She had leukemia; she’d known it since last summer.
The moment she told me, the blood drained from my face and a sheaf of dizzying images fluttered through my mind. It was as though in that brief moment, time had suddenly stopped and I understood everything that had happened between us. I understood why she’d wanted me to do the play: I understood why, after we’d performed that first night, Hegbert had whispered to her with tears in his eyes, calling her his angel; I understood why he looked so tired all the time and why he fretted that I kept coming by the house. Everything became absolutely clear.
Why she wanted Christmas at the orphanage to be so special . . .
Why she didn’t think she’d go to college . . .
Why she’d given me her Bible . . .
It all made perfect sense, and at the same time, nothing seemed to make any sense at all.
Jamie Sullivan had leukemia . . .
Jamie, sweet Jamie, was dying . . .
My Jamie . . .
“No, no,” I whispered to her, “there has to be some mistake. . . .”
But there wasn’t, and when she told me again, my world went blank. My head started to spin, and I clung to her tightly to keep from losing my balance. On the street I saw a man and a woman, walking toward us, heads bent and their hands on their hats to keep them from blowing away. A dog trotted across the road and stopped to smell some bushes. A neighbor across the way was standing on a stepladder, taking down his Christmas lights. Normal scenes from everyday life, things I would never have noticed before, suddenly making me feel angry. I closed my eyes, wanting the whole thing to go away.
“I’m so sorry, Landon,” she kept saying over and over. It was I who should have been saying it, however. I know that now, but my confusion kept me from saying anything.
Deep down, I knew it wouldn’t go away. I held her again, not knowing what else to do, tears filling my eyes, trying and failing to be the rock I think she needed.
We cried together on the street for a long time, just a little way down the road from her house. We cried some more when Hegbert opened the door and saw our faces, knowing immediately that their secret was out. We cried when we told my mother later that afternoon, and my mother held us both to her bosom and sobbed so loudly that both the maid and the cook wanted to call the doctor because they thought something had happened to my father. On Sunday Hegbert made the announcement to his congregation, his face a mask of anguish and fear, and he had to be helped back to his seat before he’d even finished.
Everyone in the congregation stared in silent disbelief at the words they’d just heard, as if they were waiting for a punch line to some horrible joke that none of them could believe had been told. Then all at once, the wailing began.
We sat with Hegbert the day she told me, and Jamie patiently answered my questions. She didn’t know how long she had left, she told me. No, there wasn’t anything the doctors could do. It was a rare form of the disease, they’d said, one that didn’t respond to available treatment. Yes, when the school year had started, she’d felt fine. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that she’d started to feel its effects.
“That’s how it progresses,” she said. “You feel fine, and then, when your body can’t keep fighting, you don’t.”
Stifling my tears, I couldn’t help but think about the play.
“But all those rehearsals . . . those long days . . . maybe you shouldn’t have—”
“Maybe,” she said, reaching for my hand and cutting me off. “Doing the play was the thing that kept me healthy for so long.”
Later, she told me that seven months had passed since she’d been diagnosed. The doctors had given her a year, maybe less.
These days it might have been different. These days they could have treated her. These days Jamie would probably live. But this was happening forty years ago, and I knew what that meant.
Only a miracle could save her.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
This was the one question I hadn’t asked her, the one that I’d been thinking about. I hadn’t slept that night, and my eyes were still swollen. I’d gone from shock to denial to sadness to anger and back again, all night long, wishing it weren’t so and praying that the whole thing had been some terrible nightmare.
We were in her living room the following day, the day that Hegbert had made the announcement to the congregation. It was January 10, 1959.
Jamie didn’t look as depressed as I thought she would. But then again, she’d been living with this for seven months already. She and Hegbert had been the only ones to know, and neither of them had trusted even me. I was hurt by that and frightened at the same time.
“I’d made a decision,” she explained to me, “that it would be better if I told no one, and I asked my father to do the same. You saw how people were after the services today. No one would even look me in the eye. If you had only a few months left to live, is that what you would want?”
I knew she was right, but it didn’t make it any easier. I was, for the first time in my life, completely and utterly at a loss.
I’d never had anyone close to me die before, at least not anyone that I could remember. My grandmother had died when I was three, and I don’t remember a single thing about her or the services that had followed or even the next few years after her passing. I’d heard stories, of course, from both my father and my grandfather, but to me that’s exactly what they were. It was the same as hearing stories I might otherwise read in a newspaper about some woman I never really knew. Though my father would take me with him when he put flowers on her grave, I never had any feelings associated with her. I felt only for the people she’d left behind.
