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The Notebook

The Notebook

The Notebook/12

Walt Whitman." "Who?"

"A lover of words, a shaper of thoughts."

She does not respond directly. Instead she stares at me for a long while, until our breathing coincides. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Deep breaths. I wonder if she knows I think she's beautiful.

"Would you stay with me a while?" she finally asks.

I smile and nod. She smiles back. She reaches for my hand, takes it gently, and pulls it to her waist. She stares at the hardened knots that deform my fingers and caresses them gently. Her hands are still those of an angel.

"Come," I say as I stand with great effort, "let's go for a walk. The air is crisp and the goslings are waiting. It's beautiful today." I am staring at her as I say these last few words.

She blushes. It makes me feel young again.

She was famous, of course. One of the best southern painters of the twentieth century, some said, and I was, and am, proud of her. Unlike me, who struggled to write even the simplest of verses, my wife could create beauty as easily as the Lord created the earth. Her paintings are in museums around the world, but I have kept only two for myself. The first one she ever gave me and the last one. They hang in my room, and late at night I sit and stare and sometimes cry when I look at them. I don't know why.

And so the years passed. We led our lives, working, painting, raising children, loving each other. I see photos of Christmases, family trips, of graduations and of weddings. I see grandchildren and happy faces. I see photos of us, our hair growing whiter, the lines in our faces deeper. A lifetime that seems so typical, yet uncommon.

We could not foresee the future, but then who can? I do not live now as I expected to. And what did I expect? Retirement. Visits with the grandchildren, perhaps more travel. She always loved to travel. I thought that perhaps I would start a hobby, what I did not know, but possibly shipbuilding. In bottles. Small, detailed, impossible to consider now with my hands. But I am not bitter.

Our lives can't be measured by our final years, of this I am sure, and I guess I should have known what lay ahead in our lives. Looking back, I suppose it seems obvious, but at first I thought her confusion understandable and not unique. She would forget where she placed her keys, but who has not done that? She would forget a neighbor's name, but not someone we knew well or with whom we socialized. Sometimes she would write the wrong year when she made out her checks, but again I dismissed it as simple mistakes that one makes when thinking of other things.

It was not until the more obvious events occurred that I began to suspect the worst. An iron in the freezer, clothes in the dishwasher, books in the oven. Other things, too. But the day I found her in the car three blocks away, crying over the steering wheel because she couldn't find her way home was the first day I was really frightened. And she was frightened, too, for when I tapped on her window, she turned to me and said, "Oh God, what's happening to me? Please help me." A knot twisted in my stomach, but I dared not think the worst.

Six days later the doctor met with her and began a series of tests. I did not understand them then and I do not understand them now, but I suppose it is because I am afraid to know. She spent almost an hour with Dr. Barnwell, and she went back the next day. That day was the longest day I ever spent. I looked through magazines I could not read and played games I did not think about. Finally he called us both into his office and sat us down. She held my arm confidently, but I remember clearly that my own hands were shaking.

"I'm so sorry to have to tell you this," Dr. Barnwell began, "but you seem to be in the early stages of Alzheimer's. . . ."

My mind went blank, and all I could think about was the light that glowed above our heads. The words echoed in my head: the early stages of Alzheimer's . . .

My world spun in circles, and I felt her grip tighten on my arm. She whispered, almost to herself: "Oh, Noah . . . Noah . . ."

And as the tears started to fall, the word came back to me again: . . . Alzheimer's ...

It is a barren disease, as empty and lifeless as a desert. It is a thief of hearts and souls and memories. I did not know what to say to her as she sobbed on my bosom, so I simply held her and rocked her back and forth.

The doctor was grim. He was a good man, and this was hard for him. He was younger than my youngest, and I felt my age in his presence. My mind was confused, my love was shaking, and the only thing I could think was:

No drowning man can know which drop of water his last breath did stop; . . .

A wise poet's words, yet they brought me no comfort. I don't know what they meant or why I thought of them.

We rocked to and fro, and Allie, my dream, my timeless beauty, told me she was sorry. I knew there was nothing to forgive, and I whispered in her ear. "Everything will be fine," I whispered, but inside I was afraid. I was a hollow man with nothing to offer, empty as a junked stovepipe.

I remember only bits and pieces of Dr. Barnwell's continuing explanation.

"It's a degenerative brain disorder affecting memory and personality . . . there is no cure or therapy. . . .

There's no way to tell how fast it will progress . . . it differs from person to person. ...I wish I knew more. . . .

Some days will be better than others. ...It will grow worse with the passage of time. . . . I'm sorry to be the one who has to tell you. . . ."

I'm sorry . . .

I'm sorry . . .

I'm sorry . . .

Everyone was sorry. My children were broken-hearted, my friends were scared for themselves. I don't remember leaving the doctor's office, and I don't remember driving home. My memories of that day are gone, and in this my wife and I are the same.

