Authors: Nicholas Sparks
Tags: #Fiction, #General
“Hey, Pop?” he whispered.
He smiled. “I just want you to know that I’m honored that you asked me to be your best man.”
At his words, my throat tightened. “Thank you,” was all I could say.
The wedding was all I hoped it would be. I’ll never forget the hushed excitement of the crowd or the way people craned their necks to see my daughters making their way down the aisle; I’ll never forget how my hands began to shake when I heard the first chords of the “Wedding March” or how radiant Jane looked as she was escorted down the aisle by her father.
With her veil in place, Jane seemed like a lovely, young bride. With a bouquet of tulips and miniature roses clasped loosely in her hands, she seemed to glide down the aisle. At her side, Noah beamed with undisguised pleasure, every inch the proud father.
At the head of the aisle, he and Jane stopped and Noah slowly raised her veil.
After kissing her on the cheek, he whispered something in her ear, then took his seat in the front row, right next to Kate. Beyond them, I could see women in the crowd already dabbing their tears with handkerchiefs.
Harvey opened the ceremony with a prayer of thanks. After asking us to face each other, he spoke then of love and renewal and the effort it entailed. Throughout the ceremony, Jane squeezed my hands tightly, her eyes never leaving my own.
When the time came, I asked Joseph for the rings. For Jane, I’d bought a diamond anniversary band; for myself, I’d bought a duplicate of the one I’d always worn, one that seemed to shine with the hope of better things to come.
We renewed the vows we had spoken long ago and slipped the rings on each other’s fingers. When the time came to kiss the bride, I did so to the sounds of cheering, whistles, and applause and an explosion of camera flashbulbs.
The reception went on until midnight. Dinner was magnificent, and John Peterson was in wonderful form on the piano. Each of the children offered a toast—as did I, to offer my thanks for what everyone had done. Jane couldn’t stop smiling.
After dinner, we moved away some of the tables, and Jane and I danced for hours.
In the moments she took to catch her breath, she peppered me with questions that had plagued me during most of my waking moments this week.
“What if someone had let the secret slip?”
“But they didn’t,” I answered.
“But what if they had?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just hoped that if someone did slip, you’d think you heard them wrong. Or that you wouldn’t believe I’d be crazy enough to do such a thing.”
“You put a lot of trust in a lot of people.”
“I know,” I said. “And I’m thankful they proved me right.” “Me too. This is the most wonderful night of my life.” She hesitated as she glanced around the room. “Thank you, Wilson. For every single bit of it.” I put my arm around her. “You’re welcome.”
As the clock edged toward midnight, the guests began to leave. Each of them shook my hand on the way out and offered Jane a hug. When Peterson finally closed the lid on the piano, Jane thanked him profusely. Impulsively, he kissed her on the cheek. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he said.
Harvey Wellington and his wife were among the last to leave, and Jane and I walked with them out onto the porch. When Jane thanked Harvey for officiating, he shook his head. “No need for thanks. There’s nothing more wonderful than being part of something like this. It’s what marriage is all about.” Jane smiled. “I’ll give you a call so we can all have dinner together.”
“I’d like that.”
The kids were gathered around one of the tables, quietly rehashing the evening, but other than that, the house was quiet. Jane joined them at the table, and as I stood behind her, I glanced around the room and realized that Noah had slipped away unnoticed.
He’d been strangely quiet most of the evening, and I thought he might have gone outside to stand on the back porch in the hope of being alone. I’d found him there earlier, and to be frank, I was a little worried about him. It had been a long day, and with the hour getting late, I wanted to ask him whether he wanted to head back to Creekside. When I stepped onto the porch, however, I didn’t see him.
I was just about to go back inside to check the rooms upstairs when I spotted a solitary figure standing by the bank of the river in the distance. How I was able to see him, I’ll never be sure, but perhaps I caught sight of the backs of his hands moving in the darkness. Wearing his tuxedo jacket, he was otherwise lost in the nighttime surroundings.
I debated whether or not to call out, then decided against it. For some reason, I had the feeling that he didn’t want anyone else to know he was out there.
