Elaine Sharp, 53, from Sheffield explains how her dark clouds had a furry lining...
It was a black sky, dark, thundering, full of rain. But even the blackest clouds have a silver lining.
Except, in my case, the lining was brown and furry, with big eyes and long lashes…
In fact, my cloud was lined with llamas!
At 34, I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. There’d be surgery, chemo, radiotherapy…
‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ I’d cried to my husband Nigel, now 56.
Scared I’d give up, he’d come up with an idea.
‘You need a distraction between rounds of chemo,’ he said. ‘How about a dog or a cat… Or a holiday?’
‘How about a llama?’ I’d suggested (as you do!).
Since my cancer diagnosis, I’d been thinking a lot – remembering, reminiscing… About Nigel, how we’d met, and about when I was a little girl.
Every summer, my parents used to take me to Blackpool for a week’s holiday. They were happy days of childhood. We’d eat chips on the pier, and I’d spend my pocket money on donkey rides.
But one year, instead of donkeys, there were strange-looking, four-legged animals on the beach, all fuzzy, with long necks and big ears.
‘Llamas,’ my dad explained.
At age 4, I’d never seen such an animal before.
Straightaway, I loved them. They were soft, gentle, with kind faces. And the way they moved had me in stitches!
I’d always dreamed I’d have a llama of my own one day.
‘If you want a llama, you’ll have one,’ Nigel promised.
We did our research, though. Llamas don’t like to be on their own, so we’d need to get a pair.
It’d be hard work…but it’d also be just the distraction I needed.
Luckily, our house had an acre of land out the back – perfect for up to five llamas.
But then I had a dilemma… Llamas or alpacas
They’re closely related, but llamas are about twice as big as alpacas, and have banana-shaped ears.
‘Get one of each,’ Nigel said.
So we did.
Georgie the alpaca and Marty the llama came from a breeder in Oxfordshire.
They saved my life! Taking care of them gave me something to focus on, something to fight for. Even when things got really tough a couple of years later and I needed a hysterectomy, Georgie and Marty kept me going.
But even those weren’t my darkest days.
Some days, life seemed so overwhelming. And so did the fact I might die. All I wanted to do was hide under the duvet.
Except, I couldn’t. Georgie and Marty needed feeding. When I was with them, I felt calm, peaceful.
Animals can do that, and they love you no matter what.
Seeing a doctor about my depression, I slowly started to cope better, and I felt stronger.
And, finally, after nearly three years, the doctor had some good news.
‘You’re cancer-free,’ he said.
Of course, I’d need to be free from the disease for five years before I’d be properly in remission. But, at last, Nigel and I had something we hadn’t had in a long time – a future.
‘I want that future to be filled with you. And more llamas and alpacas!’ I told Nigel.
So we decided to get a couple of females. Both were pregnant when they came to us, so we soon had six llamas and alpacas. And not enough space.
Then, a farm with 42 acres came up for sale next to us. It was a stretch financially, but we remortgaged the house and bought it.
After, although we’d never intended to turn the animals into a business, it just sort of happened.
First, we bred them, and soon we’d 125 llamas and alpacas!
Then we started inviting groups and families over to the farm to meet the animals.
Llamas and alpacas love all the attention!
We opened a visitors’ centre and cafe, then we started running educational days. We called our centre Mayfield Alpaca Farm.
These days, we don’t just have llamas and alpacas. We’ve got horses, pigs, geese, ferrets – you name it!
It’s hard work, but we love it.
Now, 19 years on, I’m in full remission, and coping with the depression.
All of us have dark clouds, but you have to find your silver lining. Mine was llama- and alpaca-coloured. What colour will yours be?