From the numbers, it looks as though most citizens of the world are beginning to understand what they can do to face off against the power of a coronavirus cell. They can stay home, wash hands, exercise—and connect with others.
As cases mount, I have repeatedly reassured myself that the vast majority of people are well. Yet my reassurance quickly turns to horror. It reveals a callous nature, schadenfreude, that uniquely useful German word signifying pleasure in another’s misfortune. If it’s all about me and mine, I’m suddenly on the opposing side from one friend’s winsome daughter just home from college and another’s cherubic, curly-headed five-year-old grandson, both caught in the viral web. The guilty satisfactions of poring over statistics and reading New York Times headlines turn out to be not so pleasurable. In fact, they are terrifying.
So it is that in our newly quieted lives, we are discovering a host of not-so-guilty pleasures—the implicitly positive. The Italians set us aright by singing in the streets of Siena. We recalled in the grips of terror what it is to be human. Let it be remembered that in March, 2020, we segued from the confusion of separation into the stabilizing comfort of global unity. We’ve shared our nature walks. We discovered online Happy Hours. Last weekend, I was checking in on a couple of friends, who happened to be out hiking when I called. I said we’d catch up later, but Larry suggested we meet that evening online. We’d each bring our wine and a tray to nibble from, and we’d catch up. And so we spent two hours on our desktop FaceTiime, sipping, chewing ciabatta and olives, over the gamut of current issues and nonsensical observations. We signed off high on the simple joys of life.
Listening to my favorite podcasts over the past week, I hear podcaster Oliver Gee and his wife on The Earful Tower, who, strictly confined to their 300-square-foot apartment in Paris’s Montmartre quarter, are setting up new podcast-the-pandemic interviews (Oliver) and painting daily watercolors (Lina). The finished paintings on Instagram (@parisianpostcards) are exquisite.
In my own corner of the world, Dorothy, too, is expanding her watercolor repertoire. Mary is embroidering a clever cat motif for her soon-to-arrive baby’s room. Luellen is steeped in weeding and nurturing her garden while Jennifer is starting tomato plants. Ron is practicing simplified piano versions from the great American songbook. He has Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ down and has moved on to Scott Joplin. On the advice of novelist Ann Patchett on the PBS News Hour, we started reading aloud Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield during apéro.
Life in isolation is inexplicably full. For a positive outlook, I depend on a routine of leaping out of bed when light hits the blinds, heading straight to the shower, fluffing the bedhead and restoring simple make-up. Indomitably dressing for the day, I feel like an Army sergeant, boots on and ready for inspection. The day falls into place with news and conversation over coffee, confronting domestic needs, whether laundry, cleaning, or the wary grocery expedition. My cooking focus has reached a new level of intensity, as we exchange recipes and mouth-watering photos with the kids in Chicago.
Glimpses of nature and absorption into intricate details of this springtime rebirth must be profound consolation around the globe, if one is so fortunate as to get out into it. My walking grounds circle wetlands two blocks from my house. The string of three large bodies of water is full of waterfowl: Canadian geese, ducks, egrets, and blue heron. Emerging wildflowers trim the paths. One glimpses an occasional bald eagle in the treetops and catches repeatedly the song of the red-winged blackbird.
But best for last: Surely the most satisfying of pleasures is being able to provide positive good for others whose lives are made decidedly more difficult by the illness that knows no bounds. Inspiration comes from ingenious brewing companies now bottling hand sanitizer. Home-bound crafters striving to design and produce up-to-code health-care face masks. A former postal worker who drives around town with bags of food, looking to hand them off to the homeless.
This morning in a call with a friend, I learned that her son, Sean, a consultant in Seattle, has come to the realization that in this crisis, no one needs a consultant. By chance, Sean had recently acquired a pizza franchise on the side. He didn’t have a lot of business there either. He figured he must reinvent himself. What about making pizzas for nurses and doctors at one of the nearby hospitals? He called another friend, John, to join him. John said he’d donate $1000 toward the hospital pizzas. Sean delivered that first load of pizzas to the hospital, to the exuberant delight among staff. Now Sean finds there are lots of people in Seattle who’d like to donate $1000 toward pizzas for the medical community. Thus, pressing on, Sean’s job has become finding places that can use a good round of pizzas.
In music, in art, in nature, in love for our fellow humans we find pleasures that know no guilt.
Was it really only two weeks ago that the frightening inklings of a pandemic began to invade our consciousness? Since then grocery shelves have been stripped of disinfectant wipes, and we have studied video lessons on how to wash our hands: lather up, then 20-40 seconds (singing whatever 40-second ditty gets you through), turning palms up and down, scrubbing thumbs, and roughing up the nails.
