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The Notebook

The Notebook

The Notebook/14

s happy and sad, wonderful and heart-wrenching. My conflicting emotions keep me silent for many hours. I did not read to anyone this evening; I could not, for poetic introspection would bring me to tears. In time, the hallways become quiet except for the footfalls of evening soldiers. At eleven o'clock I hear the familiar sounds that for some reason I expected. The footsteps I know so well.

Dr. Barnwell peeks in.

"I noticed your light was on. Do you mind if I come in?"

"No," I say, shaking my head.

He comes in and looks around the room before taking a seat a few feet from me.

"I hear," he says, "you had a good day with Allie." He smiles. He is intrigued by us and the relationship we have. I do not know if his interest is entirely professional.

"I suppose so."

He cocks his head at my answer and looks at me. "You okay, Noah? You look a little down."

"I'm fine. Just a little tired."

"How was Allie today?"

"She was okay. We talked for almost four hours." "Four hours? Noah, that's . . . incredible."

I can only nod. He goes on, shaking his head. "I've never seen anything like it, or even heard about it. I guess that's what love is all about. You two were meant for each other. She must love you very much. You know that, don't you?"

"I know," I say, but I can't say anything more. "What's really bothering you, Noah? Did Allie say or do something that hurt your feelings?"

"No. She was wonderful, actually. It's just that right now I feel . . . alone."

"Alone?"

"Yes."

"Nobody's alone."

"I'm alone," I say as I look at my watch and think of his family sleeping in a quiet house, the place he should be, "and so are you."

The next few days passed without significance. Allie was unable to recognize me at any time, and I admit my attention waned now and then, for most of my thoughts were of the day we had just spent. Though the end always comes too soon, there was nothing lost that day, only gained, and I was happy to have received this blessing once again.

By the following week, my life had pretty much returned to normal. Or at least as normal as my life can be. Reading to Allie, reading to others, wandering the halls. Lying awake at night and sitting by my heater in the morning. I find a strange comfort in the predictability of my life.

On a cool, foggy morning eight days after she and I had spent our day together, I woke early, as is my custom, and puttered around my desk, alternately looking at photographs and reading letters written many years before. At least I tried to. I couldn't concentrate too well because I had a headache, so I put them aside and went to sit in my chair by the window to watch the sun come up. Allie would be awake in a couple of hours, I knew, and I wanted to be refreshed, for reading all day would only make my head hurt more.

I closed my eyes for a few minutes while my head alternately pounded and subsided. Then, opening them, I watched my old friend, the creek, roll by my window. Unlike Allie, I had been given a room where I could see it, and it has never failed to inspire me. It is a contradiction--this creek--a hundred thousand years old but renewed with each rainfall. I talked to it that morning, whispered so it could hear, "You are blessed, my friend, and I am blessed, and together we meet the coming days." The ripples and waves circled and twisted in agreement, the pale glow of morning light reflecting the world we share. The creek and I. Flowing, ebbing, receding. It is life, I think, to watch the water. A man can learn so many things.

It happened as I sat in the chair, just as the sun first peeked over the horizon. My hand, I noticed, started to tingle, something it had never done before. I started to lift it, but I was forced to stop when my head pounded again, this time hard, almost as if I had been hit in the head with a hammer. I closed my eyes, then squeezed my lids tight. My hand stopped tingling and began to go numb, quickly, as if my nerves were suddenly severed somewhere on my lower arm. My wrist locked as a shooting pain rocked my head and seemed to flow down my neck and into every cell of my body, like a tidal wave, crushing and wasting everything in its path.

I lost my sight, and I heard what sounded like a train roaring inches from my head, and I knew that I was having a stroke. The pain coursed through my body like a lightning bolt, and in my last remaining moments of consciousness, I pictured Allie, lying in her bed, waiting for the story I would never read, lost and confused, completely and totally unable to help herself. Just like me.