It has been four years now. Since then we have made the best of it, if that is possible. Allie organized, as was her disposition. She made arrangements to leave the house and move here. She rewrote her will and sealed it. She left specific burial instructions, and they sit in my desk, in the bottom drawer. I have not seen them. And when she was finished, she began to write. Letters to friends and children. Letters to brothers and sisters and cousins. Letters to nieces, nephews, and neighbors. And a letter to me.

I read it sometimes when I am in the mood, and when I do, I am reminded of Allie on cold winter evenings, seated by a roaring fire with a glass of wine at her side, reading the letters I had written to her over the years. She kept them, these letters, and now I keep them, for she made me promise to do so. She said I would know what to do with them. She was right; I find I enjoy reading bits and pieces of them just as she used to. They intrigue me, these letters, for when I sift through them I realize that romance and passion are possible at any age. I see Allie now and know I've never loved her more, but as I read the letters, I come to understand that I have always felt the same way.

I read them last three evenings ago, long after I should have been asleep. It was almost two o'clock when I went to the desk and found the stack of letters, thick and tall and weathered. I untied the ribbon, itself almost half a century old, and found the letters her mother had hidden so long ago and those from afterward. A lifetime of letters, letters professing my love, letters from my heart. I glanced through them with a smile on my face, picking and choosing, and finally opened a letter from our first anniversary.

I read an excerpt:

When I see you now--moving slowly with new life growing inside you--I hope you know how much you mean to me, and how special this year has been. No man is more blessed than me, and I love you with all my heart.

I put it aside, sifted through the stack, and found another, this from a cold evening thirty-nine years ago.

Sitting next to you, while our youngest daughter sang off-key in the school Christmas show, I looked at you and saw a pride that comes only to those who feel deeply in their hearts, and I knew that no man could be more lucky than me.

And after our son died, the one who resembled his mother . . . It was the hardest time we ever went through, and the words still ring true today:

In times of grief and sorrow I will hold you and rock you, and take your grief and make it my own. When you cry, I cry, and when you hurt, I hurt. And together we will try to hold back the floods of tears and despair and make it through the potholed streets of life.

I pause for just a moment, remembering him. He was four years old at the time, just a baby. I have lived twenty times as long as he, but if asked, I would have traded my life for his. It is a terrible thing to outlive your child, a tragedy I wish upon no one.

I do my best to keep the tears away, sift through some more to clear my mind, and find the next from our twentieth anniversary, something much easier to think about:

When I see you, my darling, in the morning before showers or in your studio covered with paint with hair matted and tired eyes, I know that you are the most beautiful woman in the world.

They went on, this correspondence of life and love, and I read dozens more, some painful, most heartwarming. By three o'clock I was tired, but I had reached the bottom of the stack. There was one letter remaining, the last one I wrote her, and by then I knew I had to keep going.

I lifted the seal and removed both pages. I put the second page aside and moved the first page into better light and began to read:

My dearest Allie,

The porch is silent except for the sounds that float from the shadows, and for once I am at a loss for words. It is a strange experience for me, for when I think of you and the life we have shared, there is much to remember. A lifetime of memories. But to put it into words? I do not know if I am able. I am not a poet, and yet a poem is needed to fully express the way I feel about you.

So my mind drifts, and I remember thinking about our life together as I made coffee this morning. Kate was there, and so was Jane, and they both became quiet when I walked in the kitchen. I saw they'd been crying, and without a word, I sat myself beside them at the table and held their hands. And do you know what I saw when I looked at them? I saw you from so long ago, the day we said good-bye. They resemble you and how you were then, beautiful and sensitive and wounded with the hurt that comes when something special is taken away. And for a reason I'm not sure I understand, I was inspired to tell them a story.

I called Jeff and David into the kitchen, for they were here as well, and when the children were ready, I told them about us and how you came back to me so long ago. I told them about our walk, and the crab dinner in the kitchen, and they listened with smiles when they heard about the canoe ride, and sitting in front of the fire with the storm raging outside. I told them about your mother warning us about Lon the next day--they seemed as surprised as we were--and yes, I even told them what happened later that day, after you went back to town.

That part of the story has never left me, even after all this time. Even though I wasn't there, you described it to me only once, and I remember marveling at the strength you showed that day. I still cannot imagine what was going through your mind when you walked into the lobby and saw Lon, or how it must have felt to talk to him. You told me that the two of you left the inn and sat on a bench by the old Methodist church, and that he held your hand, even as you explained that you must stay.

I know you cared for him. And his reaction proves to me he cared for you as well. No, he could not understand losing you, but how could he? Even as you explained that you had always loved me, and that it wouldn't be fair to him, he

did not release your hand. I know he was hurt and angry, and tried for almost an hour to change your mind, but when you stood firm and said, "I can't go back with you, I'm so sorry," he knew that your decision had been made. You said he simply nodded and the two of you sat together for a long time without speaking. I have always wondered what he was thinking as he sat with you, but I'm sure it was the same way I felt only a few hours before. And when he finally walked you to your car, you said he told you that I was a lucky man. He behaved as a gentleman would, and I understood then why your choice was so hard.