No one in my family or my circle of friends had ever had to confront something like this. Jamie was seventeen, a child on the verge of womanhood, dying and still very much alive at the same time. I was afraid, more afraid than I’d ever been, not only for her, but for me as well. I lived in fear of doing something wrong, of doing something that would offend her. Was it okay to ever get angry in her presence? Was it okay to talk about the future anymore? My fear made talking to her difficult, though she was patient with me.
My fear, however, made me realize something else, something that made it all worse. I realized I’d never even known her when she’d been healthy. I had started to spend time with her only a few months earlier, and I’d been in love with her for only eighteen days. Those eighteen days seemed like my entire life, but now, when I looked at her, all I could do was wonder how many more days there would be.
On Monday she didn’t show up for school, and I somehow knew that she’d never walk the hallways again. I’d never see her reading the Bible off by herself at lunch, I’d never see her brown cardigan moving through the crowd as she made her way to her next class. She was finished with school forever; she would never receive her diploma.
I couldn’t concentrate on anything while I sat in class that first day back, listening as teacher after teacher told us what most of us had already heard. The responses were similar to those in church on Sunday. Girls cried, boys hung their heads, people told stories about her as if she were already gone. What can we do? they wondered aloud, and people looked to me for answers.
“I don’t know,” was all I could say.
I left school early and went to Jamie’s, blowing off my classes after lunch. When I knocked at the door, Jamie answered it the way she always did, cheerfully and without, it seemed, a care in the world.
“Hello, Landon,” she said, “this is a surprise.”
When she leaned in to kiss me, I kissed her back, though the whole thing made me want to cry.
“My father isn’t home right now, but if you’d like to sit on the porch, we can.”
“How can you do this?” I asked suddenly. “How can you pretend that nothing is wrong?”
“I’m not pretending that nothing is wrong, Landon. Let me get my coat and we’ll sit outside and talk, okay?”
She smiled at me, waiting for an answer, and I finally nodded, my lips pressed together. She reached out and patted my arm.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
I walked to the chair and sat down, Jamie emerging a moment later. She wore a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat to keep her warm. The nor’easter had passed, and the day wasn’t nearly as cold as it had been over the weekend. Still, though, it was too much for her.
“You weren’t in school today,” I said.
She looked down and nodded. “I know.”
“Are you ever going to come back?” Even though I already knew the answer, I needed to hear it from her.
“No,” she said softly, “I’m not.”
“Why? Are you that sick already?” I started to tear up, and she reached out and took my hand.
“No. Today I feel pretty good, actually. It’s just that I want to be home in the mornings, before my father has to go to the office. I want to spend as much time with him as I can.”
Before I die, she meant to say but didn’t. I felt nauseated and couldn’t respond.
“When the doctors first told us,” she went on, “they said that I should try to lead as normal a life as possible for as long as I could. They said it would help me keep my strength up.”
“There’s nothing normal about this,” I said bitterly.
“Aren’t you frightened?”
Somehow I expected her to say no, to say something wise like a grown-up would, or to explain to me that we can’t presume to understand the Lord’s plan.
She looked away. “Yes,” she finally said, “I’m frightened all the time.”
“Then why don’t you act like it?”
“I do. I just do it in private.”
“Because you don’t trust me?”
“No,” she said, “because I know you’re frightened, too.”
I began to pray for a miracle.
They supposedly happen all the time, and I’d read about them in newspapers. People regaining use of their limbs after being told they’d never walk again, or somehow surviving a terrible accident when all hope was lost. Every now and then a traveling preacher’s tent would be set up outside of Beaufort, and people would go there to watch as people were healed. I’d been to a couple, and though I assumed that most of the healing was no more than a slick magic show, since I never recognized the people who were healed, there were occasionally things that even I couldn’t explain. Old man Sweeney, the baker here in town, had been in the Great War fighting with an artillery unit behind the trenches, and months of shelling the enemy had left him deaf in one ear. It wasn’t an act—he really couldn’t hear a single thing, and there’d been times when we were kids that we’d been able to sneak off with a cinnamon roll because of it. But the preacher started praying feverishly and finally laid his hand upon the side of Sweeney’s head. Sweeney screamed out loud, making people practically jump out of their seats. He had a terrified look on his face, as if the guy had touched him with a white-hot poker, but then he shook his head and looked around, uttering the words “I can hear again.” Even he couldn’t believe it. “The Lord,” the preacher had said as Sweeney made his way back to his seat, “can do anything. The Lord listens to our prayers.”
