Wednesday, February 14, 2018

“Love and Life” a Valentine’s story by Wendy Simpson

Helen had a secret. She had fully intended on keeping it completely to herself but she accidentally confided in Nancy. Damn memory! She’d forgotten that she wasn’t going to tell anyone, except the doctors of course but they already knew. And now Nancy!
       “Please keep this to yourself dear,” she’d asked so sweetly that Nancy, in shock and confusion, nodded in agreement.
       The cancer had returned. It had taken nearly 50 years to reclaim her but Helen had always known it would. It was always with her.  She hadn’t felt well for a while, at first electing to reject the young doctor’s request for scans and tests, in spite of his rather fetching smile. He insisted but she already knew. She was almost 94 years old. She wouldn’t be cured this time. But that was alright. She could live with that, or not! She laughed out loud.
       But Donald, her beloved Donald, this news would shatter him. She had to make Nancy understand that Donald must not be told of this new diagnosis.
       “But Helen, we have to tell Don. He needs to know!” said Nancy.
       Helen settled into her favourite chair, the one they still called the new chair even though it was almost 30 years old. They’d brought it with them from the house, for comfort and familiarity. It still seemed new. After all, they’d been married 75 years and most of the furniture they’d bought for the first house was old and long gone.  
       They were so young the first time she was sick, so unprepared for the ravages of cancer. But Donald was wonderful. He was so kind and patient. So committed. Driving to appointments, cooking, cleaning and caring for her. He was so gentle and tender, helping her dress and bathe, brushing out her hair so gently. She could still feel his soft caresses as he explored her newly mutilated body. He loved her. She never doubted this. Her whole life she knew she was lucky to be loved by Donald. 
     Now, she couldn’t put him through that again. He was 95, healthy but too old. Oh sure, they could hire a nurse, a driver, any help they needed. They had the money. The Home could easily make the arrangements. But still, Donald would worry and fret. It would break his heart to know.
       “So Nancy, I’m sorry it slipped out but please, please, please promise you won’t tell Donald that I’m sick. Please?”
        Nancy was sad and upset. She loved Helen and Donald. They meant so much to her. Her parents had chosen well when they’d asked the couple to be Godparents to their second little girl. Helen and Donald had always been kind and generous, hosting elaborate birthday dinners each year for Nancy. They’d always served her bubbly drinks in tall stemmed glasses, complete with a sweet red cherry and made magical birthday cakes with thick fluffy white icing and shiny coins hidden inside amongst the chocolate and caramel bits. They’d served shrimp cocktails and Caesar salad, delicacies in Nancy’s meat and boiled potatoes world. 
     Her older sister had been jealous. There was always a wonderful exotic present brought back from trips to places she didn’t know; a stuffed bear from Russia, a tortoise shell hair comb from Spain, a doll from Cuba. And a globe one year so Nancy could figure out where they went. They had no children of their own. Nancy firmly believed they had chosen this because they had her! But this was a misconception. One day, when Nancy was married and had children of her own Helen had simply stated that they hadn’t been blessed with children. How sad.
       Nancy watched them as they grew old. She lost touch for a while, consumed by children, work and everyday life. When she reached out they were still there, always happy to see her. After her own parents died, they’d become even more important. Her own marriage ended but still Donald and Helen were in love. They’d been retired for so long, spending each and every day together and yet Nancy had never heard them complain about the other. They poked fun or feigned exasperation but spent each day worrying more about their better half than themselves. And they laughed and smiled and talked to each other and listened as if it was all that mattered.
       Helen was the strong one, the organizer, the planner. She kept track of appointments, bridge games, birthdays and anniversaries.
       “Helen tells me where to be and I show up,” Don said, always with a chuckle. He was so handsome, like a movie star according to Helen.

       Nancy was bewildered, confused by the rush of emotions.  She loved them both so much. How could Helen keep this from Don? How could Nancy? Didn’t he have the right to know? She understood Helen’s desire to protect Don but they’d always been a team. Together they’d sold their house and moved into a retirement home, not wanting to leave the other behind to sort through the memories and effects of a lifetime together. For similar reasons they made plans and practical decisions for their passing, a word Helen always said in a whisper as if fearing speaking it aloud would place a direct call to the Pearly Gates. They’d done the hard tasks together but now Helen had made a decision that was hers alone.
       Nancy deliberated, thinking through the sleepless nights. Don was old but not fragile. He still drove, not well but thankfully they lived in a very small town. As far as Nancy knew he hadn’t done too much damage. Oh, except for the outdoor garden lights at her sister’s cottage this summer when he backed out of the driveway in his new Lexus, oblivious to the crunching metal and plastic. Nancy remembered when Helen had called last year to tell her they’d finally retired the old Pontiac.
       ‘We bought a fancy one. This might be our last new car,” she’d said without a hint of irony.
       Over the next few days Nancy tried to reason with Helen. They went for walks, slower now but Helen was still spry having no trouble walking along her favourite boardwalk by the lake. Nancy tried to make her see that the secret could not be kept. She would grow weaker.
       “No,” she insisted. “It will be fast.”
       How did she know that? “But telling Don now makes more sense,” Nancy persisted over tea and scones at the local bakery. “You could spend time together, reminisce, say goodbye. Wouldn’t that be better than the shock and grief when it’s too late?”
        Helen smiled and nodded but never wavered.         
       Just before Christmas Helen developed a cough. Nothing serious she assured Don. No need to worry. Nancy stopped by with groceries and Don’s favourite scotch. She brought Buckleys which Helen sniffed and refused to swallow. After dinner Helen went to bed, unusually early. Don would join her after the news.
       Nancy decided.
       “Don?” She started slowly, still uncertain, gathering her thoughts and her courage, tears welling in her eyes.
       “I know,” said Donald. And he sank slowly into the new chair.

Wendy Simpson lives and sells real estate in Oakville. Although her university days are long behind her she’s never lost her love of reading. She is the mother of three adult children and three (soon to be four!) grandchildren. She travels as much as possible and loves to spend several weeks each year in Victoria and the Cayman Islands.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here,  including writing workshops and weekly creative writing courses, and writing retreats in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond. 

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