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Chapter 8

THE STORY ends there, so I close the notebook, remove my glasses and wipe my eyes. I look at her now that I have finished, but she does not look back. Instead she is staring out of the window at the courtyard, where friends and family meet.
I read to her this morning, as I do every morning, because it is something I must do. Not for duty—although I suppose a case could be made for this—but for another, more romantic reason. I wish I could explain it more fully right now, but it's still early, and talking about romance isn't really possible before lunch any more,  at least not for me. Besides, I have no idea how it's going to turn out, and to be honest; I'd rather not get my hopes up.
We spend every day together now, but our nights are spent alone. The doctors tell me that I'm not allowed to see her after dark. I understand the reasons, and though I agree with them completely I sometimes break the rules. Late at night when my mood is right, I will sneak from my room and go to hers and watch her while she sleeps. Of this she knows nothing. I'll come in and see her breathe and know that, had it not been for her, I would never have married.
And when I look at her face, a face I know better than my own, I know that I have meant as much to her. And that means more to me than I could ever hope to explain.
Sometimes, when I am standing there, I think about how lucky I am to have been married to her for almost forty-nine years. Next month it will be that long. She heard me snore for the first forty-five, but since then we have slept in separate rooms. I do not sleep well without her. I toss and turn and yearn for her warmth and lie there most of the night, eyes open wide, watching the shadows dance across the ceilings like tumbleweeds rolling across the desert. I sleep two hours if I am lucky, and still I wake before dawn.
I shuffle towards her and sit in the chair beside her bed. My back aches when I sit. I must get a new cushion for this chair, I remind myself for the hundredth time. I reach for her hand and take it, bony and fragile. It feels nice. She responds with a twitch, and gradually her thumb begins to rub my finger softly. I do not speak until she does; this I have learned. Most days I sit in silence until the sun goes down.
Minutes pass before she finally turns to me. She is crying. I smile and release her hand, then reach in my pocket. I take out a handkerchief and wipe at her tears. She looks at me as I do so, and I wonder what she is thinking.
"That was a beautiful story."
A light rain begins to fall. Little drops tap gently on the window. I take her hand again. It is going to be a good day, a very good day. A magical day. I smile, I can't help it.
"Yes, it is," I tell her.
"Did you write it?" she asks, her voice like a whisper.
"Yes," I answer.
She turns towards the nightstand. Her medicine is in a little cup.  Mine too. Little pills, colours like a rainbow so we won't forget to take them. They bring mine here to her room now, even though they're not supposed to.
"I've heard it before, haven't I?"
"Yes," I say again, just as I do every time. I have learned to be patient.
She studies my face. Her eyes are as green as ocean waves.
"It makes me feel less afraid," she says.
"I know." I nod, rocking my head softly.
She turns away, and I wait some more. She releases my hand and reaches for her water glass. She takes a sip.
"Is it a true story?" She sits up a little in her bed and takes another drink. Her body is still strong. "I mean, did you know these people?"
"Yes," I say again. I could say more, but usually I don't. She is still beautiful.
She asks the obvious. "Well, which one did she finally marry?"
I answer, "The one who was right for her."
"Which one was that?"
I smile. "You'll know," I say quietly, "by the end of the day. You'll know."
She does not question me further. Instead she begins to fidget. She is thinking of a way to ask me another question, though she isn't sure how to do it.
A bird starts to sing outside the window and we both turn our heads. We sit quietly for a while, enjoying something beautiful together. Then it is lost, and she sighs. "I have to ask you something else," she says.
"Whatever it is, I'll try to answer."
"It's hard, though."
She does not look at me and I cannot see her eyes. This is how she hides her thoughts. Some things never change.
"Take your time," I say. I know what she will ask.
Finally she turns to me and looks into my eyes. She offers a gentle smile, the kind you share with a child, not a lover.
"I don't want to hurt your feelings because you've been so nice to me, but..."
I wait. Her words will hurt me. They will tear a piece from my heart and leave a scar.
"Who are you?"
 
    WE HAVE LIVED at Creekside Extended Care Facility for three years now. It was her decision to come here, partly because it was near our home, but also because she thought it would be easier for me. We boarded up our home because neither of us could bear to sell it, signed some papers, and received a place to live and die in exchange for some of the freedom for which we had worked a lifetime.
She was right to do this, of course. There is no way I could have made it alone, for sickness has come to us, both of us. We are in the final minutes in the day of our lives, and the clock is ticking. Loudly. I wonder if I am the only one who can hear it.

