Last night, while preparing for dinner, the phone rang. The caller ID said, “Cavalaire” the name of the number of my in-laws’ beach house. My father-in-law standing next to me, he told me to answer it because we both knew it was my mother-in-law, Syvlie, calling for what we thought would be an update on how sumptuous the water and the weather was along the French coast.
I picked up the phone in my usual silly manner only to answer to a voice that sounded like it was shaking off tears. I got the dreaded news that caused me to gasp a loud, heart stopping gasp that only people who have lived in France long enough could master. Franck and Pat, bustling around the kitchen, stopped dead in their tracks and simultaneously shot their gazes upon me. Christiane, one of Syvlie’s best friends, has passed away three days ago. The news finally made its way to Sylvie through family.
This news was expected. Christiane was placed into hospice care last month after a three year long battle with liver cancer. A tumor in her stomach area mataticised into her liver, causing the rest of her body to eventually rage against her will. Chemotherapy, hair loss, medications, operations drained the life out of her, but her spirit continue to fight until the end. According to her husband, she died peacefully and didn’t suffer in her final days and moments. After all she went through, one would think God owed her that.
I only spent a few moments Christiane during the last few years. Usually during my holiday visits to my in-laws, Christiane would pop by just to say hello to us, sometimes with an adorable grandkid in hand. She was a tiny, thin woman with an Hermes scarf wrapped around her head to cover her hair loss, but with a radiant smile and eyes that burst with joy. I always thought to myself after seeing her, “How could a woman so sick be so joyful?”
While Mr J and I were living in his parents guest house for six months, Christiane and her husband invited our clan of four over for champagne and aperitifs to get to know Mr J and I better. While listening to the murmurs of conversation while I sipped champagne, I looked around their elegant home filled with memories – ancient photos of family members, fresh photos of grandkids, drawings posted around the house, and collections of books and odds and ends – of lives which have gone by seemingly way too fast.
During that evening, I got to know Christiane and her husband better. We discussed his impressive ancient book collection and how the French language has evolved and strained to stay the same. She asked me about my hopes for living in France and what it was like to adjust to a new culture. I learned about their lives, his work history, their love story. I asked to see photos of them when they were young and Christiane happily whipped out an old wedding album and I saw a beautiful dark-haired young woman, smiling demurely in her white dress arm in arm with her new husband, their lives ahead of them, their story yet to be created and their future yet to be revealed. While taking me through the photos, she smiled with vivacity the same smile found in many of the photographs taken over three decades ago.
That night, Christiane touched me with a gentle strength, an elegant charm, and an abounding grace. Even though she didn’t have to, she took interest in me and shared a bit of her life with us. After we moved to the alps, I’d make sure to get regular updates about Christiane and her cancer. People like her are hard to forget.
When I found out that she was moving into hospice care, I had to make sure she knew how much she touched me and how I appreciated her. Mr J was initially against it, because he felt that we barely knew each other for me to write a message so personal, but later conceded to the idea when I explained how short and ephemeral life is and how vital it is for us to share ourselves before it’s too late and when last words are no longer possible.
I wrote a very short note in my best French telling Christiane how I hoped she was feeling comfortable and in peace and how much her grace and charmed touched my life and that I’ll never forget how she influenced me. A few days later, I received a lovely letter from her. She didn’t speak about her health or her condition. She spoke about how she felt about me, how she hoped Sylvie would relax in Cavalaire, and how our upcoming vacation would bring us happiness. She told me that while I am beautiful, I have a sensibility that cuts straight to the heart, but what struck me most were her last words to me, “Enjoy, Leslie, your youth, your beauty. With (Mr J) you form a couple worthy of inclusion in the magazines.”
With this last advice with a touch of humor and flattery, she ended her letter with depth and buoyancy just as she concluded her life. While I am sure there are those left in anguish as a result their loss of such a lovely woman, they must feel relief that she’s free from suffering.
On the night of Christiane’s death, Mr J and I lay in bed chatting, when suddenly I thought of my three brothers and our childhood at home and how ephemeral these seemingly permanent states of being are. I got a deep sense of being taken back to my childhood with them and how I felt a great loss, but also a great joy to have experienced a portion of my existence with them. At that moment, I was overtaken with tears and I wept. Even though there wasn’t any need to cry, I couldn’t stop the tears. I laughed at how silly it was to just burst into tears, but for some odd reason my body needed the expression.
Looking back, I feel in some cosmic way that the feelings I experienced and tears I cried reflects the life and death of Christiane. Despite how short and fleeting my knowing her was, I feel glad to have had just a few moments in her presence and to have engaged someone whose countenance was as bright as the sunshine hand drawn by her grandchild on the letter she wrote me.