And as my eyes closed for the final time, I thought to myself, Oh God, what have I done?

I was unconscious on and off for days, and in those moments when I was awake, I found myself hooked to machines, tubes up my nose and down my throat and two bags of fluid hanging near the bed. I could hear the faint hum of machines, droning on and off, sometimes making sounds I could not recognize. One machine, beeping with my heart rate, was strangely soothing, and I found myself lulled to never-land time and time again.

The doctors were worried. I could see the concern in their faces through squinted eyes as they scanned the charts and adjusted the machines. They whispered their thoughts, thinking I couldn't hear. "Strokes could be serious," they'd say, "especially for someone his age, and the consequences could be severe." Grim faces would prelude their predictions--"loss of speech, loss of movement, paralysis." Another chart notation, another beep of a strange machine, and they'd leave, never knowing I heard every word. I tried not to think of these things afterward but instead concentrated on Allie, bringing a picture of her to my mind whenever I could. I did my best to bring her life into mine, to make us one again. I tried to feel her touch, hear her voice, see her face, and when I did tears would fill my eyes because I didn't know if I would be able to hold her again, to whisper to her, to spend the day with her talking and reading and walking. This was not how I'd imagined, or hoped, it would end. I'd always assumed I would go last. This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

I drifted in and out of consciousness for days until another foggy morning when my promise to Allie spurred my body once again. I opened my eyes and saw a room full of flowers, and their scent motivated me further. I looked for the buzzer, struggled to press it, and a nurse arrived thirty seconds later, followed closely by Dr. Barnwell, who smiled almost immediately.

"I'm thirsty," I said with a raspy voice, and Dr. Barnwell smiled broadly.

"Welcome back," he said, "I knew you'd make it."

Two weeks later I am able to leave the hospital, though I am only half a man now. If I were a Cadillac, I would drive in circles, one wheel turning, for the right side of my body is weaker than the left. This, they tell me, is good news, for the paralysis could have been total. Sometimes, it seems, I am surrounded by optimists.

The bad news is that my hands prevent me from using either cane or wheelchair, so I must now march to my own unique cadence to keep upright. Not left-right-left as was common in my youth, or even the shuffle-shuffle of late, but rather slow-shuffle, slide-the-right, slow-shuffle. I am an epic adventure now when I travel the halls. It is slow going even for me, this coming from a man who could barely outpace a turtle two weeks ago.

It is late when I return, and when I reach my room, I know I will not sleep. I breathe deeply and smell the springtime fragrances that filter through my room. The window has been left open, and there is a slight chill in the air. I find that I am invigorated by the change in temperature. Evelyn, one of the many nurses here who is one-third my age, helps me to the chair that sits by the window and begins to close it. I stop her, and though her eyebrows rise, she accepts my decision. I hear a drawer open, and a moment later a sweater is draped over my shoulders. She adjusts it as if I were a child, and when she is finished, she puts her hand on my shoulder and pats it gently. She says nothing as she does this, and by her silence I know that she is staring out the window. She does not move for a long time, and I wonder what she is thinking, but I do not ask. Eventually I hear her sigh. She turns to leave, and as she does, she stops, leans forward, and then kisses me on the cheek, tenderly, the way my granddaughter does. I am surprised by this, and she says quietly, "It's good to have you back. Allie's missed you and so have the rest of us. We were all praying for you because it's just not the same around here when you're gone." She smiles at me and touches my face before she leaves. I say nothing. Later I hear her walk by again, pushing a cart, talking to another nurse, their voices hushed.

The stars are out tonight, and the world is glowing an eerie blue. The crickets are singing, and their sound drowns out everything else. As I sit, I wonder if anyone outside can see me, this prisoner of flesh. I search the trees, the courtyard, the benches near the geese, looking for signs of life, but there is nothing. Even the creek is still. In the darkness it looks like empty space, and I find that I'm drawn to its mystery. I watch for hours, and as I do, I see the reflection of clouds as they begin to bounce off the water. A storm is coming, and in time the sky will turn silver, like dusk again.

