NICHOLAS SPARKS

THE NOTEBOOK

There is beauty where we sit this afternoon, Allie and I. This is the pinnacle of my life ∙ They are here at the creek: the birds, the geese, my friends. Their bodies float on the cool water, which reflects bits and pieces of their colors and make 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?" What is death? I wonder, but I do not say this. Instead I answer, "My wife is alive in my heart. And she always will be." "You still love her, don't you?" "Of course. But I love many things. I love to sit here with you. I love to share the beauty of this place with someone I care about. I love to watch the osprey swoop toward the creek and find its dinner." 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?" "Is what 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 silently 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 just as it did this morning. Deep breaths, relaxed breaths, and there is a moment when she dozes off, like those comfortable with one another often do. I wonder if the young are capable of enjoying this. Finally, 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. I point, too. "Caspian stern," I say softly, and we devote our attention to it and stare 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, sometimes not too well, and I volunteer nothing.

 

This is a split decision, both good and bad, but necessary, for with knowledge comes pain. To limit the pain I limit my answers. 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, this is how I began. Her life, her marriage, her children. Her friends and her work. Questions and answers in the game show format of This Is Your Life. 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 worthwhile. 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. And selfishly, so was I.

So I changed. I became Magellan or Columbus, an explorer in the mysteries of the mind, and I learned, bumbling and slow, but learning nonetheless what had to .be done. And 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 about 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." We walk some more. Finally she says, "I have to tell you something." "Go ahead." "I think I have an admirer." "An admirer?" "I see." "You don't believe me?" "I believe you." "You should." "Why?" "Because I think it is you." I think about this as we walk in silence, holding each other, past the rooms, past the courtyard. We come to the garden, mainly wildflowers, and I stop her. I pick a bundle‐‐red, pink, yellow, violet. I give them to her, and she brings them to her nose. She smells them with eyes closed and she whispers, "They're. beautiful." We resume our walk, me in one hand, the flowers in another. People watch us, for we are a walking miracle, or so I am told. It is true in a way, though most times I do not feel lucky. "You think it's me?" I finally ask. "Yes." "Why?" "Because I have found what you have hidden." "What?" "This," she says, handing a small slip of paper to me. "I found it under my pillow." I read it, and it says: The body slows with mortal ache, yet my promise remains true at the closing of our days, A tender touch that ends with a kiss will awaken love in joyous ways. "Are there more?" I ask. "I found this in the pocket of my coat." Our souls were one, if you must know and never shall they be apart; With splendid dawn, your face aglow I reach for you and find my heart. "I see," and that is all I say. We walk as the sun sinks lower in the sky. In time, silver twilight is the only remainder of the day, and still we talk of the poetry. She is enthralled by the romance. By the time we reach the doorway, I am tired. She knows this, so she stops me with her hand and makes me face her. I do and I realize how hunched over I have become. She and I are now level. Sometimes I am glad she doesn't know how much I have changed.

She turns to me and stares for a long time. "What are you doing?" I ask. "I don't want to forget you or this day, and I'm trying to keep your memory alive." Will it work this time? I wonder, then know it will not. It can't. I do not tell her my thoughts, though. I smile instead because her words are sweet. "Thank you," I say. "I mean it. I don't want to forget you again. You're very special to me. I don't know what I would have done without you today." My throat closes a little. There is emotion behind her words, the emotions I feel whenever I think of her. I know this is why I live, and I love her dearly at this moment. How I wish I were strong enough to carry her in my arms to paradise. "Don't try to say anything," she tells me. "Let's just feel the moment." And I do, and I feel heaven. Her disease is worse now than it was in the beginning, though Allie is different from most. There are three others with the disease here, and these three are the sum of my practical experience with it. They, unlike Allie, are in the most advanced stages of Alzheimer's and are almost completely lost. They wake up hallucinating and confused. They repeat themselves over and over. Two of the three can't feed themselves and will die soon. The third has a tendency to wander and get lost. She was found once in a stranger's car a quarter mile away. Since then she has been strapped to the bed. All can be very bitter at times, and at other times they can be like lost children, sad and alone. Seldom do they recognize the staff or people who love them. It is a tryingdisease, and this is why it is hard for their children and mine to visit.