A throbbing pain courses through my fingers, and it reminds me that we have not held hands with fingers interlocked since we moved here. I am sad about this, but it is my fault, not hers. It is arthritis in the worst form, rheumatoid and advanced. My hands are misshapen and grotesque now, and they throb through most of my waking hours. But every day I take her hands despite the pain, and I do my best to hold them because that is what she wants me to do.
Although the Bible says man can live to be a hundred and twenty, I don't want to, and I don't think my body would make it even if I did. It is falling apart, steady erosion on the inside and at the joints. My kidneys are beginning to fail and my heart rate is decreasing every month. Worse, I have cancer again, this time of the prostate. This is my third bout with the unseen enemy, and it will take me eventually, though not till I say it is time. The doctors are worried about me, but I am not. I have no time for worry in this twilight of my life.
Of our five children, four are still living, and though it is hard for them to visit, they come often, and for this I am thankful. But even when they aren't here, they come alive in my mind every day, each of them, and they bring to mind the smiles and tears that come with raising a family. A dozen pictures line the walls of my room. They are my heritage, my contribution to the world. I am very proud. Sometimes I wonder what my wife thinks of them as she dreams, or if she thinks of them at all, or if she even dreams. There is so much about her I don't understand any more.
"My name," I say, "is Duke." I have always been a John Wayne fan.
"Duke," she whispers to herself, "Duke." She thinks for a moment, her forehead wrinkled, her eyes serious.
"Yes," I say, "I'm here for you." And always will be, I think to myself.
She flushes with my answer. Her eyes become wet and red, and tears begin to fall. My heart aches for her, and I wish for the thousandth time that there was something I could do.
She says, "I'm sorry. I don't understand anything that's happening to me right now. Even you. When I listen to you talk I feel like I should know you, but I don't. I don't even know my name." She wipes at her tears and says, "Help me, Duke, help me remember who I am. Or at least, who I was. I feel so lost."
I answer from my heart, but I lie to her about her name. As I have about my own. There is a reason for this.
"You are Hannah, a lover of life, a strength to those who shared in your friendships. You are a dream, a creator of happiness, an artist who has touched a thousand souls. You've led a full life and wanted for nothing, because your needs are spiritual and you have only to look inside you. You are kind and loyal, and you are able to see beauty where others do not. You are a teacher of wonderful lessons, a dreamer of better things."
She does not respond. 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. 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. 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 neighbour'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 cheques, 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 saw 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 have ever spent.
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...”
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 tears started to fall. 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.
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.
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 . . ."
Everyone was sorry. Our children were brokenhearted, our 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 neighbours. 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, 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 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 afterwards. 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 and found another, this one 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 luckier 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.
 
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.
They went on, this correspondence of life and love, and I read dozens more, some painful, most heart-warming. 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 to 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 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 into 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 when I looked at them, I saw you from so long-ago, the day we said goodbye. 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 you described it to me only once, I remember marvelling 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. 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 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 could 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.
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 and the last remnants of the day were fading. The sky was slowly changing colour, and as I watched the sun go down I remember thinking about that brief, flickering moment when day suddenly turns into night. Dusk, I realized, 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? 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. The birds, the geese, float on the cool water, which reflects bits and pieces of their colours and makes 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?"
"My wife is alive in my heart. And she always will be," I answer.
"You still love her, don't you?"
"Of course. But I love many things. I love to sit here with you. I love to watch the osprey swoop towards the creek and find its dinner. I love to share the beauty of this place with someone I care about."
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 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 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. Deep breaths, relaxed breaths, and there is a moment when she dozes off, like those comfortable with one another often do. When she wakes, a miracle: "Do you see that bird?" She points to it, and I strain my eyes. It is a wonder I can see it, but I can because the sun is bright.
"Caspian stern," I say softly, and we devote our attention to it as it glides over Brices Creek. And, like an old habit rediscovered, when I lower my arm, I put my hand on her knee and she doesn't make me move it.
 
SHE IS RIGHT about my evasiveness. On days like these, when only her memory is gone, I am vague in my answers because I've hurt my wife unintentionally with careless slips of my tongue many times these past few years, and I am determined not to let it happen again. So I limit myself and answer only what is asked, to limit the pain. There are days she never learns of her children or that we are married. I am sorry for this, but I will not change.
Does this make me dishonest? Perhaps, but I have seen her crushed by the waterfall of information that is her life. Could I look myself in the mirror without red eyes and quivering jaw and know I have forgotten all that was important to me? I could not and neither can she, for when this odyssey began, that is how I began. Her life, her marriage, her children. Her friends and her work.
The days were hard on both of us. I was an encyclopedia, an object without feeling, of the whos, whats and wheres in her life, when in reality it is the whys, the things I did not know and could not answer, that make it all worth while. She would stare at pictures of forgotten offspring, hold paintbrushes that inspired nothing, and read love letters that brought back no joy. She would weaken over the hours, growing paler, becoming bitter and ending the day worse than when it began. Our days were lost and so was she.
So I changed. I learned what is obvious to a child. That life is simply a collection of little lives, each lived one day at a time. That each day should be spent finding beauty in flowers and poetry and talking to animals. That a day spent with dreaming and sunsets and refreshing breezes cannot be bettered. But most of all, I learned that life is for sitting on benches next to ancient creeks with my hand on her knee and sometimes, on good days, for falling in love.
 
"WHAT ARE you thinking?" she asks.
It is now dusk. We have left our bench and are shuffling along lighted paths that wind their way around this complex. She is holding my arm and I am her escort. It is her idea to do this. Perhaps she is charmed by me. Perhaps she wants to keep me from falling. Either way, I am smiling to myself.
"I'm thinking about you."
She makes no response to this except to squeeze my arm, and I can tell she likes what I said. Our life together has enabled me to see the clues, even if she does not know them herself. I go on: "I know you can't remember who you are, but I can, and I find that when I look at you it makes me feel good."
 She taps my arm and smiles. "You're a kind man with a loving heart. I hope I enjoyed you as much before as I do now."
I think about this as we walk in silence, holding each other, past the rooms, past the courtyard. We come to the garden, mainly wild flo............

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