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Forever and Always

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It started with something small. Forgetting his keys or forgetting the grocery list on the way to the general store. Forgetting a password or forgetting to turn the porch lights off when he got home late. But Paul knew. He knew this was the start of the slow slide into forgetting nearly everything, into that dark little world he'd been living in at the end of his first lease on life. After all, he’d been through it before. As he sat at his desk, he looked over at Grace, who was sitting on the sofa, absorbed in a book. His wonderful miracle, the woman he’d fallen in love with and married a lifetime ago. Her hair had slowly turned white, her constant smile etching lines on her face. But she was still the beautiful angel he’d met forever ago, the same beautiful angel he’d married and built a life with. His hand shook as he set his pencil down, giving up on outlining a homily. “Gracie?”

“Hmm?” She looked up from her book, putting her glasses on so she could see him properly. 

Paul got up slowly, coming to sit beside her. He held her hand, smiling at the sight of their wedding rings. “I need to talk to you about something.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, raising her hand to his cheek. “Paul, are you okay? You went to the doctor the other day, is it... What is it?”

“No, I - I'm not okay. I can feel it. It’s starting again.”

“What - What’s starting again?” 

She hadn’t been there the last time. She hadn’t watched as he slowly started to forget things and then slowly started to forget people he'd known for ages. She hadn’t been there to know how isolating it felt, how lonely he was, not knowing what was happening around him and not knowing how to ask for help. “I can’t… I’m starting to forget things again. I… when’s Sarah and Kristin’s anniversary?”

“June first,” Grace told him, sadness growing in her eyes. “You were the one who married them. There's a picture up on the wall in our bedroom hallway. Bev nearly had a heart attack seeing all of it. She didn’t talk to us for months. Probably the quietest couple of months we'd ever had. I - Paul, when’s our anniversary?”

“November seventeenth,” he smiled, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. “One of the happiest days of my life. Other than the day I met you, and the day you agreed to marry me, and the day Esther and Sam were born.”

Grace nodded thoughtfully. She’d known for a long time that this would happen eventually. She’d purposefully taken tons of pictures whenever she could, printing out their happy memories and putting photos on the walls. She’d done what she could to slow it, but she’d known all along. “Whatever happens... Don’t forget me. Don't forget how much I love you. I'll always be here to remind you, but don't forget, okay?”

“I won’t,” he promised, pulling her into his arms. “Gracie, I - even if I forget everyone else, there’s no way I could ever forget you. You're my miracle.”

In the end, it was Grace who got sick first. They’d known as they got older that it would have to be one of them. Paul was betting on himself - after all, he’d lived an entire life before this one - but either way, he knew it would break his heart. But he did everything he could for her. He went with her to every doctor’s appointment on the mainland, holding her hand while she sat through half a dozen treatments he couldn’t understand. He would put his arm around her for support as they walked along the beach, both of them wishing they had more time. He would sit up and watch old videos of their wedding and birthdays and vacations with her, holding her in his arms and wishing they had more time. No matter what, he would always want more time.

And he kept his promise. He never forgot her, never forgot even the tiniest of details about her life. He’d watch her favorite movies with her when she felt too weak to get out of bed. He’d ask one of their children to bring her favorite candies when they dropped off groceries. He’d sit up with her when she was in pain, or he’d sit there holding her, singing bits of old songs or whispering prayers.

He was there with her when she went to the hospital on the mainland for the last time, and he adamantly refused to leave when visiting hours were over. The nurses and the doctors soon learned the incredible love story of the old monsignor and his miraculous wife, and they would let him stay as long as he wanted. He only left when one of their children was there, and never went far.

“Dr. Pruitt?” One of the nurses had stepped in, looking at his daughter. Esther had become a doctor like her Aunt Sarah, but she’d taken time off to visit her mother in the hospital. 

“Yes?” 

“There are, uh, a few things we need to discuss with you.”

Esther stepped out of the room for a moment, returning to put her hand on Paul’s shoulder. “Dad, they think… They think it’s time. She’s on so much pain medicine, it’s… they think it’s time.”

