When I was seventeen, my life changed forever.
As I walk the streets of Beaufort forty years later, thinking back on that year of my life, I remember everything as clearly as if it were all still unfolding before my very eyes.
I remember Jamie saying yes to my breathless question and how we both began to cry together. I remember talking to both Hegbert and my parents, explaining to them what I needed to do. They thought I was doing it only for Jamie, and all three of them tried to talk me out of it, especially when they realized that Jamie had said yes. What they didn’t understand, and I had to make clear to them, was that I needed to do it for me.
I was in love with her, so deeply in love that I didn’t care if she was sick. I didn’t care that we wouldn’t have long together. None of those things mattered to me. All I cared about was doing something that my heart had told me was the right thing to do. In my mind it was the first time God had ever spoken directly to me, and I knew with certainty that I wasn’t going to disobey.
I know that some of you may wonder if I was doing it out of pity. Some of the more cynical may even wonder if I did it because she’d be gone soon anyway and I wasn’t committing much. The answer to both questions is no. I would have married Jamie Sullivan no matter what happened in the future. I would have married Jamie Sullivan if the miracle I was praying for had suddenly come true. I knew it at the moment I asked her, and I still know it today.
Jamie was more than just the woman I loved. In that year Jamie helped me become the man I am today. With her steady hand she showed me how important it was to help others; with her patience and kindness she showed me what life is really all about. Her cheerfulness and optimism, even in times of sickness, was the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed.
We were married by Hegbert in the Baptist church, my father standing beside me as the best man. That was another thing she did. In the South it’s a tradition to have your father beside you, but for me it’s a tradition that wouldn’t have had much meaning before Jamie came into my life. Jamie had brought my father and me together again; somehow she’d also managed to heal some of the wounds between our two families. After what he’d done for me and for Jamie, I knew in the end that my father was someone I could always count on, and as the years passed our relationship grew steadily stronger until his death.
Jamie also taught me the value of forgiveness and the transforming power that it offers. I realized this the day that Eric and Margaret had come to her house. Jamie held no grudges. Jamie led her life the way the Bible taught.
Jamie was not only the angel who saved Tom Thornton, she was the angel who saved us all.
Just as she’d wanted, the church was bursting with people. Over two hundred guests were inside, and more than that waited outside the doors as we were married on March 12, 1959. Because we were married on such short notice, there wasn’t time to make many arrangements, and people came out of the woodwork to make the day as special as they could, simply by showing up to support us. I saw everyone I knew—Miss Garber, Eric, Margaret, Eddie, Sally, Carey, Angela, and even Lew and his grandmother—and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the entrance music began. Although Jamie was weak and hadn’t moved from her bed in two weeks, she insisted on walking down the aisle so that her father could give her away. “It’s very important to me, Landon,” she’d said. “It’s part of my dream, remember?” Though I assumed it would be impossible, I simply nodded. I couldn’t help but wonder at her faith.
I knew she planned on wearing the dress she’d worn in the Playhouse the night of the play. It was the only white dress that was available on such short notice, though I knew it would hang more loosely than it had before. While I was wondering how Jamie would look in the dress, my father laid his hand on my shoulder as we stood before the congregation.
“I’m proud of you, son.”
I nodded. “I’m proud of you, too, Dad.”
It was the first time I’d ever said those words to him.
My mom was in the front row, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief when the “Wedding March” began. The doors opened and I saw Jamie, seated in her wheelchair, a nurse by her side. With all the strength she had left, Jamie stood shakily as her father supported her. Then Jamie and Hegbert slowly made their way down the aisle, while everyone in the church sat silently in wonder. Halfway down the aisle, Jamie suddenly seemed to tire, and they stopped while she caught her breath. Her eyes closed, and for a moment I didn’t think she could go on. I know that no more than ten or twelve seconds elapsed, but it seemed much longer, and finally she nodded slightly. With that, Jamie and Hegbert started moving again, and I felt my heart surge with pride.
It was, I remembered thinking, the most difficult walk anyone ever had to make.
In every way, a walk to remember.
The nurse had rolled the wheelchair up front as Jamie and her father made their way toward me. When she finally reached my side, there were gasps of joy and everyone spontaneously began to clap. The nurse rolled the wheelchair into position, and Jamie sat down again, spent. With a smile I lowered myself to my knees so that I would be level with her. My father then did the same.
Hegbert, after kissing Jamie on the cheek, retrieved his Bible in order to begin the ceremony. All business now, he seemed to have abandoned his role as Jamie’s father to something more distant, where he could keep his emotions in check. Yet I could see him struggling as he stood before us. He perched his glasses on his nose and opened the Bible, then looked at Jamie and me. Hegbert towered over us, and I could tell that he hadn’t anticipated our being so much lower. For a moment he stood before us, almost confused, then surprisingly decided to kneel as well. Jamie smiled and reached for his free hand, then reached for mine, linking us together.
Hegbert began the ceremony in the traditional way, then read the passage in the Bible that Jamie had once pointed out to me. Knowing how weak she was, I thought he would have us recite the vows right away, but once more Hegbert surprised me. He looked at Jamie and me, then out to the congregation, then back to us again, as if searching for the right words.
He cleared his throat, and his voice rose so that everyone could hear it. This is what he said:
“As a father, I’m supposed to give away my daughter, but I’m not sure that I’m able to do this.”
The congregation went silent, and Hegbert nodded at me, willing me to be patient. Jamie squeezed my hand in support.
“I can no more give Jamie away than I can give away my heart. But what I can do is to let another share in the joy that she has always given me. May God’s blessings be with you both.”
It was then that he set aside the Bible. He reached out, offering his hand to mine, and I took it, completing the circle.
With that he led us through our vows. My father handed me the ring my mother had helped me pick out, and Jamie gave me one as well. We slipped them on our fingers. Hegbert watched us as we did so, and when we were finally ready, he pronounced us husband and wife. I kissed Jamie softly as my mother began to cry, then held Jamie’s hand in mine. In front of God and everyone else, I’d promised my love and devotion, in sickness and in health, and I’d never felt so good about anything.
It was, I remember, the most wonderful moment of my life.
It is now forty years later, and I can still remember everything from that day. I may be older and wiser, I may have lived another life since then, but I know that when my time eventually comes, the memories of that day will be the final images that float through my mind. I still love her, you see, and I’ve never removed my ring. In all these years I’ve never felt the desire to do so.
I breathe deeply, taking in the fresh spring air. Though Beaufort has changed and I have changed, the air itself has not. It’s still the air of my childhood, the air of my seventeenth year, and when I finally exhale, I’m fifty-seven once more. But this is okay. I smile slightly, looking toward the sky, knowing there’s one thing I still haven’t told you: I now believe, by the way, that miracles can happen.