A Loving Secret

A lily illustration Pic: Rex/Shutterstock

A Coffee Break Tale just for you…

Attitudes may change but love remains constant throughout time…

Author Cath Delaney

Oh, Annie, is it wasteful to want flowers?” Sylvia had said, propped up in bed and looking as beautiful as she always had to me.

“Even if you said it was and you didn’t want them, I’d still have them, so there,” I told her and we laughed together in perfect understanding, as we have hundreds of times in the last forty-five years.

“I’ll make a drink,” I said, leaving the room quickly so Sylvia doesn’t see the tears that threaten.

“I want the truth,” Sylvia had demanded of the doctor, as we sat in the shabby consulting room.

He’d hesitated, then nodded.

It’s terminal but we can probably extend the time with chemotherapy.”

“How long have I got… with and without the treatment?” Sylvia asked, her face giving no sign of the struggle she must have being going through. I’d no choice but to be just as strong when all I wanted to do was scream against the unfairness of it all. There I was, three years older than Sylvia, and fit as a fiddle.

“With the treatment, possibly eighteen months. Without, I’d guess three to six. I must stress it’s a guess; we do get it wrong sometimes.” The doctor looked tired, and I thought how distressing his work must be. He sat patiently, even though the clinic waiting room was full.

Sylvia sat upright. “This is my decision. I’m seventy-two and I’ve had a wonderful life. I don’t want to end it pumped full of chemicals that can’t cure me. I’ll decline the treatment, if you don’t mind.”

It was a typical Sylvia statement, decisive but polite. I almost smiled. Did I catch a gleam of admiration in the doctor’s eyes?

“It’s your decision but you can change your mind at any time. I’ll put you in touch with the Macmillan nursing service – there are options for your care.”

I found my voice. “She’ll be staying at home with me,” I said and Sylvia reached out and touched my hand.

♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦

As the congregation sing Sylvia’s favourite hymn, Abide With Me, I remember those last weeks as a strangely happy time. The health professionals kept Sylvia pain-free and we had the luxury of looking back over our time together.

“If Ian hadn’t died, we wouldn’t have had all this. Sometimes it feels as if it shouldn’t have happened,” Sylvia said one evening, waving her hand to encompass our lovely bedroom.

“It was meant to be,” I told her, holding her hand and we lapsed into silence, as we often did; a reassuring calm.

I thought of Ian, my husband, taken so suddenly at the age of thirty with a heart attack. Our son, John, had been just two years old at the time. Life had been bleak.

Until I met Sylvia. She was a teacher at John’s nursery school, one of those people who light a room. She would make me a coffee when I needed to talk about John’s progress. I’d become a rather over-anxious mum after Ian’s death and Sylvia was endlessly reassuring.

“He’s fine, a lovely little boy, you’ve no need to worry,” she would say.

We became firm friends.

As the hymn comes to an end, I feel John’s hand grasp my arm. I look at him in gratitude and manage a smile for Marie, his wife and Anna, my granddaughter. He’s a lovely son, all I ever wanted. We’re very close though there’s one thing we’ve never shared.

Sylvia and I had often talked about moving in together but waited until John went to university.

“It’s for the best,” she’d said and I knew she was right. John deserved a childhood free from gossip.

“You’ll be all alone, Mum,” John said, as he prepared for his first term. “I’ll worry about you.”

“Well, you don’t have to because Sylvia is going to lodge in the spare bedroom,” I lied. “So I’ll have all the company I need.”

John expressed relief; he liked Sylvia, thought her exuberance brought me out of myself.

Sylvia and I prepared the spare bedroom, that was only ever used when John came home or family stayed.

In later years Sylvia and I often talked about telling John. There’d be no scandal as there would have been in the early years. Attitudes had changed. But Sylvia, ever wise, counselled against it.

John is content. He’s probably guessed anyway and chosen not to say anything. We should let it be.”

So we did.

My lovely granddaughter goes to the front of the church and reads the beautiful poem I Did Not Die. She looks at me and gives a small smile.

People are here today because they loved Sylvia as I did. Our love had a little bit more, that’s all. A loving secret I’ll take to my own grave.

The Author Says…

“This story was inspired by an elderly neighbour tearfully telling me her live-in friend of many years had died. It made me reflect on how attitudes have changed over the years.”

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Karen Byrom