“Remember that night we drove back to Paris with Mom and Grandpapa that one summer?” he says, looking out the train window as dusk fell over that same city.
“I think it was in 2005? Were we coming back from Dijon?” he continues.
My heart skips a beat and I feel the goosebumps form under my winter layers.
“Yes, I remember. It was in 2004,” I reply softly, knowing exactly the night he’s thinking of, mesmerized by this cohesion between my brother’s memories and mine.
“It was just so peaceful to see the city at night like that. With Mom…” his voice trails off.
“I think about that night a lot,” I respond, turning away to hide the tears welling up in my eyes. Tears of understanding and of being understood.
We have never carried our grief in the same way. We lost the same mother but we have felt and expressed it so differently. There have been many times over these past couple of years when these differences have left us feeling worlds apart from one another as we’ve forged our own paths in coming to terms with our shared loss. And yet, we have both held on to this one memory, this seemingly mundane moment in time that for whatever reason survived the hundreds of thousands of ordinary moments that have made up our lives since. But I have savored this memory often; it’s like taking a bite of chocolate or having that first sip of wine at the end of a long day.
As the train slinks through the suburbs, I feel the power of our connection to this memory and this grief that only we can understand. I am eleven again. I am in the back seat of my grandfather’s dark green Citroen, my cheek pressed against the window as I watch Paris sprawl out before me. Skirting the city’s perimeter headed north, we are practically alone on the highway. It’s late and a calm has settled over the car, the usual bickering between siblings confined in a small space for a long period of time has finally ceased. My brother appears to be asleep and this pleases me, to be the one who stays awake late into the night with the grownups. Hushed voices drifting from the front seat, the melody of Mom’s voice mixed with Grandpapa’s deeper one, always steady and reassuring. Not the kind of whispering that signifies secrets or bad news, I gauge. I am already aware that this state of existence is fragile.
It’s a warm night so I roll down my window and relish the feeling of the wind on my face, blowing my hair in every direction. The city’s lights are captivating and I follow them closely for a long time. I close my eyes. A sense of peace has draped itself over me and I wonder if we have to stop, if we can just keep driving through the night forever so that this feeling never disappears. Anything seems possible because this is my family and my life and I don’t want it any other way. I am fighting sleep now. Before I drift off to sleep, I know what it means to be happy, to be safe, to be loved. In that moment, all was right in the world.
In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Easy Fix.”
It started with a trip to the post office. In my purse were two small gifts to send to the States for a friend’s upcoming birthday. I was excited to surprise her because I knew she wouldn’t be expecting anything due to the distance. But my hopes were quickly shattered. To ship a package no more than 3x3x1 in dimension, it would cost me the equivalent of $50. More than the price of the actual gifts themselves. I was so disappointed that I left without even thinking to mail the birthday card and had to return the next morning to send it.
Walking home slowly, I felt the packages bumping against my leg, cruelly reminding me of the mission I failed to accomplish. Their *perfectly reasonable* weight seemed to have doubled and with it, a wave of homesickness that dragged my spirits down. This was the realization that I can’t be in my friends’ lives in the same way as before. Suddenly I felt very far away from home.
As I moped about for the next 24 hours, the smallest things started to irritate me. Missing home has a way of twisting your perspective so that you only see the negative. And of course, everything about your country is perfect! Here is a brief list of thoughts that crossed my mind:
1) I miss driving. And by that, I mean driving on open roads that are wider than a double bed and where I don’t feel like I’m going to be killed every time I turn yet another blind corner.
2) Two words: dog poop. In nearly five months of living in France, I have been conducting an observational study in which I have concluded that the French are the least likely of any population in the world to pick up after their dogs. Never have I stepped in so much dog s%*# in my life. Whenever I have mentioned this to someone, they concede that it is indeed a problem but they also dismiss it by telling me it is good luck to have animal feces smeared all over your shoe … wouldn’t it be even better luck if we didn’t have to step in it at all?!
3) A stereotypical complaint about the French, but nonetheless, it applies: SMOKING KILLS, MESDAMES AND MESSIEURS! Stop blowing your smoke in my face!
4) Why is wearing all black every day a thing? Can we not add a little bit of color into our lives over here?!
As so often happens, however, I received a little message from Mom. Whenever I am feeling disheartened, I experience a moment of clarity that calms my anger and transforms my outlook in a way that always seems to lead back to her. In the bitterness of missing home, it dawned on me that there were probably many times when she felt this same longing for home. It never occurred to me growing up that the place I call home may not have always felt like home to her. She never said as much but now that I know what it’s like to be thousands of miles away from where you come from, I doubt there weren’t times when she dreamed of packing up a suitcase and buying a one-way ticket back to France. But she chose to stay because once you start to lay down roots somewhere, it’s harder to just pick up and leave. I understand that better now.
