WHEN THE TRUTH IS HIDDEN

As they sat in the elegant restaurant on a beautiful spring evening in 1969, it was abundantly clear to even the least perceptive observer that Sara Dyer and Ryan Blaine were hopelessly in love. And no one was more surprised by this than the young couple themselves. For similar reasons, each lacked the self-confidence to think that they would ever be the subject of someone’s affection.

Although they had grown quite comfortable with each other, they both felt a certain amount of pressure to make their relationship work. And so far, it had. But tonight, there was no stress because this was a special day, and they were happily caught up in the moment, not worrying about anything in particular.

Neither one had ever dined in such a fine establishment. The breathtaking view of the city from twenty stories up was reason enough to make this place spectacular, but the expansive menu of exotic cuisine was like nothing they had ever experienced.

After enjoying the best meals of their lives, they were now diving into delicious desserts.

Sara looked at the person who had changed her entire world and thought about how contented she was tonight. “This is the most incredible place I’ve ever been to.”

Ryan smiled. “I had to make the reservation three weeks in advance.”

“It was worth the wait! Thank you for a delightful evening.” Sara reached over and squeezed his hand. “I can’t believe it’s our six-month anniversary already.”

“I know. It seems like just yesterday I was struggling to work up the courage to ask you out.”

Teasing him, she said, “Yes, that did take you a while.”

Sheepishly, he explained, “I didn’t think you would say yes, and if you did, I thought you would quickly lose interest. So, I needed to prepare myself for the letdown.”

“Why would I lose interest?”

Ryan instantly regretted bringing up the subject. “I’ve never been able to develop a long-term relationship with anyone the way I have with you.”

Sara didn’t understand. “Why not? I mean six months is not that long.”

He tried without success to hide his embarrassment. “Whenever I became interested in someone, they would quickly end things. But this was different. I really wanted to have a chance with you.”

“I don’t know what was wrong with those other women, but as far as I’m concerned, being with you has been wonderful.” She paused and then asked cautiously, “What about you? Have you been happy with me?”

“Of course!” Ryan was surprised she even had to ask. “It’s been amazing. To be honest, this is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Sara could feel herself blushing, but she couldn’t help it. Becoming involved with Ryan had been a dream come true, and she was thrilled that he felt the same way.

The conversation continued at a relaxed pace; however, it was because they were so at ease with each other that neither suspected their partner was being less than forthcoming about a crucial aspect of their lives. But, unfortunately, the false sense of trust they had worked so hard to build would soon be shattered.

A short time later, they left the restaurant and got on the elevator to go down to the lobby. Since they were alone, Ryan stole a quick kiss as they slowly descended. When they reached the ground floor, the doors slid open, and they stepped out.

It was a moment that changed everything.

Ryan was standing behind Sara with his hands on her shoulders. Consequently, she did not see his eyes begin to blink rapidly. She was unaware that his head pulled to the left as his face began to contort. For several seconds she did not realize that anything was wrong at all. Then suddenly, Sara could feel his hands clench and begin to shake. As she turned to him, his breathing became erratic gasps, loud and guttural as his body began to jerk violently.

“Ryan! My God, what’s wrong?!” She tried to hold him, but she was no match for the muscle contractions energized by the electricity firing in his brain. He spun back to his right and fell hard against the floor. She knelt next to him, terrified by what she was witnessing.

“Ryan! Can you hear me?” Three people suddenly came around a corner and approached to use the elevator but stopped short when they saw a man writhing on the floor.

Panicky, Sara yelled at them, “Someone find a phone and call an ambulance! Please!”

An older woman, momentarily stunned by what she was witnessing, responded, “I’ll do it.” She quickly stepped away to make the call as other people began to gather around. Sara turned back to Ryan. His breathing had grown more irregular, and all the color had drained from his face. Although she was unaware of it, tears had begun to stream from Sara’s eyes.

Confused and horrified, she could barely comprehend what was happening. His shaking had become so violent, she was afraid he would injure himself. Looking back at the growing crowd, Sara saw a man wearing a light jacket. “Give me your coat so I can put it under his head.” The man unzipped it and handed it to her. She carefully lifted Ryan and put the jacket in place. As the furious thrashing continued, strings of spittle began to trickle down his chin. 