Allie, of course, has her own problems, too, problems that will probably grow worse over time. She is terribly afraid in the mornings and cries inconsolably. She sees tiny people, like gnomes, I think, watching her, and she screams at them to get away. She bathes willingly but will not eat regularly. She is thin now, much too thin, in my opinion, and on good days I do my best to fatten her up. But this is where the similarity ends. This is why Allie is considered a miracle, because sometimes, just sometimes, after I read to her, her condition isn't so bad. There is no explanation for this. "It's impossible," the doctors say. "She must not have Alzheimer's." But she does. On most days and every morning there can be no doubt.

 

On this there is agreement .But why, then, is her condition different? Why does she sometimes change after I read? I tell the doctors the reason‐‐I know it in my heart, but I am not believed. Instead they look to science. Four times specialists have traveled from Chapel Hill to find the answer. Four times they have left without understanding. I tell them, "You can't possibly understand it if you use only your training and your books," but they shake their heads and answer: "Alzheimer's does not work like this. With her condition, it's just not possible to have a conversation or improve as the day goes on. Ever." But she does. Not every day, not most of the time, and definitely less than she used to. But sometimes. And all that is gone on these days is her memory, as if she has amnesia. But her emotions are normal, her thoughts are normal. And these are the days that I know I am doing right.

Dinner is waiting in her room when we return. It has been arranged for us to eat here, as it always is on days like these, and once again I could ask for no more. The people here take care of everything. They are good to me, and I am thankful. The lights are dimmed, the room is lit by two candles on the table where we will sit, and music is playing softly in the background. The cups and plates are plastic, and the carafe is filled with apple juice, but rules are rules and she doesn't seem to care. She inhales slightly at the sight. Her eyes are wide. "Did you do this?" I nod and she walks in the room. "It looks beautiful." I offer my arm in escort and lead her to the window. She doesn't release it when we get there. Her touch is nice, and we stand close together on this crystal springtime evening. The window is open slightly, and I feel a breeze as it fans my cheek. The moon has risen, and we watch for a long time as the evening sky unfolds. "I've never seen anything so beautiful, I'm sure of it, " she says, and I agree with her. "I haven't, either," I say, but I am looking at her. She knows what I mean, and ! see her smile. A moment later she whispers: "I think I know who Allie went with at the end of the story," she says. "You do?" "Who?" "She went with Noah." "You're sure?" "Absolutely." I smile and nod. "Yes, she did," I say softly, and she smiles back. Her face is radiant.

 

I pull out her chair with some effort. She sits and I sit opposite her. She offers her hand across the table, and I take it in mine, and I feel her thumb begin to move as it did so many years ago. Without speaking, ! stare at her for a long time, living and reliving the moments of my life, remembering it all and making it real. I feel my throat begin to tighten, and once again I realize how much I love her. My voice is shaky when I finally speak. "You're so beautiful," I say. I can see in her eyes that she knows how I feet about her and what I really mean by my words. She does not respond. Instead she lowers her eyes and I wonder what she's thinking.

She gives me no clues, and I gently squeeze her hand. I wait. With all my dreams, I know her heart, and I know I'm almost there. And then, a miracle that proves me right. As Glenn Miller plays softly in a candlelit room, I watch as she gradually gives in to the feelings inside her. I see a warm smile begin to form on her lips, the kind that makes it all worthwhile, and I watch as she raises her hazy eyes to mine. She pulls my hand toward her.

"You're wonderful... ," she says softly, trailing off, and at that moment she falls in love with me, too; this I know, for I have seen the signs a thousand times. She says nothing else right away, she doesn't have to, and she gives me a look from another lifetime that makes me whole again. I smile back, with as much passion as I can muster, and we stare at each other with the feelings inside us rolling like ocean waves. I look around the room, then up to the ceiling, then back at Allie, and the way she's looking at me makes me warm. And suddenly I feel young again. I'm no longer cold or aching, or hunched over or deformed, or almost blind with cataract eyes. I'm strong and proud, and the luckiest man alive, and I keep on feeling that way for a long time across the table.

