely the same pattern: if I did (or didn’t) do (or allow) something to happen, would Michele still be alive? For much of the last eight months I have managed to convince myself that there was nothing I could do either way to prevent either her manner of dying or her death itself. As much as I’d like to think my ability to resist the trap of what if thinking is the result of my character or personality the truth lies in understanding Michele and her mindset.

While there were lots of factors contributing to her mental state just prior to her death I think the overriding, indeed overwhelming, factor was the prognosis of cancer. In private on more than one occasion Michele shared with me her fear of some horrific disease or illness causing her death. When she would have symptoms that weren’t immediately correlated to some mundane cause her fear was that she had cancer. She survived breast cancer in the 1990s, and took it as a sign that she needed to change her life or die. She responded to that cancer by completely altering her life; moving from Florida to Colorado, and ultimately marrying me.

Personally I believe even the potential of having cancer again was more that she wanted to bear. Combined with her understanding of the challenges facing humanity today, indeed the plight our planet is in culturally, politically, and environmentally, and her belief that my family was ostracizing me due to her, dying was the way out.

I’ll never truly stop asking myself what if questions. What if I hadn’t fucked up my job in Illinois and we had been able to stay? What if we hadn’t been mired in debt allowing us to buy a house here rather than endure apartment living? And on, and on. But at least I know in my heart that nothing I did or didn’t do caused her fear of cancer, and ultimately that was the straw that broke her resolve.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.