Behind her, Sara could hear a low buzz of conversation as individuals wondered what was wrong with the man. She distinctly heard one woman guess that the person was having a seizure.

***

Sara was sitting at the kitchen table sipping her morning coffee brooding about Ryan when her older sister Marsha walked in. For the last year, they had shared an apartment to cut expenses, and it was a living situation that suited them. They had always been close, each considering the other to be their best friend.

In the three days since Ryan collapsed, he had called multiple times, but Sara insisted Marsha answer the phone and make excuses for why she couldn’t talk to him. After her initial relief that he was okay, Sara could not help but feel hurt and angry that he had not told her that he had epilepsy. She believed something that important should have been disclosed – not kept secret and hidden. Now she doubted she could really trust him.

However, the circumstances were even more complicated because she was also experiencing feelings of hypocrisy that were fully justified. All of these emotions combined to put Sara in a less than agreeable mood.

Marsha took one look at the sullen expression on her sister’s face and knew that she was still struggling with what had happened to Ryan. She had hoped that Sara would have reached a resolution by now, but, obviously, that wasn’t the case. Marsha had attempted to discuss the situation on several occasions, but her younger sister could be extremely stubborn and had adamantly refused.

Marsha poured herself a cup of coffee, added two teaspoons of sugar, and sat down at the table.

“All that sugar is not good for you,” Sara mumbled.

Marsha chose to ignore the remark and instead offered her own unsolicited opinion. “You need to speak to Ryan. No matter what, you owe him that much.”

“Good morning to you too.”

“I’m serious.”

Sara shrugged. “I don’t know what to say. Before, it was always so easy for us to talk, but now, nothing is the same.”

Marsha was through babying her. “Let me put it another way. I’m not going to answer the phone and make excuses for you anymore. It doesn’t matter whether you want to stay together or not, you can’t leave him hanging.”

“Yes, of course.”

“The question is, are you going to throw it all away just because he had a seizure?”

Sara frowned. “No, no. You’re missing the point. It’s not that he had a seizure, it’s that he didn’t tell me he had epilepsy. I thought I knew him. I thought we could confide in each other and trust each other. But the whole time, he had this secret, a life-altering secret, that he didn’t share with me.”

There was a long pause as Marsha hesitated to bring up a sensitive subject that she suspected would not sit well with her sister. Finally, she said, “Honesty is a two-way street.”

In an instant, Sara realized where Marsha was headed, and it increased her regret and remorse. She protested, “It is not the same thing.”

Shaking her head, Marsha replied calmly, “It is exactly the same thing.”

“That’s easy for you to say that. You don’t have any challenges.”

“I have a challenging roommate.”

Sara made a face but didn’t say anything.

Marsha knew that her sister needed to hear the truth, so she chose her words carefully. “I know you and Ryan care about each other and that you were getting very serious. Obviously, you are hurt and disappointed that he kept his condition a secret from you – but, Sara, you have done the same thing to him.”

In a voice that was little more than a whisper, Sara said, “My health issues are my concern. I’m the one who has to live with them.”

“That’s not true. You owe it to him to share that information before you make any kind of commitment. You want him to be honest, and I’m sure Ryan wants the same from you.”  Then in a gentler tone, she said, “Don’t you think he has the right to know?”

Sara rubbed her forehead in a futile attempt to relieve her tension. “Yes, yes.”

“Then why haven’t you said something?”

Admitting her fear was far more difficult than Sara had imagined it would be. “I was afraid if he found out, he would not be interested in me.”

“But you were going to have to open up to him at some point. Your challenges are part of you. They’re inescapable. They don’t define you – but they do have an influence on your life, and they would influence his life as well.”

“I’ve been struggling for months about when to tell him, and now I’m racked with guilt because I didn’t speak up.” Sara shook her head in disgust. “I can’t blame him if he walks away.”

Marsha took a sip of coffee and said, “Ryan won’t walk away. He made the same mistake you did and, most likely, for the same reason. I’m sure he will be more than willing to forgive you – if you’ll do the same.”