So that night I opened the Bible that Jamie had given me for Christmas and began to read. Now, I’d heard all about Bible in Sunday school or at church, but to be frank, I just remembered the highlights—the Lord sending the seven plagues so the Israelites could leave Egypt, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, Jesus walking across the water or raising Lazarus from the dead. There were other biggies, too. I knew that practically every chapter of the Bible has the Lord doing something spectacular, but I hadn’t learned them all. As Christians we leaned heavily on teachings of the New Testament, and I didn’t know the first things about books like Joshua or Ruth or Joel. The first night I read through Genesis, the second night I read through Exodus. Leviticus was next, followed by Numbers and then Deuteronomy. The going got a little slow during certain parts, especially as all the laws were being explained, yet I couldn’t put it down. It was a compulsion that I didn’t fully understand.
It was late one night, and I was tired by the time I eventually reached Psalms, but somehow I knew this was what I was looking for. Everyone has heard the Twenty-third Psalm, which starts, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” but I wanted to read the others, since none of them were supposed to be more important than the others. After an hour I came across an underlined section that I assumed Jamie had noted because it meant something to her. This is what it said:
I cry to you, my Lord, my rock! Do not be deaf to me, for if you are silent, I shall go down to the pit like the rest. Hear my voice raised in petition as I cry to you for help, as I raise my hands, my Lord, toward your holy of holies.
I closed the Bible with tears in my eyes, unable to finish the psalm.
Somehow I knew she’d underlined it for me.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said numbly, staring into the dim light of my bedroom lamp. My mom and I were sitting on my bed. It was coming up on the end of January, the most difficult month of my life, and I knew that in February things would only get worse.
“I know this is hard for you,” she murmured, “but there’s nothing you can do.”
“I don’t mean about Jamie being sick—I know there’s nothing I can do about that. I mean about Jamie and me.”
My mother looked at me sympathetically. She was worried about Jamie, but she was also worried about me. I went on.
“It’s hard for me to talk to her. All I can do when I look at her is think about the day when I won’t be able to. So I spend all my time at school thinking about her, wishing I could see her right then, but when I get to her house, I don’t know what to say.”
“I don’t know if there’s anything you can say to make her feel better.”
“Then what should I do?”
She looked at me sadly and put her arm around my shoulder. “You really love her, don’t you,” she said.
“With all my heart.”
She looked as sad as I’d ever seen her. “What’s your heart telling you to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe,” she said gently, “you’re trying too hard to hear it.”
The next day I was better with Jamie, though not much. Before I’d arrived, I’d told myself that I wouldn’t say anything that might get her down—that I’d try to talk to her like I had before—and that’s exactly how it went. I sat myself on her couch and told her about some of my friends and what they were doing; I caught her up on the success of the basketball team. I told her that I still hadn’t heard from UNC, but that I was hopeful I’d know within the next few weeks. I told her I was looking forward to graduation. I spoke as though she’d be back to school the following week, and I knew I sounded nervous the entire time. Jamie smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, asking questions every now and then. But I think we both knew by the time I finished talking that it was the last time I would do it. It didn’t feel right to either of us.
My heart was telling me exactly the same thing.
I turned to the Bible again, in the hope that it would guide me.
“How are you feeling?” I asked a couple of days later.
By now Jamie had lost more weight. Her skin was beginning to take on a slightly grayish tint, and the bones in her hands were starting to show through her skin. Again I saw bruises. We were inside her house in the living room; the cold was too much for her to bear.
Despite all this, she still looked beautiful.
“I’m doing okay,” she said, smiling valiantly. “The doctors have given me some medicine for the pain, and it seems to help a little.”
I’d been coming by every day. Time seemed to be slowing down and speeding up at exactly the same time.
“Can I get anything for you?”
“No, thank you, I’m doing fine.”
I looked around the room, then back at her.
“I’ve been reading the Bible,” I finally said.
“You have?” Her face lit up, reminding me of the angel I’d seen in the play. I couldn’t believe that only six weeks had gone by.
“I wanted you to know.”
“I’m glad you told me.”
“I read the book of Job last night,” I said, “where God stuck it to Job to test his faith.”
She smiled and reached out to pat my arm, her hand soft on my skin. It felt nice. “You should read something else. That’s not about God in one of his better moments.”
“Why would he have done that to him?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Do you ever feel like Job?”
She smiled, a little twinkle in her eyes. “Sometimes.”
“But you haven’t lost your faith?”
“No.” I knew she hadn’t, but I think I was losing mine.