I remember that when I finished the story, the room was quiet until Kate finally stood to embrace me. "Oh, Daddy," she said with tears in her eyes, and though I expected to answer their questions, they did not ask any. Instead, they gave me something much more special.

For the next four hours, each of them told me how much we, the two of us, had meant to them growing up. One by one, they told stories about things I had long since forgotten. And by the end, I was crying because I realized how well we had done with raising them. I was so proud of them, and proud of you, and happy about the life we have led. And nothing will ever take that away. Nothing. I only wish you would have been here to enjoy it with me.

After they left, I rocked in silence, thinking back on our life together. You are always here with me when I do so, at least in my heart, and it is impossible for me to remember a time when you were not a part of me. I do not know who I would have become had you never come back to me that day, but I have no doubt that I would have lived and died with regrets that thankfully I'll never know.

I love you, Allie. I am who I am because of you. You are every reason, every hope, and every dream I've ever had, and no matter what happens to us in the future, every day we are together is the greatest day of my life. I will always be yours.

And, my darling, you will always be mine.

Noah

I put the pages aside and remember sitting with Allie on our porch when she read this letter for the first time. It was late afternoon, with red streaks cutting the summer sky, and the last remnants of the day were fading. The sky was slowly changing color, and as I was watching the sun go down, I remember thinking about that brief, flickering moment when day suddenly turns into night.

Dusk, I realized then, is just an illusion, because the sun is either above the horizon or below it. And that means that day and night are linked in a way that few things are; there cannot be one without the other, yet they cannot exist at the same time. How would it feel, I remember wondering, to be always together, yet forever apart?

Looking back, I find it ironic that she chose to read the letter at the exact moment that question popped into my head. It is ironic, of course, because I know the answer now. I know what it's like to be day and night now; always together, forever apart.

There is beauty where we sit this afternoon, Allie and I. This is the pinnacle of my life. They are here at the creek: the birds, the geese, my friends. Their bodies float on the cool water, which reflects bits and pieces of their colors and make them seem larger than they really are. Allie too is taken in by their wonder, and little by little we get to know each other again.

"It's good to talk to you. I find that I miss it, even when it hasn't been that long."

I am sincere and she knows this, but she is still wary. I am a stranger.

"Is this something we do often?" she asks. "Do we sit here and watch the birds a lot? I mean, do we know each other well?"

"Yes and no. I think everyone has secrets, but we have been acquainted for years."

She looks to her hands, then mine. She thinks about this for a moment, her face at such an angle that she looks young again. We do not wear our rings. Again, there is a reason for this. She asks:

"Were you ever married?"

I nod.

"Yes."

"What was she like?"

I tell the truth.

"She was my dream. She made me who I am, and holding her in my arms was more natural to me than my own heartbeat. I think about her all the time. Even now, when I'm sitting here, I think about her. There could never have been another."

She takes this in. I don't know how she feels about this. Finally she speaks softly, her voice angelic, sensual. I wonder if she knows I think these things.

"Is she dead?"

What is death? I wonder, but I do not say this. Instead I answer, "My wife is alive in my heart. And she always will be."

"You still love her, don't you?"

"Of course. But I love many things. I love to sit here with you. I love to share the beauty of this place with someone I care about. I love to watch the osprey swoop toward the creek and find its dinner."

She is quiet for a moment. She looks away so I can't see her face. It has been her habit for years.

"Why are you doing this?" No fear, just curiosity. This is good. I know what she means, but I ask anyway.

"What?"

"Why are you spending the day with me?" I smile.

"I'm here because this is where I'm supposed to be. It's not complicated. Both you and I are enjoying ourselves. Don't dismiss my time with you--it's not wasted. It's what I want. I sit here and we talk and I think to myself, What could be better than what I am doing now?"

She looks me in the eyes, and for a moment, just a moment, her eyes twinkle. A slight smile forms on her lips.

"I like being with you, but if getting me intrigued is what you're after, you've succeeded. I admit I enjoy your company, but I know nothing about you. I don't expect you to tell me your life story, but why are you so mysterious?"

"I read once that women love mysterious strangers."

"See, you haven't really answered the question. You haven't answered most of my questions. You didn't even tell me how the story ended this morning."

I shrug. We sit quietly for a while. Finally I ask: "Is it true?"

"Is what true?"

"That women love mysterious strangers?"

She thinks about this and laughs. Then she answers as I would:

"I think some women do."

"Do you?"

"Now don't go putting me on the spot. I don't know you well enough for that." She is teasing me, and I enjoy it.

We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken us a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking. This is the great paradox.

Time passes, and gradually our breathing begins to coincide just as it did this morning. Deep breaths, relaxed breaths, and there is a moment when she dozes off, like those comfortable with one another often do. I wonder if the young are capable of enjoying this. Finally, when she wakes, a miracle.