Sara was dismayed. “Two people being less than honest with each other is not a great way to start a long-term relationship.”

“It’s one of the many things you have in common!” Marsha chirped.

Rolling her eyes, Sara grumbled, “We are two interesting people, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, don’t kid yourself. You’re not that special.”

“Thanks.” Deep down, Sara was grateful to have her older sister by her side. Marsha had a way of seeing the world that was crystal clear without emotional clutter and drama.

“The important thing is, you two are perfect for each other.” Then to be annoying, Marsha added, “Maybe you two were meant to be together.”

“Oh, please!” Sara scoffed. “Spare me. Nothing happens on purpose. It just happens.”

“Always the skeptic,” Marsha sighed. “All right, even if that’s true, stop and think about it. Ryan was in a no-win situation. I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing that he was probably afraid of losing you by revealing his condition, and now he fears he has lost you by keeping silent.”

It always irritated Sara when her big sister made perfect sense. “I see your point. But who is to say I would have stopped seeing him if he had told me about his epilepsy?”

Marsha fixed her with a hard stare. “Would you have broken it off with him?”

Sara rubbed her eyes as they began to sting. “Maybe. Probably not. Possibly. Well, maybe……But that was before.”

“Before what?” 

Sara looked at her coffee mug as her eyes filled with tears. “That was before I fell in love with him.”

Marsha did not want to be too harsh, but she needed to be firm. “If you want your relationship to continue, two things have to happen. You have to forgive Ryan, and you have to tell him about what you’ve gone through. Whether you choose to do that or not is up to you. I want you to be happy – so I’m hoping you’ll do what we both know is right.”

That afternoon, Ryan called again, and Sara reluctantly answered. They spoke briefly and agreed to meet for coffee the next day. The short conversation was polite, with neither one giving any indication of what they were thinking. But after she hung up, Sara began to dread seeing him face to face. She still felt offended, sad, and guilty all at the same time. Even worse, she was not sure what his reaction would be when she told him about her secret. Overwhelmed with uncertainty, she was shaken by how badly it hurt to even consider that she might lose him.

***

It had been raining all day, and the coffee shop was less than half full. Ryan arrived first, selected a table in the corner, and went ahead and ordered for both of them. When Sara walked through the door, he smiled and motioned to her.

Not knowing what to expect, she made her way over to him, but before she could take off her jacket, he stood up and hugged her. Still unsure of how she was feeling, she did not hug him in return, a disappointing fact he could not miss.

They sat down side by side, and for a few moments, an awkward silence enveloped them. Finally, Ryan said, “Thank you for agreeing to meet me here.”

“You don’t need to thank me.”

Hoping she would say more, he waited several seconds, but she was not forthcoming. Since it was left to him to get the conversation started, he asked her a simple question. “Are you upset with me because I had a seizure in public? Did it make you angry? Were you embarrassed?”

Sara realized he did not understand her reaction at all. “No! Absolutely not. You had no control over that. What I’m upset about is that you kept your epilepsy a secret from me.”

Ryan knew she had every right to feel the way she did. He had been agonizing for some time about how to explain his condition to her, but he kept putting it off. Things were going so well between them that, eventually, he became frightened that he would lose her. Certain she was about to break up with him, all he could manage to get out was, “I am so sorry.”

Less than impressed with his response, Sara still didn’t want to let her emotions get the better of her, so she tried to remain calm. “When were you going to tell me?”

Believing he had made a terrible mistake that had ruined everything, he replied in a voice aching with regret, “I was waiting until I was convinced that you loved me enough to stay together.”

Despite her best efforts, Sara was unable to hide her irritation. “You couldn’t tell I loved you that much?”

“I’ve never been in a serious relationship before, so I wasn’t sure how you would react. In the past, my epilepsy always became an issue – and that would immediately bring everything to an end.”

“So, seeing you have a seizure made them reject you?”

Sara’s innocence was remarkable, so he tried to spell it out for her. “That was hardly the case. You are the only woman I’ve dated who has ever seen me have one. All the others left when I told them I have seizures.”