“Is it because you think you might get better?”
“No,” she said, “it’s because it’s the only thing I have left.”
After that, we started reading the Bible together. It somehow seemed like the right thing to do, but my heart was nonetheless telling me that there still might be something more.
At night I lay awake, wondering about it.
Reading the Bible gave us something to focus on, and all of a sudden everything started to get better between us, maybe because I wasn’t as worried about doing something to offend her. What could be more right than reading the Bible? Though I didn’t know nearly as much as she did about it, I think she appreciated the gesture, and occasionally when we read, she’d put her hand on my knee and simply listen as my voice filled the room.
Other times I’d be sitting beside her on the couch, looking at the Bible and watching Jamie out of the corner of my eye at the same time, and we’d come across a passage or a psalm, maybe even a proverb, and I’d ask her what she thought about it. She always had an answer, and I’d nod, thinking about it. Sometimes she asked me what I thought, and I did my best, too, though there were moments when I was bluffing and I was sure that she could tell. “Is that what it really means to you?” she’d ask, and I’d rub my chin and think about it before trying again. Sometimes, though, it was her fault when I couldn’t concentrate, what with that hand on my knee and all.
One Friday night I brought her over for dinner at my house. My mom joined us for the main course, then left the table and sat in the den so that we could be alone.
It was nice there, sitting with Jamie, and I knew she felt the same way. She hadn’t been leaving her house much, and this was a good change for her.
Since she’d told me about her illness, Jamie had stopped wearing her hair in a bun, and it was still as stunning as it had been the first time I’d seen her wear it down. She was looking at the china cabinet—my mom had one of those cabinets with the lights inside—when I reached across the table and took her hand.
“Thank you for coming over tonight,” I said.
She turned her attention back to me. “Thanks for inviting me.”
I paused. “How’s your father holding up?”
Jamie sighed. “Not too well. I worry about him a lot.”
“He loves you dearly, you know.”
“So do I,” I said, and when I did, she looked away. Hearing me say this seemed to frighten her again.
“Will you keep coming over to my house?” she asked. “Even later, you know, when . . . ?”
I squeezed her hand, not hard, but enough to let her know that I meant what I said.
“As long as you want me to come, I’ll be there.”
“We don’t have to read the Bible anymore, if you don’t want to.”
“Yes,” I said softly, “I think we do.”
She smiled. “You’re a good friend, Landon. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
She squeezed my hand, returning the favor. Sitting across from me, she looked radiant.
“I love you, Jamie,” I said again, but this time she wasn’t frightened. Instead our eyes met across the table, and I watched as hers began to shine. She sighed and looked away, running her hand through her hair, then turned to me again. I kissed her hand, smiling in return.
“I love you, too,” she finally whispered.
They were the words I’d been praying to hear.
I don’t know if Jamie told Hegbert about her feelings for me, but I somehow doubted it because his routine hadn’t changed at all. It was his habit to leave the house whenever I came over after school, and this continued. I would knock at the door and listen as Hegbert explained to Jamie that he would be leaving and would be back in a couple of hours. “Okay, Daddy,” I always heard her say, then I would wait for Hegbert to open the door. Once he let me in, he would open the hallway closet and silently pull out his coat and hat, buttoning the coat up all the way before he left the house. His coat was old-fashioned, black and long, like a trench coat without zippers, the kind that was fashionable earlier this century. He seldom spoke directly to me, even after he learned that Jamie and I’d begun to read the Bible together.
Though he still didn’t like me in the house if he wasn’t there, he nonetheless allowed me to come in. I knew that part of the reason had to do with the fact that he didn’t want Jamie to get chilled by sitting on the porch, and the only other alternative was to wait at the house while I was there. But I think Hegbert needed some time alone, too, and that was the real reason for the change. He didn’t talk to me about the rules of the house—I could see them in his eyes the first time he’d said I could stay. I was allowed to stay in the living room, that was all.
Jamie was still moving around fairly well, though the winter was miserable. A cold streak blew in during the last part of January that lasted nine days, followed by three straight days of drenching rain. Jamie had no interest in leaving the house in such weather, though after Hegbert had gone she and I might stand on the porch for just a couple of minutes to breathe the fresh sea air. Whenever we did this, I found myself worrying about her.
While we read the Bible, people would knock at the door at least three times every day. People were always dropping by, some with food, others just to say hello. Even Eric and Margaret came over, and though Jamie wasn’t allowed to let them in, she did so anyway, and we sat in the living room and talked a little, both of them unable to meet her gaze.
