On Father’s Day

For several years now, I’ve shared nuggets of my life, through regular posts in English and French. They talk of the books that move me, of the linguistic and cultural differences between my native and adoptive countries, of my own writing in a language I acquired in the US, but rarely of anything too personal. That would involve my family and close friends, and I am reluctant to write anything that could expose them.

Today, though, in honor of Father’s Day, celebrated tomorrow in the USA and France, I share with you a few words that I wrote almost exactly three years ago, on a slate-grey June evening.

 

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I am sitting, alone confused and sad, on a hard airport chair. It is my wedding anniversary and I’m on my way to France, to visit my dying father who has just suffered a severe stroke that left him in a coma. Due to the sudden news, my family will join me later.

In my parents’ small town in Normandy I’ll be away from easy Internet access. Who knows when I’ll post the following unfiltered words than I write as I wait for my red-eye flight?

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

Since I read lots of Young Adult literature, I’m 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 when I was seven. I was small for my age, and terrified. But Papa never made fun of me and never tricked me like I saw other fathers did, pretending to hold the bike while in fact they didn’t.

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

 

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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 me straight in the eyes and said, “A boy is breaking your heart. I’m sorry.”

I read sincere concern and knew that he took me seriously and would not make me believe he could be more than sorry.

Years later, when I introduced him to the guy I would later marry, he smiled his genuine smile that brightened his gorgeous sky-blue eyes. By the time of one apéritif and a pétanque game, my future husband and father had become partners in crime.

My life has little in common with my father’s. He left school at the age of fourteen. However, his reading skills far exceeded the few years he spent in school. I owe him my love for stories. I learned how to read, sitting on his lap, as he leafed through his daily newspaper. With him I discovered that these black mysterious signs told stories. Papa loved biographies and nonfiction while I favored fiction, but we devoured books with the same passion.

My father 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 also 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.

 

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As I wait to board my plane, a tender sad wave rolls over me.

Through the terminal, young children are driving their parents crazy, and yet I observe a few fathers who gently wipe peanut butter and chocolate off their little girls and boys’ faces and tell them jokes to make the wait less annoying. These men are like the father I had.

Poor YA material but the kind I wish every child has.

 

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Since I landed in France, every hour is spent at the hospital with Papa or with family members and friends. All we do is talk about him.

With family it was expected. But my biggest surprise is to meet so many people who know and love my father. From the next-door young family to his older neighbors who saw him every morning on his way to the bakery, from his physician to the butcher, Papa makes unanimity. Seeing so many tearful eyes when I speak of Papa is a humble experience.

The stroke has destroyed his neurological system and he will never recover. He’s 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 has entered 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 father won’t get his life back.

I was too young when I lost my grandparents, so this is my first real 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 know, always trigger a phase of denial.

Since my arrival, I’ve met so many people that they 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 saw less since my move to the United States.

And yet…

My papa is my childhood.

Tonight, I am facing the moment I never thought I would meet so soon and so unprepared: getting ready to say goodbye to my papa.

In comparison to many people, I’m fortunate to spend four days near him. Although he has been unable to acknowledge my presence, I talk to him and tell him things I’ve never told him. Through his silence I imagine his answers, so we have this strange conversation that I’m unprepared for and yet brings him closer to me than ever. I hope my words soothe his pain. His quiet companionship eases my sadness.

June 28 is filled with low rainy clouds above Normandy. My papa has just left our beautiful planet earth.

At 8:00 p.m., when I leave the hospital, the sun breaks through the sky, first in a shy way and then in a bold daring move.

 

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I’ve always found comfort in books. Tonight, I can only write.

It is midnight in France. Darkness fell less than an hour ago. I always forget about the long summer nights in 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?”

Although my sister cannot see me, I shake my head no.

“So you think I’m right,” she says.

It isn’t a question, and I smile to myself.

I believed that my father would win over death like in a game of pétanques, and I’m sad beyond words. Yet I know that he will continue to accompany me.

Because there is no way I will ever forget those easy sunny days when Papa was able to make me believe in eternity.

 

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Only hours before this new 2016 Father’s Day, I want to wish each and every father, dad, daddy, père, papa, a beautiful day filled with joy, peace, and love.

Children need you. The world needs you.

Happy Father’s Day!

Bonne fête des pères!

 

 

P.S. Il y a trois ans, j’ai écrit ce billet qui n’est pas la traduction littérale de celui d’aujourd’hui. Pour ceux et celles qui préfèrent me lire dans ma langue maternelle. Et paternelle, bien sûr.

