«Of course I do,» she says. «I’ve always loved you, Noah.»
Noah, I hear again. The word echoes in my head. Noah… Noah. She knows, I think to myself, she knows who I am…
She knows… Such a tiny thing, this knowledge, but for me it is a gift from God, and I feel our lifetime together, holding her, loving her, and being with her through the best years of my life.
She murmurs, «Noah… my sweet Noah…»
And I, who could not accept the doctors’ words, have won again, at least for a moment. I give up the pretence of mystery, and I kiss her hand and bring it to my cheek and whisper in her ear, «You are the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.»
«Oh… Noah,» she says with tears in her eyes, «I love you, too.»
IF ONLY IT would end like this, I would be a happy man.
But it won’t. Of this, I’m sure, for soon I begin to see the signs of worry in her face.
«What’s wrong?» I ask, and her answer comes softly.
«I’m so afraid. I’m afraid of forgetting you again. It isn’t fair… I just can’t bear to give this up.» Her voice breaks as she finishes, but I don’t know what to say. I know the evening is coming to an end and there is nothing I can do to stop the inevitable. In this, I am a failure.
I finally tell her, «I’ll never leave you. What we have is forever.»
She knows this is all I can do, for neither of us wants empty promises.
After dinner, I become afraid for I know the bell has tolled this evening. The sun has long since set and the thief is about to come, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. So I stare at her and wait and live a lifetime in these last remaining moments.
The clock ticks.
I take her in my arms and we hold each other.
I feel her tremble and I whisper in her ear.
I tell her for the last time this evening that I love her.
And the thief comes.
It always amazes me how quickly it happens. Even now, after all this time. For as she holds me, she begins to blink rapidly and shake her head. Then, turning towards the comer of the room, she stares for a long time, worried.
No! My mind screams. Not yet! Not now… not when we’re so close! Not tonight! Please! I can’t take it again! It isn’t fair… It isn’t fair…
But once again, it is useless.
«Those people,» she finally says, pointing, «are staring at me. Please make them stop.»
The gnomes. My mouth goes dry. It is over, I know. This, the evening confusion that affects my wife, is the hardest part of all. For when it comes, she is gone, and sometimes I wonder whether she and I will ever love again.
«There’s no one there, Allie,» I say, trying to stop the inevitable.
She doesn’t believe me. «They’re staring at me. You can’t see them?»
«No,» I say, and she thinks for a moment.
«Well, they’re right there,» she says, «and they’re staring at me.»
With that, she begins to talk to herself, and moments later, when I try to comfort her, she steps back with wide eyes.
«Who are you?» she cries in panic, her face is becoming whiter. «What are you doing here?» She backs away from me, her hands are in a defensive position, and then she says the most heartbreaking words of all. «Go away! Stay away from me!» She is pushing the gnomes away from her, terrified, not noticing my presence.
I stand and cross the room to her bed. I am weak now, my legs ache, and there is a strange pain in my side. I press the button to call the nurses. They will be here soon now, I know, and I wait for them.
I sit by the bed with an aching back and start to cry. I am tired now, so I sit, alone and apart from my wife. And when the nurses come in they see two people they must comfort. A woman shaking in fear and the old man who loves her more deeply than life itself, crying softly in the comer, with his face in his hands.
ON A COOL, foggy morning eight days after she and I had spent our day together, I woke early, as is my custom, and read 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.
It happened as I sat in the chair, just as the sun peeped 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 I felt a terrible headache. I closed my eyes tightly. My hand stopped tingling and began to go numb. A shooting pain flew down my neck and into every cell of my body, like a wave, crushing and wasting everything in its path.
I lost my sight and I heard what sounded like a train roaring, and I knew that I was having a stroke. The pain coursed through my body, 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.
I WAS UNCONSCIOUS on and off for days, and in those moments when I was awake I found myself fixed to machines; two bags of fluid were hanging near the bed.