Feb 26

Five Years to Live

Five Years to Live

Five Years to Live

I lie in the bathtub, running warm water over my naked body. I try to calm my breathing, imagining myself sinking into the warmth and simply drifting away. I clutch a razor blade in my hand. It has been sitting in the medicine cabinet, lying flat against the shelf, unnoticed by anyone but me, for months. I imagine if Malcolm had known about it, he would have thrown it away.

It was a comfort to me, knowing that if things ever got too bad, it would be there to finally take the pain away.

And now it is.

“I’m sorry,” I offer as a half prayer, have apology to my husband and children. I place the blade against my wrist and feel the prick against my skin, see the red drop of blood.


The sound of another voice in the room startles me, and the blade slices further across my wrist. Not with great strength, not in the right direction. Not much more than a scratch, really.

A woman, older than I, stands inside the closed door of the bathroom. Her icy white hair flows around her face, across her shoulders, and down her back.

Before I can process what is happening, she speaks again.

“Stay, just for five more years. Five years, and you will have your wish. You will go home again, but not like this.”

I close my eyes, the weight of what she’s asking settling into my bones. When I open my eyes, prepared to argue, she is gone.

Delusions and hallucinations. I’ll have to ask my therapist what mental illness that would indicate. We’ll add it to the list.

Future thoughts. I didn’t expect any more of those. I realize that my desire to kill myself has abated, and even though she wasn’t real, the idea of giving life five more years has already taken root in my heart. I cry, softly at first, and then in great, racking sobs, until the water runs cold.


I’ve decided that if I’m going to live for five more years, I don’t want to do it without chocolate. I text my husband and ask him to bring me home See’s. It’s the first time I’ve asked him for anything in a long, long time. He texts me back almost immediately.

“Sure, honey.”

I crawl into bed to sleep until he gets home from work.


I remember when I was young. And fit. And strong. I would go to the gym, hike in the mountains, swim laps in the summer time. I remember that I liked how it felt.

I feel my body trembling, yearning to feel that, or something like that again. I could go for a walk. Or not. Or yoga. I like yoga. Maybe a stretch or two. Five minutes, I tell myself. And then, I find myself doing a sun salutation, even though the blinds are closed and I can’t see the sun, but it’s nice knowing it’s out there.


There’s half a loaf of French bread sitting on the counter. It’s at the point where it’s stale but not yet showing mold. I know no one is going to eat it, so I consider throwing it away. But then, a memory comes to mind of when I was a little girl, and my mom made me French toast for breakfast on my birthday. I remember that I liked it. I wonder why I haven’t had it in so long.

So, I slice the bread, whisk the milk and eggs, and make myself French toast. I slather it with a lot of butter because that’s the way I like it, and I don’t really care if butter gives you heart attacks or cellulite.

It’s delicious.


Amelia is home sick today. I bring her soup and 7-up. She smiles at me, a happy, grateful smile, before she falls to sleep. When she wakes up, I rock her in the rocking chair. We haven’t done this since she was a toddler. She snuggles into me, and soon I hear her soft breathing tell me that she’s fallen asleep again. Still, I continue to rock her.


Malcolm comes home from work, and I’m not in my pajamas.

“You look nice,” he says. He kisses the top of my head, and then moves into the living room. He sits on the couch, finds the remote and starts flipping channels.


I clean the bathroom toilet.


I sit outside in the backyard in a lawn chair. Our dog, Wesley, jumps up to sit on my lap. Then, he gets bored and jumps off. I feel the sunshine on my face, warming me, reaching to my bones. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t cold to the bone. I hear a bird chirp, and I try to find the source. To my surprise, there are a dozen or more birds — sparrows, wrens, chickadees — in the branches of a nearby tree. They scatter when Daniel, home from school, comes outside to join me, slamming the back door shut behind him. He grabs a ball and throws it, and Wesley chases after it, and then Daniel chases Wesley, trying to get it back. A smile tugs on the corners of my mouth.


I make love to my husband. He is hungry but timid. He holds me as if he thinks I’m going to evaporate into wisps of smoke right in his arms. When we finish, he pulls me close to him, tucked against his chest. He doesn’t let go all night.


I’m writing again. There are other stories I had been working on, but a new idea has come to me, and I feel like this is the story that needs to be told. Maybe I’ll finish the others. Maybe not.


“I think we should go to Hawaii,” I say. Malcolm looks at me blankly.

“But, I thought we would wait…”

“Until I get better, I know. But I think we should just go now.” He furrows his brow, and I can see common sense warring with his desire to please me.

“I don’t think we can afford it right now.” I think about our plump retirement fund.

“We can afford it.”

He smiles a worried smile and capitulates. I go online and find a really great deal on airfare and a hotel room.


“The End.” I’m grinning and crying at the same time. I finished my first book. Malcolm beams at me, tells me he’s so proud of me. He wants to take me out to celebrate. I’m thinking Ruth’s Chris. He laughs this time and agrees.


We take the kids on a Disney cruise to celebrate the publication of my second book. Malcolm and I take in a comedy show while Daniel and Amelia are doing the Club Disney thing. We learn a little salsa dancing. We snorkel together, all of us, when we stop at Nassau. We shop like the tourists we are, and I buy a glass dolphin as a souvenir to take home. The food at the buffets is amazing. I’ve gone from hollow-cheeked and thin to “pleasantly plump.” My husband keeps telling me I look beautiful. We sneak back to our room during the day, while the kids are occupied, and his actions prove his words to be true.


We’re a normal, happy family now. I tidy our home and cook mostly healthy meals. We eat dinner together, and my husband isn’t afraid to ask me how my day went. I take the kids to ballet and soccer practice during the week. I watch their games and recitals on the weekend. Malcolm and I have a regular date night. It’s usually just dinner and a movie, but sometimes we’ll go hiking, or to a play, or out to a club. I even got him to go line dancing with me, and he hates country music. Last Saturday, the Andersons invited us over for dinner, and I promised them we’d have them over next week. And my fourth book is almost ready for publishing.


As I get ready for bed, I notice a little pressure in my chest. I’m so, so tired. My back aches. As I lie down to sleep, I struggle a little for breath.

The woman with the icy white hair is waiting for me, her arms outstretched. I go to her, she envelopes me, I melt into her. I whisper into her ear.

“Thank you for keeping your promise.”

The prompt: “You find out that you will die in five years or less. How did you find this out? What would you do in those five years?”

Tell me in the comments — what would you do if you knew you only had five years to live?


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  1. Eydie

    Yikes —- Great story!!!!

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Thank you, Eydie!

  2. conniecockrell

    Love the story. I was a little teary eyed.

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Thank you, Connie!

  3. Mercedes M. Yardley

    Beautiful and painful. It made me tear up. That’s powerful writing, my friend. <3

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Thank you so very much. That’s a high compliment coming from the likes of you, missy. Love you!

  4. Sandy KS

    Wow, that is one powerful story.
    I have no clue what I would do.

    1. Shelli Proffitt Howells

      Thank you, Sandy. I hope you’re already doing those things that make you happy, so you wouldn’t have to change anything. 🙂

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