On that clear summer’s day, Virginia Waters was breath-taking. The lake, as still as ever, laid out under the sun without a ripple and the over-bearing but magnificent pines around the perimeter didn’t even sway. It was so silent, not a single bird sung out. An elderly couple, Jim and Eileen, strolled along the neatly-kept pathway towards the river, hand in hand. They had been happily married for over forty years; the kind of love you only see in movies nowadays. However, despite their love, their lives held a lot more sorrow than met the eye.
Five years ago, their world came to a standstill, when Jim was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Standing by her husband, as she had since the day they said their vows, Eileen became his full-time carer. Her hair, once a shimmering black curtain, now white and thinning out by the day and her face had withered with time. She was so seemingly fragile that perhaps a small breeze would knock her over. Still, after many years of suffering, she could manage a smile as she gazed upon the gleaming river in front of her. Their place. The place they met.
Jim’s frail face looked lost and his swollen eyes squinted, unable to see because of the blinding sunshine before him. His skin, grey and as pale as a frightful ghost; the cancer had taken its toll from the beginning and, like a relentless adversary, it seemed unlikely to stop. Unlike his wife, he had very little hair at all, having lost most it over the years to old age and eventually chemotherapy. He winced in pain, instantly Eileen holded him up, tightly gripping on to his fragile frame to direct him closer to the river. Reaching a nearby bench, Eileen sat her husband down before wrapping her scarf around her husband’s bony shoulders in case he was to feel a chill with the slight breeze stirring. She perched down beside him.
“Jim, honey, we’re here”, she whispered to her husband, not taking her eye off the scenery before her.
This rather abruptly stirred Jim from his thoughts. He looked confused and disorientated, like he hadn’t realised they’d even left the house. He sighed like he had the world on his shoulders.
Eileen’s heart broke a little at her husband’s decaying mind. He wasn’t really the man she first met here anymore. His mind was elsewhere and he didn’t recognise this place, their cherished memories absent from him. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she faux-cheerfully teased,
“Darling, where we first met. All those years ago. Sixty-five, to be exact”.
“Of course, I remember! I might be dying but I am not losing my mind, dear!” Jim, now shaken from this wandering mind, seemed shocked and startled that she had doubted him.
“I know, my love, you just didn’t seem sure. Hold my hand, your teeth are still somehow chattering with this breeze”.
Jim slowly held out his fragile hand for his wife and delicately she held it in hers. The couple had been through a lot these past few years but the stress and heartache they had been through had started to take its toll on Eileen. She looked out in to the distance at the river’s mirrored surface. Her eyes had grown dull and cloudy with age but behind them was the suffering she had been through, almost too much for one lifetime.
“I forget how beautiful it is here, don’t you Jim?”
He nodded immediately and enthusiastically. They sat in a peaceful silence, gazing upon and taking in the river and scenery once more. The noise of the birds now that tweeted above them was the only sound that was needed. After years of them visiting Virginia Waters, after the picnics, the chasing one another in the flowers at the riverside as a love-struck couple, it was all just a distant memory now.
Jim finally asked the question that they had both been avoiding since the moment they got there,
“Why are we here, Eileen? It’s been years, why now?”
“You know why. We need to speak about what the doctor said.” She stared at Jim but he just gave her a non-committal shrug.
“Can’t we just talk about this at home?” he said, as he avoided her gaze.
Eileen needed an answer, she couldn’t tiptoe around this anymore.
“No, sweetheart. I can’t put it off for any longer. We have been through so much together. I will do anything to save you. I don’t want to lose you, but we need to do something. It hurts seeing you so ill, and the terrible effect the treatment is having on you.” As Eileen said these words, she couldn’t handle it anymore. She released her hand from Jim’s and curled into herself. Her hands cupped her face as she broke down. It was the gut-wrenching sound of a woman who had been in pain for so long.
“Please don’t cry. I don’t want you to cry. We all must go at some time, and mine is just a little sooner than we expected. But we knew this would have to happen someday.” Eileen opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. Her crying stopped and she found herself people watching as she looked across the river. Her gaze stayed with a family of four; two children giggled and rode their bikes around the park, whilst their parents watched from behind. The man wrapped his arm around his wife beside him and pulled her close to kiss her lips. All of them, laughed over joylessly, without a care in the world. What Eileen would do to do to go back fifty years. She felt a wave of jealousy hit her. Why was life so unfair?
Eileen’s thoughts were interrupted suddenly as Jim found her wrinkled hand again and slowly brought it up to his lips, pressing a small kiss on the back of it, attempting to comfort his wife. They understood each other. A single tear drop fell and slid down Jim’s frail, old face. He sniffed rather loudly to try and stop himself from crying. Trying to hold himself together, he forced a whisper to his wife, “Don’t you think it is for the best to stop the treatment? Put myself, and you mainly, out of our misery? I am just a burden to everyone now. I don’t want this anymore…and neither do you”.
Eileen suddenly turned to her husband, horrified and hurt at his words. How could he think such a thing? She suddenly raised her voice at him in anger, “You are NOT a burden to me. I look after you because you’re my husband and I love you dearly. Don’t EVER say that!” Eileen looked away, pulling her hand out of his, in a strop just like a child.
“I know, but you, and the doctors have done everything to try and help me. I’m not getting any better, and I’m certainly not getting any younger. I’m dying, Eileen. We just need to face it”.
Eileen tried to ignore what she knew was the truth deep down. She wanted to talk about it, but she couldn’t face up to what the future may entail without her beloved husband by her side. This was the first time in a while that it had become all so real. This was happening. Jim knew he didn’t have long left. Eileen was still living in the unrealistic future that her husband was going to get through this illness. Jim needed to let her down gently, much to his own dismay too.
“Day by day we look after each other. Love each other more and more, eternally. But as part of our vows you promised to support me in any significant decision that I choose to make. We need to face it Eileen…”
“Not to just give up and let you die, Jim! Don’t leave me. You can’t!” Eileen cried.
“It has been a long time coming, we need to be stronger than we ever have. I know you will continue to be the brave, passionate and beautiful woman that I love. Without me.”
He said this as he stared into his wife’s eyes, memorising them like he was never going to see her again. He loved her more than anything and it broke his heart too, but the pain had become too hard for him to want to keep on fighting.
“But what now?”
“I have been pondering this for a couple of weeks now. I didn’t want to say anything, but I need to. It’s not fair for me to keep this from you.”
“What do you mean? What is it?” she said tentatively.
Jim took a deep breath and took her hand again, preparing himself. He assertively said,
“I want to stop my treatment, and I want to die on my own terms.”
“What are you suggesting?” Eileen worriedly asked. She thought she knew, but wished it otherwise.
“I want you to do what you’ve always done for me, Eileen. Stay strong and be there for me. I’m tired and I’m hurting but please believe me when I say I know what I want. I want you to be there with me when I go. I want you to help me end my life.”
Eileen gaped at her husband, stunned at the proposition. Could she really help him do that?