Sylvia is coming home today. It would be, in all likelihood, her last trip home. I had cleaned the house, prepared her room, and given Melissa the mission to draw some pretty pictures for her. All of the drawings happened to be of flowers resembling daisies, but they were prepared with lots of love and enthusiasm. At least the child had gotten over her previous phase of drawing dragons. The flowers were much more upbeat than toothy, fire-breathing creatures, multi-colored or otherwise.
I had decided Melissa could play hooky from kindergarten today, and would accompany me when I picked up her mother. She was an exuberant, energetic, five-year-old, with a strong sense of responsibility, and I knew she considered her job as my assistant to be a very important one.
Setting off for the hospital, I was feeling very emotional about the day, and what we were all going to be facing over the next few days or weeks, but I told myself I had to be tough for the sakes of both Sylvia and Melissa. I had allowed myself a good cry last night, after Melissa had gone to sleep. I had hoped to deplete my reserve of tears, but I had a strong suspicion my reservoir had been replenished while I was sleeping.
‘Don’t the trees look pretty, Melissa, with all the new leaves sprouting?’
The child was unusually quiet this morning. I knew she was looking forward to her mother’s return, but she was probably nervous about it also. After all, she had often visited her parent at the hospital, and the sight of her frail mother in that type of setting could be daunting, if not downright frightening. During the short drive, I wanted to take her mind off those images.
I heard a little grunt of agreement.
‘Soon everything will be green and full of flowers. Won’t that be nice?’
Another little grunt.
‘This week, we’ll put up your tire swing on your favorite tree, and maybe we can all work on the flower gardens together. Would you like that?’
‘Mommy will like that.’
Melissa was right. I knew her mother was looking forward to being reunited with her home and her gardens.
Sylvia’s house is a small bungalow, with a nice lawn and some beautiful old oak trees. She has a lovely flower garden which covers a large portion of the backyard. Many hours have been spent planning and maintaining that beautiful, relaxing space.
I had always admired her capacity to create beauty, being, myself, sadly lacking in the green thumb department. Even a low-maintenance cactus plant wouldn’t survive longer than a few months in my care.
Continuing the drive in silence, my senses were keenly noticing everything along the way, as people probably did on their way to the gallows. The small shops, the post office, the quaint signs announcing small businesses, all left an impression on me. I recalled Sylvia’s remark about the neighbourhood being a great place to live. Evidently, she also thought of it as a great place to die.
We arrived at the hospital to find Sylvia dressed, packed, and ready to leave. She looked so pale and thin, sitting in the wheelchair in a corner of her room. She reminded me, once again, of a baby bird, small and fragile, with her patches of short, blond hair sticking up here and there on her head.
Melissa ran into her mother’s arms with the amazing ability of being both energetic and gentle at the same time. She realized her mother was very delicate and could be easily hurt if manipulated too roughly. Sadly, the little girl had long ago become used to handling her parent like a delicate piece of crystal. The days of being rough and tumble were long gone.
‘Are you ready?’ I asked my friend, a huge grin on my face.
‘Kinda,’ she answered, sarcastically.
We both laughed, because it was evident Sylvia had been ready for days.
After giving Sylvia a brief hug, I grabbed up her suitcase and pushed her wheelchair out of the room. We had to stop at the nurse’s station to say goodbye, not without a few tears on the part of most of us – except Sylvia. She was going home, and, at this point, that was all that mattered to her. This was no time for tears, not now.
As I packed my friend into the car, I carried on a cheerful, meaningless conversation, trying to hide my anxiety and dismay when it required barely any strength to lift her into the front seat. She had wasted away so badly I was afraid I would break her if I applied the slightest amount of pressure to her frail limbs.
The drive home didn’t take long. Melissa’s mood had changed considerably and she chattered brightly while Sylvia simply soaked it all up, as if she had to absorb as much as possible to sustain her in eternity.
When we reached the house, Sylvia was beaming, despite the fact that she was obviously worn out from the events of the morning. Before taking her to her bedroom, she insisted I take her on a tour of each room of the house so she could reacquaint herself with her home after her long stay in the hospital. I silently congratulated myself for having the wisdom to keep everything as it was when she had left.
‘Are you comfortable?’ I asked, once she was settled in her bed.
‘Perfectly. Thank you, Becca. You have no idea how much I appreciate everything you’ve done.’ Her voice was weak and tired, but happy.
‘I do know. I also know that if the situations had been reversed you would have done the same for me.’
I stood up to leave, but stopped when I felt the light touch of her hand on my arm.
‘Becca, we have to talk about something important. I’m too tired now, but maybe tonight, when Melissa’s asleep.’
‘No problem. Whenever you want, we’ll talk.’
I left Sylvia alone to have a nap, while I went to prepare lunch.
I was feeling the strain. I didn’t know how I was going to remain cheerful, or even if I should try. Sylvia and I had been friends for almost ten years. I believed we were as close as two people could be. Both coming from single-child families, we thought of ourselves as sisters.
Physically, we were very different. She was fair-haired, blue-eyed and petite, barely reaching five feet, while I was auburn-haired, brown-eyed, and with a complexion which tans easily. Though not particularly tall, at five-foot six-inches, I felt tall standing beside Sylvia.
Sylvia’s character contradicted her looks. She was tough, independent, strong-willed and fiercely protective of those she loves. I don’t think she would have expected me to hide my feelings, but I didn’t want her last days on this earth to be spent trying to comfort me in my grief.
Last year, when we found out Sylvia had ovarian cancer, we were determined to face the worst together. We spent hours crying and boosting each other’s morale. After gruelling treatments, two months ago, we were told the cancer had spread to her liver and stomach, and the treatments would have to be intensified. Sylvia refused.
The only reason she had subjected herself to the original treatments was for Melissa’s benefit. When told of the spread of the disease, she decided Melissa didn’t benefit from a mother so sick from chemotherapy that she couldn’t care for her properly, and who was going to die soon at any rate.
Despite my objections, she insisted both Melissa and I had to get on with our lives. As her friend, no matter how difficult it was, I had no choice but to back up her decision and provide her with the best support I could, whether it be physical or emotional.
Now, as I sifted through the fridge, looking for something for lunch, I wondered what Sylvia wanted to talk to me about. For some reason, I wasn’t having a good feeling about it.