The week before we had enjoyed a Sunday dinner with friends from Denver, friends who travel frequently to Beijing, who had been looking forward to a couple of months there this Spring. We had bantered about the Wujan virus, but now they soberly announced they had canceled, probably in an excess of caution, they shrugged. The following weekend we met up for lunch and a walk on the beach with old friends. The next day, we attended a late-afternoon piano recital and swung by Marché, our favorite local bistro, for little pizzas and wine. We arrived home buzzing and content with our lot.
Then came the fatal marker two weeks ago. We were trying to settle on mid-April flights back to Newark. When we consulted our kids there, they urged us not to travel; the virus could get out of hand. Their doctor had advised that grandchildren not see their grandparents, a heresy if I’d ever heard one. Facebook posts told people fifty and older to stay home and inside. To us it was all ridiculous and insulting. Were we not free beings in an open and independent society, with vigor, intelligence, and agency? Well, that was then and this is now. The trip was off, an Easter visit from our daughter in Chicago evaporated, a weekend at the coast with a son and his family canceled. It was like being stranded at Denver International in the midst of a bomb-cyclone blizzard, the road into the city unnavigable, visibility ten yards.
Now it’s been ten days since I bought groceries. People over 60 (that includes us) are asked to self-isolate at home. We hear horror stories about mobs rushing the single flat of toilet paper prominently displayed front and center as you enter. I called three grocery stores to see when their slow time is. There was no slow time. “Will you open an hour for people over 60?” We heard this was a thing at some stores. Could we get it? “We don’t have a protocol for that.”
I don’t blame them. Schools closed, and their children are at home. They themselves may be contracting the virus from anyone unloading a cart before them. They are exhausted. We see hiring announcements posted on their doors and on Facebook. Grocery stores have become one of the few essential services, and these faithful workers are required to serve. To serve us. “Let’s remember this next time we debate whether $15 an hour should be the minimum wage,” chides a friend on social media.
In the meantime, while cities close bars, cancel public events, and lock down, many young adults cavort in the parks, on streets, at the beach, and in homes. Today I read that as it turns out young adults are beginning to make up 29-30% of the viral-infected. Their illnesses are not typically critical, but they are occupying hospital beds that might go to the critically ill, like the 42-year-old breast-cancer survivor, mother of six, who just yesterday succumbed to the virus. Some clever youth, I’m told, have nick-named coronavirus “boomer remover.” Surprise: it’s not only boomers.
I have been waking up checking the daily stats on new cases, the number of deaths, and the recovery rates, a pretty grim way to embark on a new day. Today sunshine poured in our windows early. What a brilliant day, I thought, before I could grab my phone—that is, before I could ruin another 24 hours. No, starting now I will begin with thoughts of those I love—and with prayers. During coffee time, I merely glimpsed at the newspaper, mostly conversing with my husband. By 9:00, I had initiated a conference call with a group of women friends I meet once a week, but not this week and not for many weeks to come. Refreshingly we spent the next hour together.
I’ve been slow in arriving at a couple of realizations about the 2020 Plague. First, it’s no joke. We must take it seriously and do what we’re told as an act of charity to the humanity around us. Second, there are things doctors and government can do that we cannot; let them do it. Third, we can be patient and adaptable. We must hustle when needed, help when needed, and be still when needed. We are being reborn. The world will change and so will we. We will be different people at the other end of Covid19. There’s a chance we will be better people as well.
One of our most quoted American film lines came from Paul Newman’s classic, Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” spoken by fellow prisoner, George Kennedy, to Newman’s Luke. The circumstances of the line in the film are irrelevant here, but the fact of communication failures in the sudden emergence of the coronavirus, arriving on the scene as a 21st-century black plague, is monumental.
On the cusp of Spring, as crocuses emerge along our front walk, we scour the online news daily to discover how many new cases have been uncovered: Korea, Iran, Italy, Australia. Horrifying to perennially optimistic Americans, we now have California, Washington state, New York . . . . We wonder how many miles is it yet from my home? When will my family and I succumb?
Oddly, people buy out mountains of toilet paper from Costco. This week I went to our nearby Rite-Aid to purchase 91% rubbing alcohol, aloe vera gel, and essential oils to concoct our own homemade hand and surface disinfectant, stashed in little travel bottles in my car, bathroom, kitchen, and my already overburdened handbag. I didn’t stop there; I created little packets of wipes for attacking germ-laden surfaces wherever I should alight in and around town.