His answer surprised her, but now she understood why he had not opened up to her. However, it was difficult for Sara to believe someone would actually reject him based on a conversation. She had witnessed his seizure firsthand, and in her heart, she knew it hadn’t changed her feelings for him. But it still aggravated her that he automatically assumed she would be like all the others. Sara believed he should have told her about his condition instead of keeping it a secret – even though that belief was tempered by the knowledge that she had made the same decision.

At this point, she didn’t want to make him any more uncomfortable, but she was curious about his diagnosis. With some hesitation, she said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask some questions.”

Figuring the damage was done, Ryan had no desire to keep hiding the truth. “Go ahead.”  

“Have you had seizures all your life?”

Ryan nodded. “Yes. When I was a child, I had three or four a day. But as I grew older, I had them less frequently. Now I have several each week…… But that is still a hundred or so a year.”

“Are they always like the one you had the other day?”

“More or less. Once in a while, one will last a bit longer. I never know.”

“Do you have any kind of warning when you’re about to have one?”

“No, not really. There is something, it’s a strangeness that’s impossible to describe, but it’s right before it occurs. There is no time to react at all. For instance, if I’m standing, there is no time to sit or lay down. One second I’m stepping off an elevator, and when I come to, I’m on the floor looking up at you.”

Sara was now beginning to appreciate what he was living with.

After a pause, Ryan said, “I wanted to tell you, but the deeper I fell in love with you, the more difficult it became to reveal my disorder. The problem was, I had never really cared before what anyone thought about my epilepsy. If they couldn’t handle it, that was their problem – not mine. Being rejected hurt, but there was nothing I could do about it. This is all I’ve ever known. It’s normal for me. But then you came along, and how you would react became incredibly important to me.”

He glanced around the coffee shop and then said softly, “It’s not easy knowing that it could happen at any moment. I try not to worry about it too much, but I can’t pretend that it’s not part of who I am, even though that’s what I tried to do with you. The thing is, I was convinced you would stop seeing the real me, and you would suddenly think of me as a guy who has seizures instead of a complete person.”

Sara found his lack of faith in her irritating. “That’s not giving me much credit.”

“You’re right. But I wasn’t focused on you. I was being selfish and only thinking of myself. I’m sorry, but you cannot possibly understand what it’s like to be totally vulnerable. During a seizure, I have a total loss of control. My awareness is gone. I am literally at the mercy of others. And when it’s over, I’m completely disoriented.”

Sara responded in an even tone of voice, “I do understand what you are saying, but you are wrong to claim that I’ve never experienced a loss of control and felt vulnerable. There are all kinds of challenges. A person could be dealing with something serious, and no one would be aware of it. Just like I had no idea you had a health issue.”

He willingly agreed. “That is true.”

Sara knew the moment had finally arrived to divulge her secret. Fighting against three days of growing anxiety, she took a breath before saying, “In fact, I’ve spent a good part of my life dealing with a particular challenge myself.”

Ryan set his coffee down and looked at her in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

Despite her desire to share her story, Sara was surprised by how painful it was to open up to the man she still loved. Summoning as much courage as she could, she broke the news delicately. “I was hurt that you didn’t tell me that you had epilepsy, but those feelings were mixed with my own guilt for not being forthcoming with you. It seems we have both been afraid to be honest with each other.”

There was a pause as Ryan waited to hear her explanation. Sara slowly ran her fingers around the rim of her cup, and then without emotion, she said, “I have had cancer.”

She watched as complete shock swept across Ryan’s face. A flurry of questions began to race through his mind as he tried to make sense of what he had heard. But before he could say a word, Sara continued.

“I was first diagnosed with lymphoma when I was eleven. It’s actually rare to get it so young. I had chemotherapy followed by radiation. I was extremely sick for about twelve months, and then I began to get better. After that, I was cancer-free for six years, but when I was a freshman, it came back. It was the same type. I had another round of treatments, and now I’ve been cancer-free for almost five years.”

Ryan was stunned by her revelation. “My God, I had no idea.”

With mild sarcasm, Sara said, “But wait. It gets even better.”