Lightning cuts the wild sky, and I feel my mind drift back. Who are we, Allie and I? Are we ancient ivy on a cypress tree, tendrils and branches intertwined so closely that we would both die if we were forced apart? I don't know. Another bolt and the table beside me is lit enough to see a picture of Allie, the best one I have. I had it framed years ago in the hope that the glass would make it last forever. I reach for it and hold it inches from my face. I stare at it for a long time, I can't help it. She was forty-one when it was taken, and she had never been more beautiful. There are so many things I want to ask her, but I know the picture won't answer, so I put it aside.

Tonight, with Allie down the hall, I am alone. I will always be alone. This I thought as I lay in the hospital. This I'm sure of as I look out the window and watch the storm clouds appear. Despite myself I am saddened by our plight, for I realize that the last day we were together I never kissed her lips. Perhaps I never will again. It is impossible to tell with this disease. Why do I think such things?

I finally stand and walk to my desk and turn on the lamp. This takes more effort than I think it will, and I am strained, so I do not return to the window seat. I sit down and spend a few minutes looking at the pictures that sit on my desk. Family pictures, pictures of children and vacations. Pictures of Allie and me. I think back to the times we shared together, alone or with family, and once again I realize how ancient I am.

I open a drawer and find the flowers I'd once given her long ago, old and faded and tied together with ribbon. They, like me, are dry and brittle and difficult to handle without breaking. But she saved them. "I don't understand what you want with them," I would say, but she would just ignore me. And sometimes in the evenings I would see her holding them, almost reverently, as if they offered the secret of life itself. Women.

Since this seems to be a night of memories, I look for and find my wedding ring. It is in the top drawer, wrapped in tissue. I cannot wear it anymore because my knuckles are swollen and my fingers lack for blood. I unwrap the tissue and find it unchanged. It is powerful, a symbol, a circle, and I know, I know, there could never have been another. I knew it then, and I know it now. And in that moment I whisper aloud, "I am still yours, Allie, my queen, my timeless beauty. You are, and always have been, the best thing in my life."

I wonder if she hears me when I say this, and I wait for a sign. But there is nothing.

It is eleven-thirty and I look for the letter she wrote me, the one I read when the mood strikes me. I find it where I last left it. I turn it over a couple of times before I open it, and when I do my hands begin to tremble. Finally I read:

Dear Noah,

I write this letter by candlelight as you lie sleeping in the bedroom we have shared since the day we were married. And though I can't hear the soft sounds of your slumber, I know you are there, and soon I will be lying next to you again as I always have. And I will feel your warmth and your comfort, and your breaths will slowly guide me to the place where I dream of you and the wonderful man you are.

I see the flame beside me and it reminds me of another fire from decades ago, with me in your soft clothes and you in your jeans. I knew then we would always be together, even though I wavered the following day. My heart had been captured, roped by a southern poet, and I knew inside that it had always been yours. Who was I to question a love that rode on shooting stars and roared like crashing waves? For that is what it was between us then and that is what it is today.

I remember coming back to you the next day, the day my mother visited. I was so scared, more scared than I had ever been because I was sure you would never forgive me for leaving you. I was shaking as I got out of the car, but you took it all away with your smile and the way you held your hand out to me. "How 'bout some coffee," was all you said. And you never brought it up again. In all our years together.

Nor did you question me when I would leave and walk alone the next few days. And when I came in with tears in my eyes, you always knew whether I needed you to hold me or to just let me be. I don't know how you knew, but you did, and you made it easier for me. Later when we went to the small chapel and traded our rings and made our vows, I looked in your eyes and knew I had made the right decision. But more than that, I knew I was foolish for ever

considering someone else. I have never wavered since.

