I drifted in and out of consciousness for days until another foggy morning when my promise to Allie stimulated 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 button, struggled to press it, and a nurse arrived thirty seconds later, followed closely by Dr. Barnwell.
«I’m thirsty,» I said, 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. The right side of my body is weaker than the left. I can’t use either my cane or wheelchair, so I must march now to my own unique rhythm to keep upright. Not left-right-left as in my youth, or even the shuffle-shuffle of late, but rather slow-shuffle, slide-the- right, slow-shuffle. I am on a heroic adventure now when I travel the halls.
When I return to my room, I know I will not sleep. I breathe deeply and smell the spring through the open window. Evelyn, one of the many nurses here, helps me to the chair by the window. She puts her hand on my shoulder and pats it gently. She says nothing, and by her silence, I know that she is staring out of the window. Then she leans forward and tenderly kisses me on the cheek.
«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.
The stars are out tonight and the crickets are singing. As I sit, I wonder if anyone outside can see me, this prisoner of flesh. I watch for hours. A storm is coming and in time, the sky will turn silver.
Lightning cuts the wild sky and I feel my mind drift back. Who are we, Allie and I? Are we ancient ivy on a tree, intertwined so closely that we would both die if we were forced apart? On the desk, I see a picture of Allie, the best one I have. I reach for it and hold it inches from my face. 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.
I finally stand and turn on the lamp.
This is a night of memories, so I look for and find my wedding ring. It is in the top drawer. I cannot wear it anymore because my knuckles are swollen. The ring is powerful — a symbol, a circle. 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.»
It is eleven thirty and I look for the letter she wrote to me, the one I read when the mood strikes me. I find it where I last left it. I open it and my hands begin to tremble:
I write this letter by candlelight, as you lie sleeping in the bedroom we have shared since the day we were married. I see the flame beside me and it reminds me of another fire from decades ago, with me in your soft clothes, and I knew then we would always be together.
I remember how I came back to you the day after my mother had left. I was so scared 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. «How about some coffee?» was all you said. And you never spoke about it again in all our years together.
You didn’t ask questions when I left and walked alone from time to time, during the next few days. 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 but you did, and you made it easier for me. Later, when we went to the small chapel and exchanged our rings, I looked into your eyes and knew I had made the right decision. More than that, I knew I was foolish forever considering someone else.
We had a wonderful life together, and I think about it a lot now. I close my eyes sometimes and see you, sitting on the porch and playing your guitar while little ones clap to the music you create. «You’re a better father than you know,» I tell you later, after the children are sleeping.
I love you for many things, especially your passions: 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 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 that you were always ready to comfort and encourage me. You understood my need for my own studio, my own space, and saw beyond the paint on my clothes and in my hair. I know it was not easy 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.