Ryan held his breath, anxious about what he would hear next.

“The treatments damaged my heart. I have to be careful, and I’m monitored frequently. My doctors would not be happy with me for drinking this cup of coffee.” Sara paused to make sure she could tell him the worst part without any tears. “But for me, the most disturbing side effect is that I can’t have children.” Not wanting to see his reaction, she turned away.

Ryan sat quietly for a few seconds as he thought about everything she had told him. It quickly dawned on him that he was experiencing what Sara had gone through when she found out he had a brain disorder. He now realized what it was like to have someone you love keep something so important from you.

Slowly, Sara turned back to Ryan and said, “Please believe me when I say that I do know what it’s like to be vulnerable. I know what it’s like to be uncertain about the future, and I know what it’s like to have a secret that you fear will change the way another person feels about you.”

Having made her admission, she now wanted to clarify her situation. “Like you, I try not to let my health issues control me, but it is a constant concern that my cancer will come back. But I don’t let that keep me from living my life. A life I hope I can still share with you.”

Ryan’s face lit up in disbelief. In an instant, everything had changed. “Do you mean it?! You forgive me?!”

Sara took his hand. “Only if you agree to do the same. We both need to forgive each other.”

“Absolutely! I forgive you! It doesn’t even need to be said. I’m just sorry that you’ve had difficulty too.”

“I would say difficult is a good word to describe it.”

“So can we please move forward from here?” He asked eagerly.

“I’m willing if you are.”

But just as quickly, Ryan’s smile disappeared and was replaced by an expression of grave concern. “Are you sure you deal with the fact that I could have a seizure five minutes from now?”

Sara sighed. “Well, it works both ways. Next month I have another cancer checkup, and although I’m fine right now, there is always the chance that the test results might come back positive. Would you be able to deal with that?”

“Of course, I would.” Ryan studied her face and then spoke the most important words of his life. “Sara, if you are willing to take a chance on us, I promise that I will never hide anything from you again. I will always be honest about everything. No matter what, I will tell you the truth. But I need you to make me the same promise.”

As tears filled her eyes, Sara thought about how lucky she was to have found a man who was not only willing to forgive her but who loved her completely. With her voice breaking, she answered, “I promise. With all my heart, I promise.”

And from that moment on, it was a sacred vow they faithfully honored for the rest of their lives.

***

The party celebrating Ryan and Sara’s 50th wedding anniversary was a joyous occasion. Family and friends gathered to congratulate them and to wish them well. There was incredible food, thoughtful gifts, and the most ornately decorated cake Sara had ever seen.

But on the day of their wedding in 1969, it was almost impossible to predict that five decades later people would be acknowledging the lasting love between a man and a woman whose futures had seemed so uncertain.

As Marsha watched the adorable couple, who were more than slightly embarrassed by all of the attention, she couldn’t help but think back to the morning when she and her sister had discussed the future after learning of Ryan’s diagnosis.

Today was the glorious result of the absolute best decision Sara ever made.

In the beginning, Marsha was the only one who believed they should be together. Sara’s friends all liked Ryan, but they thought marrying him was a tremendous mistake. They assumed that because of his epilepsy, she would spend her life taking care of him, but Marsha realized they were wrong. She knew they were going to share their lives taking care of each other. And that is exactly what they did.

Sara remained by her husband’s side, assisting him through hundreds and hundreds of seizures, always knowing without a doubt that he was her perfect mate. And Ryan had stood by his wife as she endured two bone marrow transplants and a seemingly endless series of other cancer treatments, never doubting that he had found the woman of his dreams.

As husband and wife, they were the very embodiment of the marital vow, in sickness and in health. And through it all, they held each other and comforted each other, providing the emotional and physical support that allowed them to continue living life to the fullest.

Together they had faced challenges that many others are spared. They had lived with dignity and grace, never backing down or allowing their circumstances to overwhelm them. And they never faltered in their total commitment to each other.

While others saw two individuals diagnosed with cancer and epilepsy, Sara and Ryan only saw a partner who loved them unconditionally just the way they were.

What more can a person ask for?