This story is by Brandy McClendon and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Six months. Give or take a week or two. That was all he had left of his life. The rest of the doctor’s words swirled around the room but none of them reached him. Only one thought circled through his mind. It has to be a mistake.
After she explained everything and there was nothing left to say, he stood and shook her hand.
“I am so sorry. Please let me know if you need anything and I’ll see you next week.” The standard words she offered everyone he assumed but her kind eyes told him she probably meant them too.
He couldn’t think of anything to say but “Thank you” before he turned and left the office.
He walked the streets for hours and his wife called a dozen times but he never answered. For now, he needed to be in his head with his memories of their life together. He would face the reality of their future later.
He walked past the coffee shop where they had gone on their second date. He knew she was the one for him when she ordered plain black coffee. He passed the movie theatre where they had gone every Friday night since they started dating. It was a standing date no matter how bad the movie selection might be. Would she still go when he was gone?
He passed the sushi restaurant where they had gotten food poisoning on their third wedding anniversary. He knew they would be together for the long run as they threw up side by side. As they lay on the bathroom floor, he muttered “I think I’m going to die” in the way one often does when they are in the throes of gastrointestinal misery. How could he know three months later his melodramatic prediction would be coming true so soon?
And then he realized he would be gone by November, if the doctor was right. Gone before Halloween, right in the middle of fall, their favorite season and when they had fallen in love.
He sat on their favorite park bench, needing a moment to catch his breath, the lung cancer stealing his air like a thief in the night. He didn’t even smoke, he argued to the doctor and she smiled with sympathy and assured him that you can get lung cancer without smoking too. One more unfairness in a world of shitty breaks, he thought ruefully.
His phone rang again.
He knew he was being unfair by ignoring her calls. She was worried and she deserved answers too. She had wanted to come with him to the appointment but deep down he knew it was going to be bad and so he had asked her not to. He had been wrong and he should have let her be there. But he had been selfish and not wanted to see the pain in her eyes when they heard the news. That moment would come soon enough.
He answered on the fourth ring.
“Hello yourself. You have been a hard man to get in touch with today. Everything okay?” Her voice would sound cheerful to anyone else but him but he could hear the truth. She was mad and scared and so damn worried she could hardly talk but she was doing what she always did – being the sunshine he needed when life had turned dark and gray.
“I’m sorry my love. I needed some time.” He didn’t add more because he hadn’t yet found the right words to explain how their life had been changed today.
“And have you had enough time?” She asked and he could picture her in their apartment, pacing the floor in her fuzzy socks and oversized sweater and yoga pants. Beautiful. His heart clenched with grief and he had to swallow a few times before he could answer her.
“Almost. Can you give me another hour and then I ‘ll be home?” To break your heart with my news.
“Of course,” she said and then added, “I love you.”
“And I will always love you,” he said and hung up.
When he stepped through the front door later that night, she was sitting on the sofa, her arms wrapped around her folded knees. She had been crying but she gave him the brightest smile as he stepped into the room. His sunshine, always.
“How was your walk?” She asked as he came toward her. She was watching him carefully and he knew she knew the truth before he even spoke.
“It was good. But we should probably talk now.” He sat on the coffee table in front of her.
“If that’s what you want.” He saw the fear in her eyes and knew from life with her she wanted to run – away from him and the pain he was going to give to her – but she stayed and he loved her for it. So he began to speak.
When he had finished telling her all the doctor had told him, silent sobs wracked her body and he felt his heart shatter. He had promised her a lifetime together and now he was breaking that promise and he hated it.
He held her in his arms and they sat in silence after that. Afterall, what words could he say to stop her pain? What words could she say to save him?
As they lay together in bed later that night, she finally spoke. Her voice was but a whisper in the room. “So we make these last six months matter. We live all the life we can, we make memories, and we be happy. And we reach the end with no regrets. Deal?’
He closed his eyes as a tear slid down his cheek. How had he found this amazing creature to share his life with? He pulled her into his arms. “Deal.”
And they kept their deal. The next day they made a list of all the things they wanted to do and over the next months, they worked their way through it. There was rock climbing in Canada and hang gliding in Brazil. They danced on the top of the Empire State building and ate dinner in the shadow of the Eiffel tower.
It was hard sometimes to find the strength he needed but he did all he could so he could leave her with these memories and she could smile when he was gone.
He finished writing his book and she threw a party to celebrate. It was his final chance to say goodbye to all the people who had mattered in his life and he would be eternally grateful she had made it possible.
Soon, he could feel the cancer taking a piece of him with each breath and so as August was rolling into September, they made one final addition to their bucket list.
One magical night when he had some of his old strength back, he made love to her from dusk til dawn beneath the stars and the harvest moon on a clearing overlooking a valley of wildflowers. And as she lay in his arms and they watched the sun rise over the mountain, he knew he had left her one final piece of him.
The next few weeks he deteriorated fast until he needed oxygen and round the clock care to make it through the day. He had made it to the middle of October the morning she showed him the stick with the two pink lines and he knew it was okay to let go.
She lay next to him on the bed as they watched the last leaves of fall dance around their balcony. She held his hand and he knew she knew the time had come. He had so much to say to her but he didn’t have the strength or the time. So he chose his final words carefully and hoped they would be enough.
“Because of you, I know what it means to love, “ he wheezed the words and she clutched his hand, “and because of you I can die without regrets. Thank you for being my life’s sunshine. I will always love you.”
“I will always love you too,” she whispered as he closed his eyes for the last time with their hands clutched together on the invisible bump of her belly.
One year later she sat on their favorite park bench and held their pink bundle of love in her arms. Her heart still ached for him but she also felt joy as she looked at their daughter.
“Today we remember Daddy, Autumn, and we celebrate how wonderful he was and how much we miss him.” She looked across the grass and watched as a pair of leaves danced in the wind and she smiled because in that moment she knew, life would go on and fall would always be a time for love.