Paul knew. He’d known for a while. She’d gotten worse in the last few days, and spent most of her time asleep. He’d sit there and hold her hand, reading whatever he was reading aloud to her until his voice began to hurt. He’d pray as much as he could, not begging for more time but begging for her to not be in pain. “Okay. I - okay.”

Esther sat down, holding her mom’s hand as she said goodbye. Eventually she stood, telling Paul that she’d leave them alone if he wanted. He asked for a few minutes, a few moments to say goodbye to the love of his life. So she hugged him, reminding him that she loved him too. She would end up leaning on the wall outside, melting to the floor as she thought about how much she was about to lose, dialing Sam to tell him too. 

As much as he didn’t want to cry, he couldn’t help it. “Paul?” Her voice was weak, but Grace opened her eyes, looking up at him. 

“I’m here. I’m not going anywhere without you, Gracie.” He carefully laid down next to her, still holding her hand. “I love you so much.”

She smiled as best she could, taking comfort in the face of the man she’d loved so much for so long now. “Loving you… has always been the… the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“Me too. I love you so much, Gracie. My wonderful miracle and my wonderful wife.” Paul reached up to brush a few strands of hair out of her eyes, Grace kissing his hand as he moved. 

“I want…”

“Anything, I’ll give it to you.” More time. You deserve more time. I wish I could give it to you. I know it’s wrong, but I wish we had more time. I don’t want to lose you.

“I want to fall asleep with you… like we did when we were young. Like we’ve done… our entire lives. With… with my head on your chest and your arms around me and… being completely comfortable and… knowing I'm completely loved,” she requested, Paul immediately moving to make it possible. “Paul, I’m so tired. I just… want to go to sleep for a bit.”

“Okay. You can do that. It’s okay.” He felt himself start to cry again as she pressed one final kiss to his lips before laying her head on his chest, curling up with him like they did every night, like they'd done every night for most of Grace's life. He put his arms around her, wishing he could protect her from this too. He didn’t want her to be in pain. The medicine helped, but he wished they could be at home, back on Crockett Island. He wished he could sit on the beach and watch the sunset with her one more time. One more sunset, one more sunrise, it would never be enough. There would never be enough time. “It’s okay,” he sniffed, starting to run his hand through her hair. “You can go to sleep if you want to. I’ll be here… I’ll be here when you wake up. It’s okay. I'll be right here. I'm not going anywhere without you. I'll be right here, I promise.”

She nestled a little closer, smiling into his cardigan. “I love you, Paul. Forever and always.” 

“I love you too, Gracie. Forever and always.” He kissed the top of her head, holding her until her breathing slowed and finally stopped. “I love you,” he whispered. “I love you. I love you…” 

Paul knew it would happen this way. He wanted it to happen this way. Esther knew it too. She’d grown up watching them continue to be so in love their entire lives. She’d accepted it when her mom got sick and her dad started to forget important things, like where she worked and whether her or Sam was the older twin. She knew this was going to be it, and she’d made peace with it. Two people so divinely destined for each other couldn’t be without each other for long.

There wasn’t time to whisper a final Hail Mary. Instead, the priest’s last words were a different phrase that he’d uttered with such devotion, such faith, for so much of his life. “I love you, Gracie.” He closed his eyes, smiling into her hair. It still smelled like lavender. He'd see her soon.

Grace yawned, sitting up in bed despite not wanting to move from her husband’s arms. She looked around, realizing something was off. They were in their bed, surrounded by their little home, not half a dozen beeping hospital monitors. And then she looked at the man beside her, who was just beginning to rub his eyes. He looked as young as the day they’d met. “Paul?” she smiled, running her hand through his hair. It had turned black again, the lines on his face disappearing. 

He blinked, looking around as he sat up too. They were home, and Grace was just as beautiful as the day he’d met her. She always was, even when they'd grown old together. But her hair was no longer white, the wrinkles and age lines gone from her face. He raised his left hand, noticing how young he was again. For the second time. But this time his wedding ring glimmered in the morning light. “Gracie?”

She smiled, reaching for his hand. “Forever and always.”

“Forever and always,” he beamed, pulling her into a hug. “I guess I really can call you my angel now, huh?”

"Yeah. You're my angel too." She let go, giving him a kiss and suggesting something that made him smile even more. "Let's go find Alice."