This is a short story, in 620 words.
It was prompted by the above photo, sent to me by Shaily Agrawal.
I remember it still. That feels weird. I never expected to remember, but I do. All of it, right from the start. My mother holding me as a baby and smiling down on me. Her voice, even the smell of her. I can choose any moment from fifty-eight years, and recall it as if it happened one hour ago.
This wasn’t what I had expected at all.
The day of the diagnosis, we knew it was bad news when the surgeon moved his chair close to mine and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his open legs. “I have to be totally honest, Stephen, we didn’t manage to get it all. The scan shows it is back, I’m afraid. And it’s inoperable this time, as it is in a part of your brain that we cannot possiby remove.”
My hair had only just grown back to a decent length, and I had bought new trousers to wear to the appointment, as the weight loss after months of chemo and radiotherapy had reduced me to a shadow of my former self.
I had been stupidly optimistic as I watched Alice driving me to the hospital that morning. I turned up the radio when one of our favourite songs came on, and sang along badly to it. Alice wasn’t so relaxed. I could tell by the way her smile didn’t move for the whole of the fifty-minute journey.
I asked the obvious question. “How long?” And he shrugged in reply, non-commital. “Hard to say. Months, not years. Perhaps even weeks”.
Alice was crying softly as I shook his hand and took the leaflet from him about the hospice and available palliative care. My only option soon.
There was no bucket list to try to complete. No wild last celebration. No trip of a lifetime. No emotional letters sent to friends or family.
Scott flew back from Singapore to see me. What do you say to your son? “Goodbye” hardly seems appropriate. I settled for “Look after your Mum for me”. He cried, and so did I. I knew he had to go back to his job, and I hoped I would die soon enough so he could support Alice at my funeral.
Alice and I didn’t talk about anything much. There was already a will, and insurance was in place. I said something about never having that sixtieth birthday celebration we had often spoken about, and she cried all day. After that, I left it at pleasantries. We walked around each other as if in a minefield. Our steps precise, and our concentration focused on the moment.
When it began, she wanted to look after me at home. She said Scott would help, but I wanted to be away from them as I lost the power to cope. Lost the ability to clean myself, to speak and see properly. To be Stephen.
They were there when I went. Alice hugging me, Scott sitting in a chair next to the bed weeping openly. They thought I couldn’t see them of course. They had been told that I was unresponsive, but that they should continue to talk to me. They didn’t talk, as they had no idea what to say.
This morning, I woke up feeling light, as if my body weighed nothing. My vision was incredibly sharp, and I was looking down at the garden I had worked hard to keep nice for more than twenty years. I could see Alice sitting in the conservatory, sipping a hot drink from her favourite mug.
I knew she would be okay.
Stretching out my strangely familiar wings, I stepped off into the morning air.
Enjoying the freedom of flight.