They were both nervous, and it took them a couple of minutes to finally get to the point. Eric had come to apologize, he said, and he said that he couldn’t imagine why all this had happened to her of all people. He also had something for her, and he set an envelope on the table, his hand shaking. His voice was choked up as he spoke, the words ringing with the most heartfelt emotion I’d ever heard him express.
“You’ve got the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met,” he said to Jamie, his voice cracking, “and even though I took it for granted and wasn’t always nice to you, I wanted to let you know how I feel. I’ve never been more sorry about anything in my life.” He paused and swiped at the corner of his eye. “You’re the best person I’ll probably ever know.”
As he was fighting back his tears and sniffling, Margaret had already given in to hers and sat weeping on the couch, unable to speak. When Eric had finished, Jamie wiped tears from her cheeks, stood slowly, and smiled, opening her arms in what could only be called a gesture of forgiveness. Eric went to her willingly, finally beginning to cry openly as she gently caressed his hair, murmuring to him. The two of them held each other for a long time as Eric sobbed until he was too exhausted to cry anymore.
Then it was Margaret’s turn, and she and Jamie did exactly the same thing.
When Eric and Margaret were ready to leave, they pulled on their jackets and looked at Jamie one more time, as if to remember her forever. I had no doubt that they wanted to think of her as she looked right then. In my mind she was beautiful, and I know they felt the same way.
“Hang in there,” Eric said on his way out the door. “I’ll be praying for you, and so will everybody else.” Then he looked toward me, reached out, and patted me on the shoulder. “You too,” he said, his eyes red. As I watched them leave, I knew I’d never been prouder of either of them.
Later, when we opened the envelope, we learned what Eric had done. Without telling us, he’d collected over $400 dollars for the orphanage.
I waited for the miracle.
It hadn’t come.
In early February the pills Jamie was taking were increased to help offset the heightened pain she was feeling. The higher dosages made her dizzy, and twice she fell when walking to the bathroom, one time hitting her head against the washbasin. Afterward she insisted that the doctors cut back her medicine, and with reluctance they did. Though she was able to walk normally, the pain she was feeling intensified, and sometimes even raising her arm made her grimace. Leukemia is a disease of the blood, one that runs its course throughout a person’s body. There was literally no escape from it as long as her heart kept beating.
But the disease weakened the rest of her body as well, preying on her muscles, making even simple things more difficult. In the first week of February she lost six pounds, and soon walking became difficult for her, unless it was only for a short distance. That was, of course, if she could put up with the pain, which in time she couldn’t. She went back to the pills again, accepting the dizziness in place of pain.
Still we read the Bible.
Whenever I visited Jamie, I would find her on the couch with the Bible already opened, and I knew that eventually her father would have to carry her there if we wanted to continue. Though she never said anything to me about it, we both knew exactly what it meant.
I was running out of time, and my heart was still telling me that there was something more I could do.
On February 14, Valentine’s Day, Jamie picked out a passage from Corinthians that meant a lot to her. She told me that if she’d ever had the chance, it was the passage she’d wanted read at her wedding. This is what it said:
Love is always patient and kind. It is never jealous. Love is never boastful or conceited. It is never rude or selfish. It does not take offense and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins, but delights in the truth. It is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.
Jamie was the truest essence of that very description.
Three days later, when the temperature slightly warmed, I showed her something wonderful, something I doubted she’d ever seen before, something I knew she would want to see.
Eastern North Carolina is a beautiful and special part of the country, blessed with temperate weather and, for the most part, wonderful geography. Nowhere is this more evident than Bogue Banks, an island right off the coast, near the place we grew up. Twenty-four miles long and nearly a mile wide, this island is a fluke of nature, running from east to west, hugging the coastline a half mile offshore. Those who live there can witness spectacular sunrises and sunsets every day of the year, both taking place over the expanse of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
Jamie was bundled up heavily, standing beside me on the edge of the Iron Steamer Pier as this perfect southern evening descended. I pointed off into the distance and told her to wait. I could see our breaths, two of hers to every one of mine. I had to support Jamie as we stood there—she seemed lighter than the leaves of a tree that had fallen in autumn—but I knew that it would be worth it.
