«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 dreadful disease, as empty and lifeless as a desert. It is a thief of souls and memories. I did not know what to say to her as she cried, so I simply held her and rocked her back and forth.
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…»
It has been four years now. Since then we have made the best of it, if that is possible. Allie made arrangements to leave the house and move here. She rewrote her will and sealed it. She left specific burial instructions, and they are in my desk. 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 remember Allie on cold winter evenings, sitting by a fireplace 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 them from time to time. 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. It was almost two o’clock when I went to the desk and took out the stack of letters. I untied the string and found the letters her mother had hidden so long ago and those from afterwards. A lifetime of letters, letters expressing 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 a cold evening thirty-nine years ago.
I read an extract:
Sitting next to you, while our youngest daughter sang 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. 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. I moved the first page into better light and began to read:
My dearest Allie,
The porch is silent, 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 how impressed I was 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. 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.