We’re not buying the mysterious coronavirus toilet paper but boxes of Emergen-C to boost our immune systems. My husband brings home crates of oranges and ritualistically squeezes us little glasses of fresh juice daily. We had been shopping for fresh fruit and veggies and supplementing every meal with a big salad when a friend grown killjoy asked how we can be sure that fresh produce is free of the virus. Alas, at this moment, what I need in my heart of hearts are real-life stories. I’ve just read that more than 50,000 Chinese from Wuhan province and more than half of those struck worldwide have survived the virus and moved on. So why cannot a journalist pick up a phone, give a survivor a call, and find out what they had for lunch today? Can they eat lunch yet?
My dream interview with a coronavirus survivor would tell this story. When you first noticed you didn’t feel well, where were you? where had you been? what had you eaten? Did it start with a sore throat? runny nose? fever? general malaise? How high did your fever go the first day, second day . . . . Did you go to bed? take lots of liquids, tea with honey and lemon, or chicken soup? What were the changes each day, or parts of the day? How did you sleep? Did you notify a doctor or health facility? go to the hospital? did you protect yourself or others when you went? Did you get medicine? which medicine? how long did it take for it to have a beneficial effect? did it have an effect? When did you start to feel better, what got better first? Do you feel normal yet? How do you continue to monitor and care for yourself?
In short, I want the stuff of human communication, how we’d analyze potential scenarios over coffee and a scone. Statistics are for the CDC, the WHO, my PCP. I want the wholly human story so that I can respond to the big scare like a person with a life, home, family, and friends. Otherwise I am frozen in uncertainty while bits of T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrockecho in my brain:
. . . there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
. . . time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Do I dare Disturb the universe?
. . . When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin. . . And how should I presume?
Last October I achieved the unenviable milestone of passing a full year without spending time in Paris. By now, my withdrawal symptoms should be subsiding, but no, they surge uncontrollably at the slightest provocation. To soothe my malaise, I drop in for a perfectly brown and crusty croissant at the one downtown patisserie in our West Coast, USA, university town that is capable of producing a convincing facsimile. It’s a great croissant. I squint hard and sniff for a whiff of diesel to evoke an early morning café in the City of Lights, but I’m not there.
Honestly I prefer not to talk about it. To the random American, it sounds effete. The phenomenon of Francophilia is not particular to me. What can I say? “Paris feels like a second home?” This is ludicrous, like the faithful servant granted a night alone in the palace. Home? I wish. Or I pretend. Desperate to maintain the language, I peruse Le Monde,the French daily, for news of the latest strikes. I engage conversation and even hazard a recently acquired French idiom on a French-speaking guy on the bus. Pleased with the attention, he thinks, under his ironic grin, “Pathetic.”
No, at this stage of my displacement, I’m hooked on a more satisfactory accommodation: Oliver Gee’s “The Earful Tower” podcasts. An Aussie, in Paris for nearly five years, he engages savvy guests and compelling topics on all things French and Parisian: the Seine, the best fromagerie (cheese shop), the Mona Lisa, critical pronunciations, great walks, best streets. On those mornings I awake with my familiar yearning, I turn over in bed to indulge myself in Oliver’s most recent podcast. I’m immediately swept into his ardent enthusiasm for his subject matter. Is it difficult for him to sustain this pitch over time? Does he weary of cranking up for each episode? Does your love for a place intensify only when you know that one day you will lose it? Just so, Oliver often closes by asking his guest some version of “If it were your last day in Paris, how would you spend it? Where would you go, and what would you do?”
The question has inspired a new daily occupation. In quiet winter moments, on meditative walks or sitting by the fire, I’m dreaming up ways to spend my last day in Paris. If it has not occurred already, it has to come sometime, right? Best be ready.
How would I do this; that is, how would I say goodbye? Having lived in the 2earrondissement (2nd district) as my home base for a period some years past, I imagine I herald my last day exiting through a large dark green door onto rue de Richelieu, for a short jaunt to Notre-Dame des Victoires (at Place des Petits Pères, in case you’re curious) for early mass in this parish that possesses an authentic, diverse, and devout congregation, unabashedly at prayer and meditation as a natural way to greet the day. Hence, in silence I gather my wits and brace myself for the hours that will tick away today’s time.
Fortified, I jut across Place des Victoires to the best morning street I know—OK, thousands of people’s special place—rue Montorgueil. Having snagged a newspaper from a tabac down the street, I light on the terrace at Café du Centre, for my café crème and croissant. There, across from the colorful fruit market, I intermittently read the paper, watch the world go by, and plot my route for the better part of an hour.
What have I determined as my meandering begins? My goal is not to preoccupy myself with anything grand. I want to pass my time as flâneur (an idle wanderer—masculine), or as Lauren Elkin feminizes it: flâneuse. More aptly, I want to stroll in that dolce far niente, or sweetness of doing nothing, perfected around the Mediterranean basin.