In time the glowing, cratered moon began its seeming rise from the sea, casting a prism of light across the slowly darkening water, splitting itself into a thousand different parts, each more beautiful than the last. At exactly the same moment, the sun was meeting the horizon in the opposite direction, turning the sky red and orange and yellow, as if heaven above had suddenly opened its gates and let all its beauty escape its holy confines. The ocean turned golden silver as the shifting colors reflected off it, waters rippling and sparkling with the changing light, the vision glorious, almost like the beginning of time. The sun continued to lower itself, casting its glow as far as the eye could see, before finally, slowly, vanishing beneath the waves. The moon continued its slow drift upward, shimmering as it turned a thousand different shades of yellow, each paler than the last, before finally becoming the color of the stars.
Jamie watched all this in silence, my arm tight around her, her breathing shallow and weak. As the sky was finally turning to black and the first twinkling lights began to appear in the distant southern sky, I took her in my arms. I gently kissed both her cheeks and then, finally, her lips.
“That,” I said, “is exactly how I feel about you.”
A week later Jamie’s trips to the hospital became more regular, although she insisted that she didn’t want to stay there overnight. “I want to die at home,” was all she said. Since the doctors couldn’t do anything for her, they had no choice but to accept her wishes.
At least for the time being.
“I’ve been thinking about the past few months,” I said to her.
We were sitting in the living room, holding hands as we read the Bible. Her face was growing thinner, her hair beginning to lose its luster. Yet her eyes, those soft blue eyes, were as lovely as ever.
I don’t think I’d ever seen someone as beautiful.
“I’ve been thinking about them, too,” she said.
“You knew, from the first day in Miss Garber’s class that I was going to do the play, didn’t you. When you looked at me and smiled?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“And when I asked you to the homecoming dance, you made me promise that I wouldn’t fall in love, but you knew that I was going to, didn’t you?”
She had a mischievous gleam in her eye. “Yes.”
“How did you know?”
She shrugged without answering, and we sat together for a few moments, watching the rain as it blew against the windows.
“When I told you that I prayed for you,” she finally said to me, “what did you think I was talking about?”
The progression of her disease continued, speeding up as March approached. She was taking more medicine for pain, and she felt too sick to her stomach to keep down much food. She was growing weak, and it looked like she’d have to go to the hospital to stay, despite her wishes.
It was my mother and father who changed all that.
My father had driven home from Washington, hurriedly leaving although Congress was still in session. Apparently my mother had called him and told him that if he didn’t come home immediately, he might as well stay in Washington forever.
When my mother told him what was happening, my father said that Hegbert would never accept his help, that the wounds were too deep, that it was too late to do anything.
“This isn’t about your family, or even about Reverend Sullivan, or anything that happened in the past,” she said to him, refusing to accept his answer. “This is about our son, who happens to be in love with a little girl who needs our help. And you’re going to find a way to help her.”
I don’t know what my father said to Hegbert or what promises he had to make or how much the whole thing eventually cost. All I know is that Jamie was soon surrounded by expensive equipment, was supplied with all the medicine she needed, and was watched by two full-time nurses while a doctor peeked in on her several times a day.
Jamie would be able to stay at home.
That night I cried on my father’s shoulder for the first time in my life.
“Do you have any regrets?” I asked her. She was in her bed under the covers, a tube in her arm feeding her the medication she needed. Her face was pale, her body feather light. She could barely walk, and when she did, she now had to be supported by someone else.
“We all have regrets, Landon,” she said, “but I’ve led a wonderful life.”
“How can you say that?” I cried out, unable to hide my anguish. “With all that’s happening to you?”
She squeezed my hand, her grip weak, smiling tenderly at me.
“This,” she admitted as she looked around her room, “could be better.”
Despite my tears I laughed, then immediately felt guilty for doing so. I was supposed to be supporting her, not the other way around. Jamie went on.
“But other than that, I’ve been happy, Landon. I really have. I’ve had a special father who taught me about God. I can look back and know that I couldn’t have tried to help other people any more than I did.” She paused and met my eyes. “I’ve even fallen in love and had someone love me back.”
I kissed her hand when she said it, then held it against my cheek.
“It’s not fair,” I said.
She didn’t answer.
“Are you still afraid?” I asked.
“I’m afraid, too,” I said.
“I know. And I’m sorry.”
“What can I do?” I asked desperately. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore.”
“Will you read to me?”
I nodded, though I didn’t know whether I’d be able to make it through the next page without breaking down.
Please, Lord, tell me what to do!
“Mom?” I said later that night.
We were sitting on the sofa in the den, the fire blazing before us. Earlier in the day Jamie had fallen asleep while I read to her, and knowing she needed her rest, I slipped out of her room. But before I did, I kissed her gently on the cheek. It was harmless, but Hegbert had walked in as I’d done so, and I had seen the conflicting emotions in his eyes. He looked at me, knowing that I loved his daughter but also knowing that I’d broken one of the rules of his house, even an unspoken one. Had she been well, I know he would never have allowed me back inside. As it was, I showed myself to the door.
