My parents died decades ago. They were good people who’d both fought in the Big One, and when they came to America, the country was still a land of welcome, wonders and innovations. They left Europe behind, abandoned the sooty streets and grey buildings of Paris to find a yellow clapboard house in the suburbs, with a yard and a driveway and an outbuilding for the garden tools and mower that my mother—being a city girl—did not know how to use until she was shown. They spent a bit more than 25 years here, became citizens who voted and appreciated what the land had to offer, and then 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 some time they felt the parents’ presence nearby, reassuring in times of sadness or stress. Some have said the presence was almost physical; they were touched or kissed or hugged by long-gone family members, and were never quite the same afterwards. Call it a spiritual experience, or a miraculous moment if you believe in such.
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; people had shot at him and he had shot back and I always had the impression he would be ready to go at any time. My mom panicked over his illness 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.
But no. There’s been nothing, not a word or touch or breath, not even an intimation that there may be something out there. I guess that 21 years ago when I spread my mother’s ashes on the green grasses of the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and followed the same ritual for my father years later, well, that was it. Whoever and whatever they were was subsumed by the greater universe. Whatever individualities existed simply ceased to.
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 get in touch, they know where I am better than I know where they are….