This story is by Sal Gallaher and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He was not my first love. But he ended up my biggest and my last love.
It was a short love affair, but the fall was intense. We both knew it would not be an easy road yet it was a road we both desired and had to travel. Almost like there was no other option.
I saw it in his eyes across the breakfast table in the hotel cafe busy with people enjoying a last weekend away before fall. We seemed to be the only people by ourselves. I was wondering if he had a partner. But he remained on his own. Our eyes locked and we both smiled. I think that was the moment I fell. Something in his face, the way his smile seemed to not only make his lips move. His whole face and body smiled. I felt instantly warm, secure and immensely content. My whole body felt alive. Longing raised to the surface so overpowering I could only go with what my soul urged me to do. Both feeling the pressure of time and a need to let go once more and just dive in for the fall. Dive into falling in love.
We had both given up on finding love again. Settled for life as it was. Content with friendships and family catch-ups. Life was good. But the longing was always there. The longing to connect and to love again. The longing to have another human being to share life’s little moments with. To rid you of the loneliness that would creep in at night like a silent thief robbing you of your contentment and leaving you with sadness wondering if that was all there was left. But you kept going each day suppressing the loneliness and focussing on all the positives in your life.
We were both at that point in our lives. I saw the reflection of my life in his eyes when we smiled across the tables. The instant attraction was deep. I normally would never do what I did next, but it felt so natural. I got up and walked over to his table.
“Can I join you?” I uttered cheerfully. His grin said more than yes. That was the start and the end for both of us. No return.
We spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the sights together. We laughed and smiled a lot. And we talked. We talked for hours. It was like we both knew we had limited time together. We wanted every minute to count and to be the best we could.
We spoke about our lives and realised how close we had been to crossing paths on a number of occasions. Our travels throughout Vietnam in our twenties, staying at the same hostels only days apart. Our children attending the same universities and graduating the same year. We would have been in the crowds cheering for them. Both with partners then. Both unhappy staying in miserable marriages for the sake of our children. Both finally divorcing and starting our new lives in our late 50’s. Settling into single life only a few suburbs apart. Eventually, both settling for life as it was. Single and content, but always longing.
The weekend ended too soon, but we exchanged numbers. His hug enveloped my whole body and reached beneath my core into my soul. It penetrated the loneliness and brought feelings to the surface that overwhelmed and surprised me. I felt like crying. A need to shed the loneliness I had suppressed for an eternity. Even with partners, I had always felt lonely. With him, I felt complete. I felt joyful. I felt love.
“Let’s catch up again soon” he whispered in my ear. I nodded and saw my own reflection in his moist eyes when we said our goodbyes.
We spoke every day after that and started our love affair. We kept it a secret to avoid trouble and the inevitable backlash. Our families would not approve easily, but we were committed to making this work and would tackle any issues together.
Our time was filled with romantic dinners, drives to new places and movies. Always talking, always laughing, always exploring new activities together. We loved with such intensity it sometimes didn’t seem real. Like being the main characters in a romance novel. Yet it was extremely real. Our feelings raw and real. Intense and beautiful.
We loved with no limitations, we read each other like open books. We didn’t always agree, but we never quarreled. We accepted each other with no questions as to who was right or wrong. Our families and friends eventually accepted us being together. Except for my daughter. “It’s just wrong” she yelled and slammed the phone down when we last spoke. “She will come around in her own time” he reassured me in his kind loving way.
We had six months of pure bliss. Pure unadulterated bliss feeling like nothing could stop this love or change our lives. But something did.
I saw it in his eyes as soon as he walked in the door. I had prepared an easy meal for a movie night at my place. Outside was windy and rain had started to set in. A perfect night for snuggling on the couch. We hugged, but I felt his tenseness. Then his body shook. He held me tight, his tears quietly rolling down my neck. His body told me he was holding back the sobs. I held him till he relaxed. Then he looked into my eyes. I saw the reflection of the end, I felt his intense pain. I took his hand and led him to my bed and we just laid there in each other’s arms. I knew he would tell me when he was ready.
I could feel he was relaxing as I caressed his face. I looked at him, my eyes full of questions, my heart full of fear, but I was ready to hear what he had to say. I needed to hear it. His voice was filled with sorrow and despair when he uttered the six words that changed everything “I have cancer. I am dying”
My world stopped then. I struggled to take in the words at first. I don’t think I wanted to take them in. I cried. Then I kissed him intensely. We tried to make love, but we both just cried. We gave up and just hugged. Dinner stayed in the oven and burned to a crisp. We stayed in bed all night, just hugging, kissing and talking.
A routine checkup had revealed the headaches were not mere headaches. A large brain tumour had been growing inside his skull while we had enjoyed our love affair. Silently sneaking into our lives with malicious intent to rob us of our last chance of happiness and love. At our age, the fall season of life, it does not come easily or often.
The days following was a rollercoaster. He pushed me away at first saying he didn’t want me on this journey. He wanted to spare me the sadness, he wanted me to leave and find a new love. I shouted at him for the first time in our time together. I screamed and used words I didn’t know I knew. The result of my sickening fear, sadness, and despair came out in my yelling. Through it all, we both ended up accepting our needs to be with each other no matter what. Till the end. I could see that he wanted me there deep down. My eyes and emotions showed him I wanted to be there too.
We accepted our limited time. Our lovemaking returned. It was as deep as before but tinged with a sadness that we couldn’t escape. As the visits to the hospital increased and he grew weaker we mostly just held each other quietly throughout the long nights. Or we cried till we both slept. In each other’s arms, savoring every moment we had left. I would wake often. More than him. I would watch his face and listen to his breathing. Capturing the image for my memory bank to keep forever.
I laid in his arms, in the hospital bed, on his last night. Just listening to his breathing and taking in his beautiful face. His family had left for the night, vowing to return in the morning. I wished my daughter would accept us like his family had.
He woke up briefly at 4 am. His eyes were clear and looked deeply into mine when he whispered “I love you, Sam. Thank you for loving me”
He never woke again. He took his last breath shortly after in my arms. I stayed in his arms for a while longer then I called my daughter. Still with my head on his chest, I looked up as she walked in. She came over, hugged me and whispered. “Dad, I am so so sorry”