I couldn’t blame him, not really. I found that spending time with Jamie sapped me of the energy to feel hurt by his demeanor. If Jamie had taught me anything over these last few months, she’d shown me that actions—not thoughts or intentions—were the way to judge others, and I knew that Hegbert would allow me in the following day. I was thinking about all this as I sat next to my mother on the sofa.
“Do you think we have a purpose in life?” I asked.
It was the first time I’d asked her such a question, but these were unusual times.
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking,” she said, frowning.
“I mean—how do you know what you’re supposed to do?”
“Are you asking me about spending time with Jamie?”
I nodded, though I was still confused. “Sort of. I know I’m doing the right thing, but . . . something’s missing. I spend time with her and we talk and read the Bible, but . . .”
I paused, and my mother finished my thought for me.
“You think you should be doing more?”
“I don’t know that there’s anything more you can do, sweetheart,” she said gently.
“Then why do I feel the way I do?”
She moved a little closer on the sofa, and we watched the flames together.
“I think it’s because you’re frightened and you feel helpless, and even though you’re trying, things continue to get harder and harder—for the both of you. And the more you try, the more hopeless things seem.”
“Is there any way to stop feeling this way?”
She put her arm around me and pulled me closer. “No,” she said softly, “there isn’t.”
The next day Jamie couldn’t get out of bed. Because she was too weak now to walk even with support, we read the Bible in her room.
She fell asleep within minutes.
Another week went by and Jamie grew steadily worse, her body weakening. Bedridden, she looked smaller, almost like a little girl again.
“Jamie,” I pleaded, “what can I do for you?”
Jamie, my sweet Jamie, was sleeping for hours at a time now, even as I talked to her. She didn’t move at the sound of my voice; her breaths were rapid and weak.
I sat beside the bed and watched her for a long time, thinking how much I loved her. I held her hand close to my heart, feeling the boniness of her fingers. Part of me wanted to cry right then, but instead I laid her hand back down and turned to face the window.
Why, I wondered, had my world suddenly unraveled as it had? Why had all this happened to someone like her? I wondered if there was a greater lesson in what was happening. Was it all, as Jamie would say, simply part of the Lord’s plan? Did the Lord want me to fall in love with her? Or was that something of my own volition? The longer Jamie slept, the more I felt her presence beside me, yet the answers to these questions were no clearer than they had been before.
Outside, the last of the morning rain had passed. It had been a gloomy day, but now the late afternoon sunlight was breaking through the clouds. In the cool spring air I saw the first signs of nature coming back to life. The trees outside were budding, the leaves waiting for just the right moment to uncoil and open themselves to yet another summer season.
On the nightstand by her bed I saw the collection of items that Jamie held close to her heart. There were photographs of her father, holding Jamie as a young child and standing outside of school on her first day of kindergarten; there was a collection of cards that children of the orphanage had sent. Sighing, I reached for them and opened the card on top of the stack.
Written in crayon, it said simply:
Please get better soon. I miss you.
It was signed by Lydia, the girl who’d fallen asleep in Jamie’s lap on Christmas Eve. The second card expressed the same sentiments, but what really caught my eye was the picture that the child, Roger, had drawn. He’d drawn a bird, soaring above a rainbow.
Choking up, I closed the card. I couldn’t bear to look any further, and as I put the stack back where it had been before, I noticed a newspaper clipping, next to her water glass. I reached for the article and saw that it was about the play, published in the Sunday paper the day after we’d finished. In the photograph above the text, I saw the only picture that had ever been taken of the two of us.
It seemed so long ago. I brought the article nearer to my face. As I stared, I remembered the way I felt when I had seen her that night. Peering closely at her image, I searched for any sign that she suspected what would come to pass. I knew she did, but her expression that night betrayed none of it. Instead, I saw only a radiant happiness. In time I sighed and set aside the clipping.
The Bible still lay open where I’d left off, and although Jamie was sleeping, I felt the need to read some more. Eventually I came across another passage. This is what it said:
I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it to the earnestness of others.
The words made me choke up again, and just as I was about to cry, the meaning of it suddenly became clear.
God had finally answered me, and I suddenly knew what I had to do.