I aim myself toward the smaller island in the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, walking along Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville up to Pont Sully, a bridge leading me to the peaceful little park at the island’s eastern tip. From there I turn onto the street straight down the middle of the island: rue Saint-Louis en Île. I take my time along the less populated park-end of the street, frequently criss-crossing the ten to fifteen paces from one side to the other among the more sober, less kitschy establishments. Halfway along, the lately traffic-restricted street is choked with tourists drawn by ice cream. Hypocritically, I, a tourist, have the urge to bolt past the crowds jamming these perpetually inventive shops but find it hard to cast a cold eye. When I succumb and press my way inside, I fall upon beguiling soaps, scarves, hats, and art prints. Yet I firmly weigh any purchase as to whether it will impede my freedom of movement as the day progresses. In the end, I buy nothing.
I’ve reached the cafés at the end of the little island only to confront my first important decision. Feeling peckish, should I stop for a bite? I could grab a Berthillon sorbet, or even a ham/gruyère baguette sandwich and Orangina to nosh in the garden of Pope John XXIII behind Notre-Dame, just a hop over the bridge to the larger island, Île de la Cité.
I had tucked in my bag a little edition of a Willa Cather novel, The Professor’s House. The main character, Godfrey St. Peter, reflects on his early days in Paris. I can rest, read, and summon perspective in the sunshine of a garden bench, before my next foray across the river to Place Maubert, on the Left Bank. I’m struck with the realization that this must be a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, so that I’m able to scope out the market! Yes, it’s Thursday. Yet I find today I’m not so much drawn to the linens,cutlery, and cheese. I pass through guiltless. I had put off lunch, after all. I figure from here, down rue des Écoles, past Montaigne’s statue, it’s only fifteen more minutes to a café that has previously proved its worth—Le Rostand, facing the Luxembourg gardens.
Have ingrained images from my first meal there on a Sunday morning decades earlier distorted today’s reality? Young parents crossing the intersection and through the Luxembourg gates with children in tow. Dark red and green curved-back woven chairs. Blue and white Villeroy and Boch china. Soft, moist omelettes with herbs, served with a little crystal pitcher of fresh lemon juice and a tiny Dijon mustard pot. Along came a basket of sliced baguette, of course. I even recall salient details of the blue and white tiled toilettes.
It is now half past midi (noon). I can dine at leisure on the warm terrace. First, I thoughtfully scrutinize the menu, and after five studious minutes, order an omelette anyway. Since the day is bright and temperate, I add a request for their smallest carafe of white wine, a Chablis, well chilled. I note ruefully that the china has been replaced and there is no fresh lemon juice today. The service is more tepid than warm, but the omelette and other details are true to form. I have decided to text a friend to meet me here. She arrives expeditiously, and we remain for a couple of hours, extending our meal with another carafe and an espresso to fuel the remainder of the afternoon through the gardens.
The Luxembourg gardens! How many writers have depicted trysts, espionage, or breakdowns under the protection of those green borders and in the anonymity of its diverted crowds? There is no such thing as rushing through; one strolls at a full-leisured pace, looking outward at the park’s many enchantments, whether the Medici fountain, the marionnettes, a carousel, a game of chess, brilliant French and English garden beds, potted palms, or pond sailboats. One luxuriates in rotating observation.
Following a short ramble, we don sunglasses and pull two chairs close to the pond, propping our feet on its ledge, so to gaze hypnotically on the children’s slow drifting sailboats while we dissect the engrossing interpersonal interplay, expansive gestures, and understated French style on display. We converse as the spirit moves, although an amiable silence better befits the drowsy tenor of this moment.
On towards evening, it’s time to stretch our legs. We slip around the western edge of the park, past the fountain at Saint-Sulpice. Here, convinced we are French after all, we exchange the affectation of farewell bisous (little cheek kisses). When would we meet again? Probably pretty soon back home, truth be told. Shaking off the languorous afternoon, my pace quickens, as I am to meet my husband at Le Fumoir, one of our go-to restaurants, at the Place du Louvre, for happy hour and dinner.
As I cross back to the Right Bank over the Pont des Arts, I realize I’m quite late. There can be no dawdling, though on such a fine evening, la vie en rose is on full display. Sunset’s pink and coral cloud fingers reach across from left to right bank. The bridge is uncharacteristically empty. Its unsightly padlocks have been stripped away for an unimpeded view west to the Tour Eiffel.
