Mon Papa

In a cruel turn of events, on the night of my wedding anniversary, I took a flight to Paris to visit my dying father.

My sister had just informed me that he had suffered a severe stroke leaving him in a coma.

I have, for a few years, shared bits of myself through regular posts in English and French. They talk of the books I like, of the stories that move me, of the cultural and linguistic differences between my native and adoptive countries, and of my attempts to improve my writing. Unlike many bloggers – I envy and admire them for that reason – I have a difficult time to share very personal experiences and feelings. All are related to my family and close friends, and I am reluctant to write anything that could reveal too much of them.

However, as I sat, alone, confused and sad, on a hard airport chair, a physical need to confide pushed me to type these words on my laptop.

Talking about my father, mon papa, is both easy and difficult.

Since I read a lot of YA novels, I am familiar with the common topic of parental issues that many writers use to write compelling stories.

My father is poor material for a YA writer.

He and I never fought.

He taught me how to bike without the training wheels while I was terrified. But Papa never made fun of me and never tricked me like some other fathers who pretended to hold the bike but in fact didn’t.

After I took my baccalauréat – the mandatory French high school exam – he drove me to the beach for a picnic. I owe my papa my weird fondness for the crunchy taste of butter blended with sand on a baguette sandwich.

At seventeen years old I fell in love for a boy who didn’t love me. My father knew before anyone – although I didn’t tell him anything – that I was madly in love and madly sad, too. One night, he looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “A boy is breaking your heart. I am so sorry.”

I read sincere concern in his eyes and knew that he was neither making fun of me nor pretending he could do more than being sorry. Years later when I introduced him to the young man I would marry, he smiled his crooked smile that lit his gorgeous sky-blue eyes. After one apéritif and a pétanque game, my future husband and father had become partners in crime.

My life has little to do with the life my father led. A ten-year-old boy during World War II, he left school at the age of fourteen. However his reading skills were far better than most high school graduates. I owe my papa my love for stories. I learned how to read, sitting on his lap, begging for him to tell me what the articles in Ouest France and L’Orne Combattante, our local newspapers, were talking about. With him I discovered that these black mysterious signs told stories. Papa loved biographies and nonfiction when I favored fiction, but we devoured books with the same passion.

Last fall, he read my first published novel – thanks to my aunt’s translation – and asked for more. I wished he could have read my memoir about my journey from France to the USA in its American-English version. He would have been happy to know that an editor is now reading it and might be interested.

Papa was grateful to have been more than a visitor to my adoptive country. He argued with a few French fellows when he insisted that American food was good, even though I knew he missed his crusty baguette and unctuous Camembert. And of course whenever he got a chance to meet an American who had fought during World War II he begged me to thank him. He had funny silent conversations with other men who like him kept beautiful gardens. Some people manage to communicate without knowing foreign languages. My papa was one of them.

On June 24, as I traveled to my homeland to be with my father, a wave rolled over me, tender and cruel.

Around me young children were driving their parents crazy, and yet I observed a few fathers who gently wiped peanut butter and chocolate off their little girls or boys’ faces. They were the kind of father I had. Poor YA material but the kind I wish every child could have.

In my parents’ village in Normandy I am away from easy Internet access, so what I am sharing with you are my feelings and emotions since my arrival.

Since I landed every hour is spent at the hospital with my papa or with family and friends talking about him.

With family it was expected. But my biggest surprise – retrospectively I should not have been surprised – is to meet so many people who knew and loved my papa.

From the young couple that lives next door to his neighbors who saw my papa every day on his way to the bakery, from his physician to the butcher, my father makes unanimity.

I’m positive I’m not as popular. Seeing so many tearful eyes when I spoke of my papa is a humble experience.

The stroke has destroyed my papa’s neurological system and he will never recover. He is kept alive, thanks to modern medicine and equipment acting like magic wands. But the moment will come when magic won’t be enough.

My family is entering a strange world that reminds me of the first year of a baby, when every day is a new step.

But unlike a baby’s progress toward autonomy my papa won’t get his life back.

Although I lost my grandparents many years ago, this is my first close encounter with death. I can’t sleep and when I finally drift away, I wake up thinking I just had a nightmare. Traumatic events, I realize, always trigger a phase of denial.

Since Tuesday morning I have met so many people that their names are a blur in my memory. But I can’t forget their words. All are talking of a man I should know better than they do.

And yet…

I left France twenty years ago. Although supportive my parents were sad. They visited me. I visited them. But I wasn’t part of their daily life anymore. My sister and her family were, as were my extended family and a tight network of friends and neighbors.

These people, I understand, have known a man I only saw once a year or even every other year either in the States or in France.

And yet…

What I know of him is so much more than memories.

My papa is my childhood. And only my sister can understand. So we talk and talk and talk…

Tonight we are facing the moment we never thought we would meet so soon and so unprepared: getting ready to say goodbye to our papa.

In comparison to many people I have been fortunate to spend four days near my papa. Although he has been unable to acknowledge my presence, I spoke to him and told him words I never had until now. Through his silence I imagined his answers, so we had this strange conversation that I was unprepared for and yet brought us closer than ever. I hoped my words soothed his pain. His companionship eased my sadness.

June 28 is a cloudy grey day in Normandy. My papa has just left our beautiful planet earth. At 8:00 p.m. when I left the hospital with my family, the sun was breaking through the sky.

I have always found solace in books. Tonight I can only write.

None of you who are reading these words knew my father, and yet this is in your company that I choose to spend the night.

It is midnight in France. Darkness fell less than an hour ago. I always forget about the long summer nights of Northern Europe. Although exhausted I can’t sleep.

My sister cannot either and she calls me on my cell. “I found a picture of you and me,” she says. “Remember that year we wore matching shorts and T-shirts?”

“The year we also had white hats?” I say.

“That one.”

“So?”

“I’ve been thinking,” my sister goes on. “I’d like to put this picture in papa’s casket.” She pauses. “I’m crazy, right?”

I shake my head no although my sister can’t see me.

“So you think I’m right,” she says.

It isn’t a question, and I smile to myself. “We should find more,” I add.

Her agreement is tacit.

This is the power of a common happy childhood.

I believed that my papa would be able to live, and I am sad beyond words. Yet my sister and I know that he will continue to accompany us.

Because there is no way we will ever forget those sunny days when our papa was able to make us believe in eternity.

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