I couldn’t have made it to the church any faster, even if I’d had a car. I took every shortcut I could, racing through people’s backyards, jumping fences, and in one case cutting through someone’s garage and out the side door. Everything I’d learned about the town growing up came into play, and although I was never a particularly good athlete, on this day I was unstoppable, propelled by what I had to do.
I didn’t care how I looked when I arrived because I suspected Hegbert wouldn’t care, either. When I finally entered the church, I slowed to a walk, trying to catch my breath as I made my way to the back, toward his office.
Hegbert looked up when he saw me, and I knew why he was here. He didn’t invite me in, he simply looked away, back toward the window again. At home he’d been dealing with her illness by cleaning the house almost obsessively. Here, though, papers were scattered across the desk, and books were strewn about the room as if no one had straightened up for weeks. I knew that this was the place he thought about Jamie; this was the place where Hegbert came to cry.
“Reverend?” I said softly.
He didn’t answer, but I went in anyway.
“I’d like to be alone,” he croaked.
He looked old and beaten, as weary as the Israelites described in David’s Psalms. His face was drawn, and his hair had grown thinner since December. Even more than I, perhaps, he had to keep up his spirits around Jamie, and the stress of doing so was wearing him down.
I marched right up to his desk, and he glanced at me before turning back to the window.
“Please,” he said to me. His tone was defeated, as though he didn’t have the strength to confront even me.
“I’d like to talk to you,” I said firmly. “I wouldn’t ask unless it was very important.”
Hegbert sighed, and I sat in the chair I had sat in before, when I’d asked him if he would let me take Jamie out for New Year’s Eve.
He listened as I told him what was on my mind.
When I was finished, Hegbert turned to me. I don’t know what he was thinking, but thankfully, he didn’t say no. Instead he wiped his eyes with his fingers and turned toward the window.
Even he, I think, was too shocked to speak.
Again I ran, again I didn’t tire, my purpose giving me the strength I needed to go on. When I reached Jamie’s house, I rushed in the door without knocking, and the nurse who’d been in her bedroom came out to see what had caused the racket. Before she could speak, I did.
“Is she awake?” I asked, euphoric and terrified at the same time.
“Yes,” the nurse said cautiously. “When she woke up, she wondered where you were.”
I apologized for my disheveled appearance and thanked her, then asked if she wouldn’t mind leaving us alone. I walked into Jamie’s room, partially closing the door behind me. She was pale, so very pale, but her smile let me know she was still fighting.
“Hello, Landon,” she said, her voice faint, “thank you for coming back.”
I pulled up a chair and sat next to her, taking her hand in mine. Seeing her lying there made something tighten deep in my stomach, making me almost want to cry.
“I was here earlier, but you were asleep,” I said.
“I know . . . I’m sorry. I just can’t seem to help it anymore.”
“It’s okay, really.”
She lifted her hand slightly off the bed, and I kissed it, then leaned forward and kissed her cheek as well.
“Do you love me?” I asked her.
She smiled. “Yes.”
“Do you want me to be happy?” As I asked her this, I felt my heart beginning to race.
“Of course I do.”
“Will you do something for me, then?”
She looked away, sadness crossing her features. “I don’t know if I can anymore,” she said.
“But if you could, would you?”
I cannot adequately describe the intensity of what I was feeling at that moment. Love, anger, sadness, hope, and fear, whirling together, sharpened by the nervousness I was feeling. Jamie looked at me curiously, and my breaths became shallower. Suddenly I knew that I’d never felt as strongly for another person as I did at that moment. As I returned her gaze, this simple realization made me wish for the millionth time that I could make all this go away. Had it been possible, I would have traded my life for hers. I wanted to tell her my thoughts, but the sound of her voice suddenly silenced the emotions inside me.
“Yes,” she finally said, her voice weak yet somehow still full of promise. “I would.”
Finally getting control of myself, I kissed her again, then brought my hand to her face, gently running my fingers over her cheek. I marveled at the softness of her skin, the gentleness I saw in her eyes. Even now she was perfect.
My throat began to tighten again, but as I said, I knew what I had to do. Since I had to accept that it was not within my power to cure her, what I wanted to do was give her something that she’d always wanted.
It was what my heart had been telling me to do all along.
Jamie, I understood then, had already given me the answer I’d been searching for, the one my heart had needed to find. She’d told me the answer as we’d sat outside Mr. Jenkins’s office, the night we’d asked him about doing the play.
I smiled softly, and she returned my affection with a slight squeeze of my hand, as if trusting me in what I was about to do. Encouraged, I leaned closer and took a deep breath. When I exhaled, these were the words that flowed with my breath.
“Will you marry me?”