I find my husband looking self-satisfied and comfortably settled at an outdoor table with a Heineken, soaking up the sunset, now punctuated by glowing lamplight. I order a cool rosé to match the evening sky. They bring us tiny trays of nuts and olives.
Dark descends quickly, but our table inside is ready, in the cozy library room at the rear. We saunter back past familiar servers. They greet us cordially, while we suppress the sense that they are “friends” only in this moment, there to earn a living.
Once settled in a quiet corner, a bottle of Burgundy uncorked, we trade stories of our respective last adventures. He has been to his favorite haunts as well—to a pub between Place Saint-Michel and the innumerable Gibert Joseph bookstores of the Latin Quarter, to the bouquinistes (book and tchotchke sellers along the Seine), to see once more Poussin’s paintings at the Louvre, exiting toward the Tuileries.
As M.F.K. Fisher has written, everyone has their own mental map, highlighting what matters in a place they love. My husband and I each have our very own map. I think: where is this more likely than in Paris? I think: I will draw my map; I will mount it in my kitchen back home and take it down for revisions, plotting my next adventure as memories surge and fade. But wait: this is my last day. Do I want to lock in my map of a fixed time, conceived in vibrancy, too soon a dingy scrap of what has forever passed? Not likely.
After small bowls of savory lentil soup, we order our entrées, cod and lamb, and lift our glasses, pretentiously I fear, to the inoubliables (unforgettable): the people, places, and moments secure within our selves. Two hours along, we’ve failed to finish the bottle, but we push off, arms linked, to traipse up rue de Rivoli to Avenue de l’Opéra to rue St. Anne and back to Richelieu. What a day this has been; what a rare mood we’re in.
Back in our apartment, I grab some water from the fridge, drop my bag, fall on the couch, and hit “replay.” The only images that surface reveal what I have omitted: rue du Bac, Bois de Boulogne, Montmartre, the Arts et Métiers and Saint-Paul quarters. What was I thinking? I really have not left the center. Why, after all, must I avoid the métro or my favorite bus route, line 68? My day has been unintentionally but decidedly touristy. Unimaginative. I’ve botched it. If I had been strategic, I would have scheduled this day in the off-season. Is there an off-season? I would have stretched myself further in each direction.
We fly out tomorrow at 10:25 a.m. Next stop, Dulles, then points west. Tomorrow evening, my real home will feel comforting and easy, so why not let go? I know of no optimistic tradition in Paris, like the Fountain of Trevi in Rome, where you can toss a coin over your shoulder and into a basin to guarantee your return. As the years roll by, we lose confidence in such assurances. Is to be in Paris a consequence of chance or determination? Is it wise to force oneself to return everlastingly? Onward we advance, whether across an ocean or into the breach. The only comfort we possess is that as we forge our lives, at home or away, we become a composite of who we are based on where we’ve been.
From earliest childhood, upon graduating from the front seat in our family stroller, I let go of my mother’s hand. Walking along downtown, I ran ahead, my mother’s cries of “Slow down!” faintly detectable, yet unheeded. This is not to suggest that I was particularly agile. My tendency to forge ahead frequently ended in crashing and burning—tripping up stairs, wiping out on my bike, sprained ankles, and roughed up elbows and knees. Fast forward to my adult life, when on my first date with my eventual husband, he remarked, “You’re a fast walker and I’m a slow walker; we’ll never get along.” Undeterred, and despite my blunderbuss tendencies, we have survived several decades of marriage.
As summers go, this past one ranked with the more idyllic I’ve experienced: warm but not hot, dry but not parched, still but not airless. The gardens in our valley overflowed with blossoms, and herbal scents drifted over our outdoor dinners under starlit skies. Guests and family roamed in and out throughout June and July, until one busy morning, dashing from the house to the car (ahead of my husband, naturally), I lit on our recently reconfigured entry steps. My left ankle gave way, and I went down hard, crying out. I can still see in my mind’s eye my printed wrap skirt askew, ill-considered short tapered heels scuffed, now appearing daft as I sat back and looked at what damage my haste had wrought: a grossly malformed ankle, left foot folded under and jutting right. I called for ice, and my husband called 911. Our visiting family members emerged aghast on the front stoop, to hold me and to cover me, as I was going into shock. This was no minor mishap.
Within 30 minutes, I had been wheeled into an emergency room stall. By three hours post-tumble, I was led out atop a wheelchair and in a temporary cast. My pronounced diagnosis: a trimalleolar fracture (translation: three bones broken) requiring surgery within the coming week. As soon as I was back home, lifted up the treacherous front steps and resettled on the couch, my husband ran out seeking grab bars for the bathroom and setting in action all that needed care in our home, our property, and ourselves. I alternated dozing and wakefulness as from a nightmare. By morning, I undertook my first lesson in bird-bathing from a warm water pot. By the end of the week I braved lowering myself into the tub, left foot upraised to keep it dry.