Curious, however, I hesitated only briefly before making my way down the steps.
I began moving in his direction.
Above me, the stars were out in full, and the air was fresh with the earthy scent of the low country. My shoes made soft scraping sounds on the gravel, but once I reached the grass, the ground began to slope, gradually at first, then steeper. I found it difficult to keep my balance amid the thickening vegetation.
Pushing branches away from my face, I couldn’t figure out why—or how—Noah had gone this way.
Standing with his back to me, he was whispering as I approached. The soft cadences of his voice were unmistakable. At first I thought he was speaking to me, but I suddenly realized that he didn’t even know I was there.
“Noah?” I asked quietly.
He turned in surprise and stared. It took a moment for him to recognize me in the dark, but gradually, his expression relaxed. Standing before him, I had the strange feeling that I’d caught him doing something wrong.
“I didn’t hear you coming. What are you doing out here?”
I smiled quizzically. “I was about to ask you the same question.” Instead of answering, he nodded toward the house. “That was some party you threw tonight. You really outdid yourself. I don’t think Jane stopped smiling all night long.”
“Thank you.” I hesitated. “Did you have a good time?”
“I had a great time,” he said.
For a moment, neither of us said anything.
“Are you feeling okay?” I finally asked.
“Could be better,” he said. “Could be worse, though, too.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure.”
Perhaps responding to my curious expression, he commented, “It’s such a nice night. I thought I might take a little time to enjoy it.” “Down here?”
I suppose I should have guessed the reason he’d risked the climb down to the river’s edge, but at the time, the thought didn’t occur to me.
“I knew she hadn’t left me,” he said simply. “And I wanted to talk to her.”
Noah didn’t seem to hear my question. Instead, he nodded in the direction of the river. “I think she came for the wedding.”
With that, I suddenly understood what he was telling me, and I glanced at the river, seeing nothing at all. My heart sank, and overwhelmed by a feeling of sudden helplessness, I found myself wondering whether the doctors had been right after all. Maybe he was delusional—or maybe tonight had been too much for him.
When I opened my mouth to convince him to come back inside, however, the words seemed to lodge in my throat.
For in the rippling water beyond him, appearing as if from nowhere, she came gliding over the moonlit creek. In the wild, she looked majestic; her feathers were glowing almost silver, and I closed my eyes, hoping to clear the image from my mind. Yet when I opened them again, the swan was circling in front of us, and all at once, I began to smile. Noah was right. Though I didn’t know why or how it had come, I had no doubt whatsoever that it was her. It had to be. I’d seen the swan a hundred times, and even from a distance, I couldn’t help but notice the tiny black spot in the middle of her chest, directly above her heart.
Standing on the porch, with autumn in full swing, I find the crispness of the evening air invigorating as I think back on the night of our wedding. I can still recall it in vivid detail, just as I can remember all that happened during the year of the forgotten anniversary.
It feels odd to know that it’s all behind me. The preparations had dominated my thoughts for so long and I’d visualized it so many times that I sometimes feel that I’ve lost contact with an old friend, someone with whom I’d grown very comfortable. Yet in the wake of those memories, I’ve come to realize that I now have the answer to the question that I’d been pondering when I first came out here.
Yes, I decided, a man can truly change.
The events of the past year have taught me much about myself, and a few universal truths. I learned, for instance, that while wounds can be inflicted easily upon those we love, it’s often much more difficult to heal them. Yet the process of healing those wounds provided the richest experience of my life, leading me to believe that while I’ve often overestimated what I could accomplish in a day, I had underestimated what I could do in a year. But most of all, I learned that it’s possible for two people to fall in love all over again, even when there’s been a lifetime of disappointment between them.
I’m not sure what to think about the swan and what I saw that night, and I must admit that being romantic still doesn’t come easily. It’s a daily struggle to reinvent myself, and part of me wonders whether it always will be. But so what?
I hold tight to the lessons that Noah taught me about love and keeping it alive, and even if I never become a true romantic like Noah, it doesn’t mean that I’m ever going to stop trying.