Monday, November 2, 2015

My Mother--Epilog

By the time I got to France, my mom was already in a coma from which she wouldn’t awaken. There was no opportunity for last words. She had a private room at the American Hospital in Paris on the Boulevard Victor Hugo. Forty-six years earlier and almost to the day, in a rare Parisian snow storm, she’d given birth to me in the very same hospital. Now, the cancer that slowly destroyed her had progressed too far for another operation. When it became obvious that there was no chance of survival, her oncologist increased her morphine drip and she passed away quietly.

I arrived at the hospital hours after she died. She looked incredibly small under the white sheet that was pulled up to her chin; her room smelled of flowers and disinfectant, and a light Parisian rain streaked the windows. I didn’t have any great, illuminating thoughts save the hackneyed one that, finally, she was at peace. She had always been terrified that my father would die before her; that worry was now at rest.

I remembered that the last time she’d been hospitalized, about a month earlier, I’d spoken with her on the phone and all she could talk about was how she had received more, and bigger, bouquets than a patient down the hall, a famous French singer called Serge Gainsbourg. “Qu’est ce que tu penses de ça,” she asked.  “What do you think of that?”  It reminded me of the time, decades earlier, when the impossibly French Maurice Chevalier came to our American home for dinner. My mother had met him shortly after the war and he was touring the States one final time, still garnering recognition and accolades for his role in the movie, Gigi. He was very old and frail by then, but could still command the attention of all the other guests. Getting him to come to our house was one of my mother’s major social a coup, but he failed to impress her.  “Hmm,” said she after the star had left. “His table manners are terrible. If I were on tour, I wouldn’t eat salad with the desert fork.”   

Before being hospitalized for the last time, she spent her last days at home in her Paris apartment being the perfect hostess, playing bridge with her friends, serving hors d’oeuvres and refusing to accept the inevitability of her own death. She had told no one about the severity of her illness but my sister, Isa, knew. She had summoned me from Washington with a late-night phone call. “Viens vite. C’est sérieux,” she said, and Isa was never one for exaggerations.

My father may have also known—how could he not—but he so feared the awareness that he simply refused to accept it. The Alzheimer’s that would kill him a few years later had already taken hold. It worsened immediately. He was confused, alternately laughing, then in tears, her disappearance too much for him to comprehend. When he finally did, a light in his eyes faded and never returned.

There was a flurry of activity. Even in death she was a center stage and this would have pleased her. Some four hundred friends, acquaintances and, I suspect, a nemesis or two, attended her funeral service. My father shook hands woodenly, accepting condolences with the nod of his head but never entirely there. I stood next to him in a suit that was too thin for the weather and held on to his right arm. He too, seemed smaller.

Her ashes were spread at the Père Lachaise Cemetery on Rue du Repos, and she was well surrounded by famous people. Guillaume Apollinaire, Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau and yes, Jim Morrison, whom she’d never heard of but probably would have liked.  

Note: So this is the epilog. It’s probably premature. I’m sure I’ll keep writing about the indomitable Marie-Thérèse after I catch my breath.




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