Surgery day dawned and with it my resolve: whatever is to be, we’ll soon know. Let’s get it done. The surgical repair included piecing my lower leg and ankle together with a bracket and six screws on the left, two more longer screws on the right. Keep it dry. Alternate oxycodone (an opiod?!) and Tylenol for pain. Rest. Wiggle your toes. DO NOT put any pressure on the left leg.
Shell-shocked, and knowing I was now dependent on him for every detail of my life, my husband took to frenzied cleaning, mowing, and stockpiling groceries. My two daughters had swept in filling vases with flowers, plumping pillows, and perching alongside me to chat. The house felt fresh and fragrant as I drifted in and out of consciousness. Spectacular plates of food miraculously appeared; dinner occurred al fresco. I had become a useless object of attention and obligation. I had no urge to help in any way. My greatest effort was to smile and express gratitude at every turn.
For two weeks nothing seemed to change. I must acclimate myself to immobility so as to stabilize the repair sufficiently to take on a rigid knee-high boot. This would be removed for bathing or icing only, zero pressure still. I hobbled one-footed on crutches, perpetually unsteady. Within days I was desperate to find alternative means of mobility. I ordered a sturdy metallic blue knee scooter that allowed me to zip around on the main floor. Our second-story and sunken family room (thus, the TV) remained inaccessible. Never a television enthusiast, I felt suddenly bereft, cut off from the evening news and the diversion of Netflix.
Throughout the next six weeks, friends popped in with meals and highly touted books. Their visits and updates refreshed my mental scope. Otherwise days consisted of the ordeal of bathing and dressing, scooting around the kitchen to make coffee, hobbling out onto the deck, reading the news, icing and dutifully rotating my ankles (sans boot). My stack of completed books climbed on the bedroom desk. I stared out the same windows for hours on end.
Eventually my desire to move overcame trepidation. I ventured to make my own lunch and carry it out back. I negotiated the two steps down from the deck to the lawn and into the garden. Expanding my horizons by baby steps, I risked leaning in over the flower border to smell apricot roses nodding among lavender, hydrangeas and quieter perennials. I reached what seemed a historic milestone when I walked a full ninety paces on crutches to pick up the mail from the lockbox three doors down. I worked out a series of maneuvers that would get me into and out of the car, tossing crutches into the back seat. My husband invented a multitude of welcome diversions. Gin rummy games. A drive to Barnes and Noble to pick out a promising new read. An escape from the city limits onto a country road to a local farm to gather fresh blueberries, greens, peaches, and tomatoes. To my recently restricted perspectives, these rides acquired the shine of exotic adventures.
As I progressed with the orthopedic boot, I now could drive! I scoured local boutiques for flared pants that would slip on and for wider, half-size larger shoes and boots to accommodate my grotesquely swollen foot and ankle. I acquired five pairs of knee-high compression socks to help push out the persistent fluid pooling from my toes to mid-calf. Months earlier, we had booked several cross-country flights, including a major family gathering in early October, just as I was emerging from my ortho-prison. For me, there remained significant hurdles. We strategized ways we might beg the indulgence of other people’s forbearance. My husband packed along my ankle x-ray to show the agents when we arrived at each airport gate. This secured pre-boarding for each flight, though the ache of immobility once aboard had simply to be borne.
Fortunately physical therapy had been prescribed as part of my rehabilitation. The refreshment and encouragement of exercise! Steadily plodding, obedient to my physical therapist, I built up my fully atrophied left calf muscle. He reminds me repeatedly that 100 years ago, I would have been lame for life. I wince every time he says it. I know I will do whatever it takes to walk again. Now eager and driven, I relearn how to point my toes, to squat, and to walk backwards.
A friend had three years earlier experienced the same sort of fracture much more heroically: by falling down a mountain rather than off a five-inch step. She told me the key to her recovery was going to the pool every day for an hour and essentially just treading water. Having been an avid swimmer in my first twenty-five years, the prospect of recovering that habit was beyond tantalizing. I found I could hit up a lap swim/aquatic exercise session twice a week for $5.60 and dove in with a vengeance.
Now that six months of recovery have passed, I can walk without a trace of a limp. I’m still working on left ankle strength. I cannot walk on tiptoe. My balance is marginal. Time passes while I persist. I go to the fitness center for weights and treadmill two to three times a week. Two days a week I swim. After the first three weeks of steady exercise, things fit better. Another two weeks along, life fits better. I want no longer to charge ahead like the proverbial bull in a china shop. The manic drive with which I had formerly greeted my days has yielded to equanimity. I step to a slower, steadier pace. I recall a day now months ago, as I sat inanimate and blank, my husband admitted having thought, a split second before my fatal fall, “She’s going too fast.” That was me, and that was then. Today I take care that we walk in tandem.