Comments

  1. Thank you. You make me wish very much I had known him … A poignant, heartfelt tribute.

  2. Lovely memories and a great tribute to a loving dad. I didn’t grow up with a father, but if I had I’d wish him to be like your papa.

    • I feel lucky when I see many kids growing up without a dad or with one who is in a bad relationship with their mom. None is perfect. Mine wasn’t. But he did his job as best as he could. And that’s something I valued when I grew up. See you around, Mona.

  3. Such a touching post and thank you for reminding me of another father like yours. I think they would have enjoyed a stroll round a garden together, putting the world to rights.

  4. That was beautiful, thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you, Martine. I appreciate your time and comment. By the way, your first name is the name of one of my favorite picture books’ character when I was a little girl in France. The illustrated series was written around a little girl Martine who went to different places and did different things (the sea, the mountains, the farm,…). I loved Martine!

  5. Thank you for sharing this personal memory, Evelyne. I feel like I know your father. He reminds me of so many men who understand life in a way that is special. Not every father. Not every elderly man, but I see this quality in men and it always makes me smile.

  6. That was such a tender, poignant tribute to your father. Thank you for sharing him with us.
    A bit of sand in the butter, I completely understand that.

    • Ah, I like it that you get the sand thing! Not too many people do.
      It’s funny to notice that the things we do remember most are small but were huge when we were little. They are also rarely expensive and even tangible. Although learning how to bike is concrete. From my dad I remember more moments than anything. I suppose this is the same for everything in life. Thank you anyway for another kind stop, Joey.

  7. Breaks my heart – what a beautiful story of a man who loved and was so loved. A wonderful way to honor your Father and all my best on this day of remembrance.

    • As much as I think mothers deserve to be celebrated, I truly want fathers to be too. I feel lucky in comparaison to many who didn’t get to have a good dad. I wish we had been able to share more but he was guarded and said most through actions than words. I learned how to decode!

  8. Agnès GRANDGUILLOT says:

    Ce sont tes plus beaux mots d’amour que tu transmets ainsi à ton papa. Il peut être fier de t’avoir transmis une si belle sensibilité !!!

    • Oh cela me fait plaisir de te revoir ici! Je ne me souviens pas si tu as rencontré mon papa. Je ne suis pas certaine. Mes copains et copines l’aimaient bien. Il aimait rire et c’était un de ses atouts les plus appréciés. Moi j’aimais bien son gout pour l’extérieur. Jardin. Ballades. Plage. Vélo. Jeux de boules…
      A plus tard!

  9. So sorry you’ve lost your father, Evelyne. This is a sweet story and it is true you will carry him with you always. I was thinking of World War II today also because my father served in World War II. Sending warm thoughts to you at this holy time in your life.

  10. It is so hard to say good bye to those we love. I know you treasure your memories and his legacy lives on through you and your family. Peace.

    • Don’t we all carry little pieces of these people who lived around us and are no longer physically present and yet hug us is so many different ways? So agree with you, Claire. Peace to you too.

  11. impressive and emotional… ❤
    * * *
    I strongly believe that both "papa's day" and "mama's day" should be each and every day, not only once/year… 🙂

  12. Both matter in a child’s life, that’s so true. I’ve also met people who don’t have children (by choice or not) and play a terrific role in a child’s life. I feel fortunate to have had a father who cared for his kids and even more fortunate to have met a man who also care deeply for the kids we have together. Often, I feel as if it’s ‘papa’s day’ every day at my home, since our kids still call him so oftern when they need guidance or support. And also for no reason.
    They call me too!

  13. Beautiful, poignant, funny . . . I too love that sentence: “I owe him my weird fondness for the crunchy taste of butter sprinkled with specks of sand on a baguette sandwich.” I envy you your relationship with your father, but I don’t envy you the parting — though you write of it so well. The YA angle is intriguing. I suspect that your relationship with your father helps explain the richness of the family relationships in Chronicles from Chateau Moines.

    • Thank you, Susanna, for another thoughtful visit. At some point, I was a little tired of reading so many novels for children and teens where parents and kids lived awful relationships. Same with siblings. I wanted to write with more positive family situations. I’m glad you enjoyed that aspect. See you around.

  14. This is beautiful Evelyne, a wonderful tribute to your cherished Papa. I lost my Dad 15 years ago. He too wasn’t great material for a YA novel – he was quiet, calm and never said a word in anger to me – I was a real Daddy’s girl so losing him was very difficult, I always think of him with great love and fondness. Thank you for sharing these memories of your father.

  15. So sweet. Thank you for sharing about your dad. It makes me more appreciative of those around me.

  16. It’s a lovely tribute, Evelyn. Hugs.

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