Finding this parallel between my life and her’s didn’t make me miss home any less but it offered insight into her life in a way that I hadn’t considered before. As we transition into adulthood, our parents become more human and we begin to see them in many different lights, for the better or for the worst. Sometimes I feel like that opportunity was stolen from me and that I am missing out on getting to know my mom as the complete person that she was. But moments like these have convinced me that I, too, will continue to learn about who she was as I go through life. Death does not change that. Knowing her has changed me. Being her daughter will continue to change me.
Before I even get into this subject, I feel the need to make it known that these thoughts and opinions are purely based off of my personal experience living in the Paris metropolitan area during the terror attacks that occurred last week. In no way am I a political expert or trying to push my opinions upon anyone. But this is an incredibly unique time to be living in France right now and I felt like it was worth sharing.
One of the last pieces of advice my father gave me before leaving for Paris last Fall was to stay away from political demonstrations. A witness to the 1968 uprising in Paris and other manifestations in the sixties and seventies, my slightly overprotective but well-meaning father felt it was important to send me off into the world with this precaution. At the time, I said “Of course, Dad,” and kissed him on the cheek before heading off through airport security. And it wasn’t a lie; I had no intentions of getting mixed up in anything of the sort, mostly because I don’t love huge crowds and I have never been particularly politically outspoken.
Then, on January 7, two gunmen entered the satirical magazine headquarters of Charlie Hebdo and killed journalists and policemen, unleashing a series of events that included two hostage situations where members of the Jewish community were killed as well. At first, I was simply shaken to be in geographical proximity to these attacks. Coming from North Carolina, I have never really experienced the fear of being a victim of terrorism. Of course I am old enough to remember 9/11 and I am aware of the violence that seems to preside over people’s action (on both sides of the equation, I might add). But I have always felt far away from this reality, protected only because I happened to be born in the “right” country, under the “right” religion, and with the “right” color skin. Suddenly, however, the thought of “Should I take the train into the city today?” and “Is it safe to ride the metro or should I just walk?” have become real questions. While Parisians have continued on with life more or less as usual, there is a tension lingering in the air.
Then there was the fact that the first victims to be targeted were writers and cartoonists. This struck a nerve for me. Earlier that morning I had just published a blog post, blissfully taking for granted my right of free speech. Once again, the idea that voicing one’s opinion publicly can lead to such violence seemed unfathomable. As some have pointed out, the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published could be viewed as inflammatory and insensitive during a time of unrest and suspicion between Christians and Muslims. But that was a choice that they made while knowing the risks, one that everyone has the right to protest but not over which to kill. In discussing the issue further with family and friends, I also realized that freedom of speech goes so much deeper than just what comes out of your mouth or what you put down on paper. It encompasses all of who you are and *in theory* protects your right to be yourself without fear of retribution as a result. And whether or not you agree with their approach, I think that’s exactly what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo tried to show in satirizing those who kill in the name of Muhammad or any other institution.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to the demonstration in Paris on Sunday until a couple hours before. Dad’s voice in my head, I worried about how safe it would be to go. But as the time drew closer to the start of la Marche Républicane, I told myself I had to go. I have been fortunate enough to never know what it is like to have my freedom of speech taken away and that is precisely why it was important for me to march on Sunday. Because so many others have died defending that right for me and because others still don’t have that right. Once I made up my mind to go, my anxiety quickly dissipated. At the train station in the suburb of Paris where I live, the platform was full of people with banners and “Je suis Charlie” pins on their coats. At each stop on the twenty-minute ride into Paris, the train kept filling up with people until every seat and standing room were occupied. As we filed out of the train at la Gare St. Lazare, it seemed as if the entire crowd had the same purpose as opposed to rushing off in a million directions as usual. I knew the general direction I needed to take in order to make my way to Place de la Rebulique, where the march was to begin, but I soon found that no map was necessary, as I fell into step with those around me until we all converged onto Boulevard Haussmann and headed east. Haussmann turned into Boulevard Montmartre and then into Boulevard Poissonière. There were families with young children, students, old people, people on crutches, people of all different nationalities and religions, people hanging out of windows along the boulevard. The weather was on our side as we walked block after block until finally we could no longer move forward at Porte Saint-Denis. Only about half a mile away from Place de la République, the cheers and songs passed through the crowd like a wave of sound. “La Marseillaise” rang out punctured by moments of silence and applause.