I find that to rebuild from jarring circumstances, I prioritize what I value. The dreaded unknown forced me to examine untouched tools yet available in my toolkit of life, to abandon resistance to alternative ways of being. It is only through previously untrod paths that I recover a long-lost self.
Monday evening in Paris is mid-morning in my West Coast home. It was a chilly first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, and as I wrote and drank coffee beside the fireplace, a message from my daughter in Paris popped up on my screen: this photo.
It was the gut punch felt round the world. The roof of Notre Dame in Paris was disappearing in flames. A second message, from a friend in Bretagne, provided a French TV link, so we watched. And watched.
We grimly viewed feeble water spouts shot from the street; they seemed only to fuel the nightmare. We saw smoke pour through a stained glass window. We witnessed the 19th-century spire’s collapse and an aerial view of Our Lady’s interior engulfed in flames.
I knew the Crown of Thorns was cherished as most valued relic of the treasures inside. I remembered waiting in line one Good Friday to venerate this relic, now encased in an acrylic sheath. I knew it would be on display this Friday for veneration by the faithful and inspection by the curious. The Easter Vigil would be slotted for six days hence, Saturday at 8:00 p.m.—à vingt heures—with the caveat: Would Notre Dame survive?
More than a decade earlier, two of my high school kids and I had spent Holy Week in France, wandering from Paris to Poitiers to Tours and back to Paris—and Notre Dame. I now relived every detail of that week, beginning with Palm Sunday, when church bells across the city rang incessantly from ten in the morning til after noon. We were staying on the rue des Écoles on the Left Bank at the time, a five minute walk to the Seine and Point Zéro, the marker in front of Notre Dame from which all distances in France are measured.
That Palm Sunday we saw families strolling home from mass with their armloads of branches. At home in the U.S., we pinch a couple of scrawny palm leaves between thumb and forefinger as we enter the church on Palm Sunday. At home there are no palm branches. In France the faithful embrace arms full of boxwood boughs to round out lavish white rose and lily bouquets for Easter Sunday’s afternoon feast.
The following weekend we joined the Saturday vigil. Imagining the cathedral would be packed, we arrived an hour early and selected seats halfway back from the altar. The great space was lit only by fading daylight. Each woven chair held a small white candle. A cupped paper fleur-de-lis encircling the candle would capture wax drippings as mass proceeded. (Some would catch on fire, their owners blowing frantically mid-mass to put them out.)
Daylight continued to dim. I stared into the vault, studying ribbed arches, the exquisite, now darkened, candelabra strung along the ambulatory. I imagined the hunchback gazing down from the choir far overhead. The crowd silenced in the blackened space as Cardinal Lustiger, himself a converted Jew, lit the paschal fire, soon blazing alongside the altar, flames leaping, casting wavering shadows and a vista of Notre Dame’s architectural bones.
Gradually, lit from the paschal fire, an unwieldy five-foot Easter baptismal candle flame would spread to each of our tapers until the flickering sanctuary reflected each face radiant with surprised, expectant joy.
The rest is as you might envision. This Feast of Feasts ended with the pipe organ pulling out all stops, dissonant chords echoing off the ancient stones. As we departed, close to midnight that vigil of Easter, the bells of Notre Dame burst forth again, and a group of Nigerians re-lit their candles and sang and danced on the parvis under the bell towers. We stopped along Île St. Louis for un cornet, a cone, of Berthillon sorbet, meandered “home” to our quartier across the Seine, and tucked in feeling filled up, complete. We slept with our windows open to the street sounds and smells of Paris at Easter.
Now we have the same iconic photo images of “our” Notre Dame as in anyone’s personal scrapbook: the cathedral from across the quai from St. Julien-le-Pauvre, or from beyond the flying buttresses to the garden of Pope St. John XXIII, where we would gnaw ham and gruyère baguette sandwiches and drink Orangina.
Yes, we took her for granted. We have lived in her and around her; we have loved her. Now she is lost to the future, even as we tenderly hold her, a piece of our life, our own place, our owned memory.
For years I have accepted without question, that humans are a balance of spirit and body, though I think I have devoted more care to the body. As a child, I took both body and spirit for granted, I suppose, favoring bodily health over any concern for my daily dose of happiness. But this was because I had been given happiness by a wagon train of perpetual loving care around my circle of life.