By the time the candles have burned down a third, I am ready to break the silence. I say, "I love you deeply, and I hope you know that." "Of course I do," she says breathlessly. "I've always loved you, Noah." Noah, I hear again. Noah. 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 doctor's words, have triumphed again, at least for a moment. I give up the pretense of mystery, and I kiss her hand and bring it to my cheek and whisper in her ear. I say: "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 as time slips by, I begin to see the signs of concern 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. But I can tell by the way she is looking at me that once again she wishes there were more. The crickets serenade us, and we begin to pick at our dinner. Neither one of us is hungry, but I lead by example and she follows me. She takes small bites and chews a long time, but I am glad to see her eat. She has lost too much weight in the past three months. After dinner, I become afraid despite myself. I know I should be joyous, for this reunion is the proof that love can still be ours, but 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. Nothing. The clock ticks. Nothing. I take her in my arms and we hold each other. Nothing. I feel her tremble and I whisper in her ear. Nothing. 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 toward the corner of the room, she stares for a long time, concern etched on her face. No! my mind screams. Not yet! Not now... not when we're so close! Not tonight! Any night but tonight.... Please! The words are inside me. I can't take it again! It isn't fair.., it isn't fair.... But once again, it is to no avail. "Those people," she finally says, pointing, "are staring at me. Please make them stop." The gnomes. A pit rises in my stomach, hard and full. My breathing stops for a moment, then starts again, this time shallower. My mouth goes dry, and I feel my heart pounding. It is over, ! know, and I am right. The sundowning has come. This, the evening confusion associated with Alzheimer's disease 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 fend off the inevitable. She doesn't believe me. "They're staring at me." "No," I whisper while shaking my head. "You can't see them?" "No," I say, and she thinks for a moment. "Well, they're right there," she says, pushing me away, "and they're staring at me." With that, she begins to talk to herself, and moments later, when I try to comfort her, she flinches with wide eyes. "Who are you?" she cries with panic in her voice, her face becoming whiter. "What are you doing here?" There is fear growing inside her, and I hurt, for there is nothing I can do. She moves farther from me, backing away, her hands in a defensive position, and then she says the most heartbreaking words of all. "Go away! Stay away from me!" she screams. She is pushing the gnomes away from her, terrified, now oblivious of 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 don't know where it comes from. It is a struggle to press the button to call the nurses, for my fingers are throbbing and seem frozen together, but I finally succeed. They will be here soon now, I know, and I wait for them. While I wait, I stare at my wife.

 

Twenty... Thirty seconds pass, and I continue to stare, my eyes missing nothing, remembering the moments we just shared together. But in all that time she does not look back, and I am haunted by the visions of her struggling with unseen enemies. I sit by the bedside with an aching back and start to cry as I pick up the notebook. Allie does not notice. I understand, for her mind is gone.

 

A couple of pages fall to the floor, and I bend over to pick them up. 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 from demons in her mind, and the old man who loves her more deeply than life itself, crying softly in the corner, his face in his hands. I spend the rest of the evening alone in my room. My door is partially open and I see people walk by, some strangers, some friends, and if I concentrate, I can hear them talking about families, jobs, and visits to parks. Ordinary conversations, nothing more, but I find that I envy them and the ease of their communication. Another deadly sin, I know, but sometimes I can't help it. Dr. Barnwell is here, too, speaking with one of the nurses, and I wonder who is ill enough to warrant such a visit at this hour. He works too much, I tell him. Spend the time with your family, I say, they won't be around forever. But he doesn't listen to me.

     He cares for his patients, he says, and must come here when called. He says he has no choice, but this makes him a man torn by contradiction. He wants to be a doctor completely devoted to his patients and a man completely devoted to his family. He cannot be both, for there aren't enough hours, but he has yet to learn this. I wonder, as his voice fades into the background, which he will choose or whether, sadly, the choice will be made for him.