I don’t know how else to describe it other than incredible and historical. Over 1.5 million people marched in the streets of Paris and I got to be a part of it. To go from witnessing hatred’s capacity to twist the human spirit to experiencing humanity’s greatest qualities of lifting one another up in times of sorrow in less than a week was a powerful testament to what we are all capable of, depending on the path we choose to take. Now that the agitation of the rally has passed, the question has become where do we go from here? When tragedies such as these occur, people come together and leaders make promises but they never seem to dig deeper and challenge the very systems that are in place that make it so that an entire sector of the population feels isolated and oppressed. On Sunday I experienced one of the most empowering moments of my life but its meaning will become tainted overtime if we, as citizens, and our leaders fail to really question what parts of our society lend themselves to such dividing violence. Somewhere along the line, whether within society or their own culture, maybe those three men also felt like they had lost their right to freely express who they were too.
The holiday season is always a delicate time for me. Whether or not you have lost someone close to you, this sentiment is probably not new to you. It usually starts just after my birthday, as a flurry of phone calls and emails are exchanged to organize Thanksgiving and Christmas plans, and it doesn’t let up until after New Year’s Day. I would equate the feeling to taking in a huge breath of air before plunging underwater and struggling to hold it all the way to the beginning of a holiday-free January. If I come up for air anywhere in between, the reality of spending another Christmas without Mom will come crashing down. During the past three Christmas seasons spent in her absence, I threw myself into the festivities, trying to recapture the magic and love that mothers seem to be so good at inspiring during this time of the year. Never had I spent so much time Christmas shopping for the perfect gifts for my family, baking my mom’s favorites, or just generally preparing for the holidays in our house. Because that’s what she did, year after year. From the Christmas of ’99 when she received her official diagnosis hours before we sat down to our Christmas Eve dinner to that unfortunate year her chemotherapy was scheduled on the day of our annual Christmas party, she carried on with Christmas.
Our first year without her, we all fled in opposite directions, seeking refuge anywhere but at home so that we wouldn’t have to sit down at the dining room table and stare at her empty chair. Like so many other Firsts, we stumbled through Christmas still shell-shocked and completely unsure of what to do or how to feel. It would take us another year to muster up the courage to set up the tree and dust off our ornaments (shout out to my amazing friends who responded to my desperate plea and helping me not do it alone!). It became clear to me that if I had to spend my Christmases without Mom from hereon out, I might as well try to make them the absolute best and Christmas-y Christmases ever instead of being miserable. But no matter how hard I try to embody my mom’s festiveness and honor the traditions we created with her, it has never been enough to chase away the tears on Christmas morning. Which is always incredibly disappointing after weeks of convincing myself that I’ve got my s%*# together to make it through the holidays.
Except for this year. This has been the first Christmas where I haven’t felt like my lungs were about to burst from a lack of air. Well, maybe once or twice did I feel the pressure building up in my chest, but I quickly did whatever was necessary to return to homeostasis-level breathing. Part of the difference may have been simply being away from my childhood home. I’ve always prided myself on not “running away” from that place brimming with memories, but maybe it’s time to start making new traditions. In years past, I’ve held on so tightly to the ones we created with her because it seemed like the only way to keep her spirit alive among us. It just never felt like enough. This time around, however, Christmas looked completely different. My aunt hosted the celebration and my mom’s side of the family came together for the first time since 2011. And despite all these changes to our usual traditions, Mom was with us. For the 48 hours that we all spent under the same roof her presence was evident in the way that we were able to just be. Just being able to function as a family intact and to thoroughly enjoy one another’s company was a blessing to me after so many Christmases of feeling disconnected. We didn’t have to talk about her or bake her favorite cookies; she is the link that connects me to these people and that was enough.
The peace I found on Christmas continued into New Year’s Eve. As we rang in the new year in typical French fashion with glasses of champagne and dozens of oysters, it hit me how odd it seemed to be entering 2015 so naturally without Mom by my side in this life any longer. I will never forget the group hug I shared with Mom and Dad as we watched the ball drop on TV and the first minutes of 2011 began to unfold. In that moment, snuggled in the middle of my parents’ arms, it never crossed my mind that maybe this would be our last New Year’s together or that she wouldn’t be here in 2015 or even in 2025. Death was around the corner and I didn’t see it coming. Yet here I am, living, breathing, happy in 2015. I know that’s how she would want things to be but I’ll admit that it’s confusing to be just so okay without her. But I am grateful as well. Grateful for how powerful the human spirit can be in the face of adversity. My grief won’t be erased in this new year or any other to follow but I have discovered, particularly in the last year, that I am independently capable of carrying it with me and living my life at the same time.