We had a wonderful life together, and I think about it a lot now. I close my eyes sometimes and see you with speckles of gray in your hair, sitting on the porch and playing your guitar while little ones play and clap to the music you create. Your clothes are stained from hours of work and you are tired, and though I offer you time to relax, you smile and say, "That's what I am doing now." I find your love for our children very sensual and exciting. "You're a better father than you know," I tell you later, after the children are sleeping. Soon after, we peel off our clothes and kiss each other and almost lose ourselves before we are able to slip between the flannel sheets.

I love you for many things, especially your passions, for they have always been those things which are most beautiful in life. Love and poetry and fatherhood and friendship and beauty and nature. And I am glad you have taught the children these things, for I know their lives are better for it. They tell me how special you are to them, and every time they do, it makes me feel like the luckiest woman alive.

You have taught me as well, and inspired me, and supported me in my painting, and you will never know how much it has meant to me. My works hang in museums and private collections

now, and though there have been times when I was frazzled and distracted because of shows and critics, you were always there with kind words, encouraging me. You understood my need for my own studio, my own space, and saw beyond the paint on my clothes and in my hair and sometimes on the furniture. I know it was not easy. It takes a man to do that, Noah, to live with something like that. And you have. For forty-five years now. Wonderful years.

You are my best friend as well as my lover, and I do not know which side of you I enjoy the most. I treasure each side, just as I have treasured our life together. You have something inside you, Noah, something beautiful and strong. Kindness, that's what I see when I look at you now, that's what everyone sees. Kindness. You are the most forgiving and peaceful man I know. God is with you, He must be, for you are the closest thing to an angel that I've ever met.

I know you thought me crazy for making us write our story before we finally leave our home, but I have my reasons and I thank you for your patience. And though you asked, I never told you why, but now I think it is time you knew.

We have lived a lifetime most couples never know, and yet, when I look at you, I am frightened by the knowledge that all this will be ending soon. For we both know my prognosis and

what it will mean to us. I see your tears and I worry more about you than I do about me, because I fear the pain I know you will go through. There are no words to express my sorrow for this, and I am at a loss for words.

So I love you so deeply, so incredibly much, that I will find a way to come back to you despite my disease, I promise you that. And this is where the story comes in. When I am lost and lonely, read this story--just as you told it to the children--and know that in some way, I will realize it's about us. And perhaps, just perhaps, we will find a way to be together again.

Please don't be angry with me on days I do not remember you, and we both know they will come. Know that I love you, that I always will, and that no matter what happens, know I have led the greatest life possible. My life with you.

And if you save this letter to read again, then believe what I am writing for you now. Noah, wherever you are and whenever this is, I love you. I love you now as I write this, and I love you now as you read this. And I am so sorry if I am not able to tell you. I love you deeply, my husband. You are, and always have been, my dream.

Allie

When I am finished with the letter, I put it aside. I rise from my desk and find my slippers. They are near my bed, and I must sit to put them on. Then, standing, I cross the room and open my door. I peek down the hall and see Janice seated at the main desk. At least I think it is Janice. I must pass this desk to get to Allie's room, but at this hour I am not supposed to leave my room, and Janice has never been one to bend the rules. Her husband is a lawyer.

I wait to see if she will leave, but she does not seem to be moving, and I grow impatient. I finally exit my room anyway, slow-shuffle, slide-the-right, slow-shuffle. It takes aeons to close the distance, but for some reason she does not see me approaching. I am a silent panther creeping through the jungle, I am as invisible as baby pigeons.

In the end I am discovered, but I am not surprised. I stand before her.

"Noah," she says, "what are you doing?"

"I'm taking a walk," I say. "I can't sleep."

"You know you're not supposed to do this."

"I know."

I don't move, though. I am determined.

"You're not really going for a walk, are you? You're going to see Allie."

"Yes," I answer.

"Noah, you know what happened the last time you saw her at night."

"I remember."

"Then you know you shouldn't be doing this."