They spent a bit more than 25 years here, became citizens who voted and appreciated what the land had to offer, and then when my father retired, they returned to France with what I think was a sigh of relief. Not that there was anything wrong with the States—there wasn’t—but they were French to the core and wanted to be in Paris where, as newlyweds, they were improbable radio stars, the main characters of the GI John et Janine show, where Janine saved the day and GI John, a not overly bright American soldier, basked in the love of his wily French wife.
We all anticipate our parents’ death, but when it comes and make orphans of us, it’s never quite what we expect. My mother died in 1992 at the American Hospital in Paris where some 46 years earlier, she’d given birth to me. My father died in the States four years later. He never fully got over his wife’s passing.
I always thought somehow one or both would send me a sign from Over There, but they never have. In fact, their total silence is almost disturbing. Almost everyone I know who has lost parents has told me that at one time or another, they felt the parents’ presence nearby, reassuring in moments of sadness, loss or stress. Some have said the presence was almost physical; they were touched or kissed or hugged by long-gone mothers and fathers, and were never quite the same afterwards. Call it a spiritual experience or a miraculous moment if you believe in such.
In my family, though, there was hardly ever any touching. In fact, Arielle asked me last night about that and I had to admit that while alive, my parents almost never had any sort of physical contact with me, so I suppose it’s not surprising that there would not be posthumous touching either. I am discovering that this lack of bodily interaction has stayed with me. Now, much older, I miss it. There’s a hole where the warmth of someone’s touch should be and it’s an impossible vacuum to fill.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was certain one or the other would come to advise and reassure. After all, they both went through it too—my mother died from hers, my father recovered from his—and they must have had words of wisdom ready to go.
My father was stoical about his diagnosis when he was in his early 50s. He had weathered a war and I always had the impression he felt ready to go at any time, and would do so without regret. Indeed, he might even welcome the departure. My mom panicked over his cancer but bore her own with amazing courage. She was playing bridge with her cronies up to the end, never letting on that she was in frightful pain. In fact, I’m not sure she ever told my father the full extent of her illness, or that she’d been diagnosed with liver cancer, a killing version of the disease. Though she knew her death was impending, for good or for ill she opted stay silent almost until the end.
It saddens me there’s been nothing, not a word or touch or breath from my parents, not even the intimation that there may be something out there. I guess that 25 years ago when I spread my mother’s ashes on the green grasses of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and followed the same ritual for my father a few years later, well, that was it. Whoever and whatever they were was subsumed by the greater universe. Whatever individualities existed simply ceased to be.
That’s strange to me. I’m not religious but I’d like to think something—other than the fading memories of us that are held by others—remains after our death. And maybe it does and I simply haven’t been privy to it. Whatever. I suppose if they’re up there and want to reach, Maman and Papa know where I am better than I know where they are. And even after many years, I would welcome their touch, no matter how slight or fleeting it might be.