The Survivors

Joe Lanzon

I looked forward to meeting my two friends Shirley and Norma at the restaurant on the High Street this morning. I put on my favourite red knee-length dress, my pearl ear- rings and matching necklace and looked in the mirror. I liked my appearance.

It was a reunion lunch. We did it every year for the last five years. Each one of us recounting what happened to her during the past twelve months. We would talk about our children, our grand children, our likes and dislikes. We would bring back memories of long years past. We would enjoy being together another year.

We had met for the first time at St. Mary’s Hospital in London – there was also Sally – while we were having treatment for breast cancer. We were together during the long-suffering ordeal – surgery, ward patient, hospital visits and recuperation. All four of us gave encouragement and hope to each other. We had cried and laughed together. We held hands when the end of the road seemed to be near. We laughed when things looked brighter and we seemed to be winning. We were there for each other. And we survived!

We had all four of us met for lunch every year, since our discharge from hospital five years ago. But this year we would be three. We would miss Sally. She had been the life and soul of the group. She was always recounting some funny story, or cracking  a joke, or waving her hands in dramatic fashion. She was the conductor during these lunches. It was the first year that we would be meeting without her. She would definitely be missed, terribly missed this year.

An image of her face filled my mind – blue eyes, blonde hair, rosy cheeks, upturned nose – a jovial, laughing face which would make all around her happy. “Keep your chin up” she would say to any of us who were passing through a rough patch. I was amazed how she could joke about even the darkest of things. That was Sally.

We had promised that, rain or shine, we would try to make this reunion every year. For old time’s sake. For becoming friends when we needed so much love, comfort, encouragement and understanding. We gave all of these to each other as we battled with that life-threatening disease. And we survived!

Shirley and Norma were waiting at the restaurant when I arrived – Shirley with her white wide-brimmed hat on her head and several bangles around her wrists, and Norma the quite one, looking prim and proper, always listening and smiling in agreement, but always positive. Shirley, Norma and I all had different characters. But Sally, bless her, had the best character of us all. She always used to make us laugh.

The place had started to fill up around us. The waitress bustled over for our order. “Are you waiting for someone else?” she said looking at the empty place. I shook my head but when she moved to clear the extra cutlery I stopped her. “Please could you leave them?” The waitress looked puzzled but nodded and left.

For the next half hour we talked on this, that and the other. We brought ourselves up to date with each other’s life during this past year. As I looked with pride at my two friends, I could not help but think how lucky we all were. That bad experience of the past had bonded us together like childhood friends.

After we had eaten, we ordered champagne as was our custom at the end of the meal. “Could we have four glasses please?” I asked the puzzled waitress. “What are you celebrating?” she asked us as she laid out the glasses and then, at my request, put the fourth glass in front of the empty space.

It was Shirley who spoke in her exuberant melodious voice. “We are celebrating being alive. We’re all survivors of breast cancer, you see. We met for the first time in hospital and went through our treatment together.”

“We encourage each other. Each year we get together and celebrate another bonus year”, I added. “This is our fifth year” put in Norma. The waitress looked at us, admiration on her face now. “That’s amazing”, she exclaimed. Then she looked at the empty chair, the unused cutlery and the empty champagne glass. “Oh I’m very sorry, I ……..” She broke off, clearly did not know what to say.

I looked at my two smiling friends, then at the bewildered waitress and said. “Sally got married and emigrated to Canada last year. She could not make it this year but we hope that she would join us again next year. We promised that we would always save a place for her.”

It was at that moment that Shirley made a toast. “To our dear friend Sally, whatever she’s doing, wherever she is, wishing you good health, see you next year!”