In January of my sixth grade year, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as 35th president. The following Friday night, my parents had a dramatic argument, admittedly not so dramatic by today’s entertainment standards. We ate dinner late on TV trays and watched the spookiest episode of Twilight Zone I have ever seen: The Hitchhiker (for those who care to follow up). The next morning, although my sisters and I were still a little shell-shocked, both from our parents’ emotions and the horrifying television show, Mom and Dad were all smiles. They had made up, and life went on.
It was a bitingly frigid Saturday in Chicago-land. The cold meant the ponds were frozen and our buoyant parents were taking us ice skating at Phillips Park. Coming of age in this era meant a pair of figure skates if you were a girl—hockey skates for boys— from Santa one Christmas. The perfect skating weather foretold a crowded rink, although this one was enormous, probably a good acre. Yet figure skaters and hockey skaters fought for turf, their styles hopelessly at odds: hockey skaters ramping up speed while figure skaters glided and scratched curlicues into the ice. This day, like a running back in football, there came a moment when in mid-twirl I tried to jig around a charging boy claiming right of way. My lower left leg folded underneath the rest of me—and I couldn’t get up.
Mom and Dad skidded across twenty yards of ice to the rescue, each grabbing an arm. Mom said, “Stand up.” I could not. “It’ll feel better if you walk on it.” But still my leg gave way with the slightest weight. They gave each other a look. Within five minutes my three sisters had circled back to our home bench. Grudgingly they changed into their boots and slung skates over their shoulders. We were headed for medical attention at Dreyer Clinic, about fifteen minutes away. My instructions from the doctor were ambiguous: go easy. They would call us by Monday, after someone took a look at the x-ray.
Two days later, I still struggled on crutches, unable to bear any pressure on my left leg and my mom still urging me to “walk on it.” The clinic called with a diagnosis. I’d suffered a fractured fibula. I would get a walking cast for six weeks. My more sedate and cautious 7th-grade sister burned with envy; my classmates would be able to sign my cast with doodles and cheery greetings. I failed to be inspired by her enthusiasm for my lame condition. I sat alone in our empty living room, stilled and dismayed, waiting to be cleared to return to school. On the third day, my favorite uncle, Uncle Bill, came to visit, that is, to visit me! Always ebullient, he blew in, dashed to my side, and with a flourish bent over my leg and kissed it, declaring that all would be well. Now encouraged and heart-warmed, I knew I could handle the weeks to come.
The next six weeks I could wear only skirts and shorts, in a Midwestern February and March, mind you. But I remember these winter days fondly, as a pleasant departure from the dreary slog of a long winter. Too soon the cast came off. Spring was in the air, and I was free. On a Friday, precisely ten days later, a last blast of winter roared in mid-morning, scouring the streets with fresh drifting snow. As usual, we walked home for lunch, but begged Mom to drive us back for the afternoon session.
As we pleaded, the telephone in our kitchen rang. Mom answered cheerfully but immediately grew quiet. She thanked the caller (our family doctor, we learned) and whisked us into the living room to sit down. Puzzled, we held our collective breath while slowly, calmly, Mom explained. Our Uncle Bill, my dad’s brother and best friend, 39 years old, father of our four closest cousins, had collapsed and died suddenly of an aneurysm. I felt my heart too had stopped. I heard the echo of his assurance that all would be well. I had thought all had become well, but Spring had been overtaken by frigid cold and ice. We walked back to school. I was walking normally, but I would never see Uncle Bill again.
Less than three years later, I was now a sophomore in high school. Our fall term choir class was interrupted by the public address system at just past noon. JFK, our handsome and inspiring President had been shot. Stunned, the forty or more rowdy teens in the choir sat speechless. Twenty minutes later, the PA crackled again and pronounced that the President was dead. These events strung together in my memory of the early 1960s, like a chain of clouds in an otherwise flawless sky.
Decades later, strolling along a Northwest beach in January, a woman walked with a friend, not far from my path along the shoreline. She swung along on crutches, landing on her solitary leg. The beach stretched for miles, but on she swung, never pausing, apparently never flinching, in rapt conversation. I held back behind the two of them, thinking and wondering: eventually she would have to turn and walk back to her starting point. Such thoughts did not appear to deter her, as she kept pace, effortlessly it seemed. It struck me that this woman was whole, unified. She possessed the balance I forever lacked. As I walked on two legs in tennis shoes, I thought how brief and inconsequential my childhood incapacitation had been over a couple of winter months many years ago. For me the old struggles from emotional upheavals still mattered. Momentarily disruptive physical events had faded, all but blown away with the snow drifts. My body had a habit of healing, while the spirit held fast, frozen in its pain.