I want to be in Paris in my 50th year with a man I love.
When I turned 45, unhappy and separating from a relationship, I had written this into my journal in longhand, the black ink from my favourite fountain pen sprawling the letters across one page. It was a vow, a prayer, that I would have found the love I had been looking for in a series of relationships with unsuitable men.
Five years later I was walking along a Paris boulevard in a stupor, in love with every street cafe, every sultry Parisian waiter, in love with the man by my side whom I had not yet married but whose ring was already on my left hand. We had flown to France after visiting his family in Canada: my introduction to his mom and sisters and brother. He’d been the only one who had decided to not emigrate around 25 years previously. Lucky me,that he’d decided to stay. The Paris part of the trip was my fiftieth birthday gift to myself.
Just before we’d left, I had lunch with my dad. We sat on the stoep talking. He reminded me how helpless he’d felt over the years, watching me fall in love with men who squandered me.
“But this new man looks solid,” he said, “and he seems kind.” The highest compliment my dad could give another man.
We spoke about how I wanted my dad to walk me down the aisle. At my first wedding, 30 years previously, I was pregnant, and his arm shook as he walked me down that first aisle, deeply worried about my future. That husband was the father of my second child too, but the marriage did not last. I was the first in my family to get divorced, which was hard for father even as he was relieved that I had the courage to step out of a marriage where I did not get sufficient support and care.
As I drove away that Sunday, my dad had walked out into the street to wave goodbye as usual. I thrust my arm up tall out of the car window until I came to the end of the street and turned left and out of sight. Our family farewell ritual.
For the first ten days of the Canadian leg of the trip, I sent an occasional SMS, a voice note and a video of the Niagara Falls, wanting to share some of my Canada experience with my father. He’d never travelled outside South Africa. When we boarded our flight to Paris. I was relieved to have my fiancee all to myself.
On the train from the airport, rumbling through grey and rather uninspiring suburbia, a little rumpled and tired from the long flight, I first saw the Eiffel Tower appearing in miniature in the distance. I had been looking out for it, almost disappointed that it wasn’t immediately visible as we stepped onto French soil. My fiancé didn’t say anything when he saw the single tear rolling down my cheek. Instead he leaned over and wiped the tear away with his thumb, smiling at this soft hearted, soft waisted, romantic, middle aged woman.
A photograph taken in Les Deux Magots shows me sitting at a table, a glass of wine half in the frame, my fountain pen poised mid-air as I glance down at my journal. I felt completely at home, a deep connection with other writers and most famously, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, and Ernest Hemingway. His “Moveable Feast” had made such an impression on me, and now I was here, in the same place, 90 years later. We got lost the next day looking for another famous Parisian landmark, Shakespeare and Co, and then stumbled upon it. On one of the overflowing shelves I found “The Old Man and the Sea”. I was thrilled to find this special edition, a hardback copy in a limited print run, which I knew my dad would love. He was an English teacher at the high school I used to go to, and he had given me the school edition, a set work book for the matrics he taught when I was around 13 years old. On the way to the check-out counter, I had a chilling moment of doubt that my father’s hands would ever touch it, a presentiment: like that “long shadow on the lawn” which Emily Dickenson so starkly describes.
I shrugged it off. I was too happy, the kind which expands and oozes into every experience. I felt like a child, seeing with a kind of innocence each cobblestone, each art nouveau Metro sign, every macaron in the confectionary shops, all the crusty, pointy baguettes sticking out from shopping baskets as French housewives hurried by. And that other ubiquitous steel construction, the Eiffel Tower, always just in or out of sight, reassuringly thrusting upwards in a proudly French way. We had a small loft room in a friend’s home in a little village just outside Paris from where we could see over rooftops and unfamiliar trees. I have a photograph taken from the bed. Long white muslin curtains billow slightly, French window with glass panes wavy with age open to a little Juliet balcony, the soft morning light on tumbled white bedlinen. A romantic dream come true.
I was scooping out warm bone-marrow from a boat of a bone of beef cut lengthways, to spoon onto a round of toasted baguette, the signature dish of a trendy bistro, when I got the SMS. It was my brother. Dad in ICU. He is unconscious and intubated. Thought you needed to know. Everything around me slowed, my ears filled with warm wet cotton wool, the food on the plate suddenly obscene to my eyes. The friends we were with quietened down and offered a subdued, “We’re sorry”. I tried phoning, but only got hold of him the next morning. My dad had been in hospital since the week before. He had sworn everyone to silence so as not to upset and interrupt my long-awaited Paris trip, but when he lost consciousness my brother decided to call me. He had fallen ill on a hunting trip. Now he was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to life support.
The next day was the second last day of our trip. I thought of trying to get an immediate flight back but half in denial, half in acceptance of whatever may be, I did not. Each of my steps felt dull and heavy those last two days. I could hardly smile for a photograph on the bridge with all the love-locks. There were three places left on our list of To-See-and-Do, but the excitement and curiosity which had been trilling through my veins had disappeared. A phone call to my dad’s fiancee helped: she seemed less perturbed than my brother, saying that the doctors were taking good care of my dad and that she thought he’d be fine.
I clung to that possibility all the many sleepless hours in the plane back to Johannesburg, checking for calls and messages as soon as I could turn on my phone after landing. We dropped our bags at home and drove straight to the hospital. He was deeply sedated and intubated, drips and beeping machines at his bedside. I sat whispering almost feverishly, his hot forehead against mine as I urgently told him about the trip and my love for him and how I hoped that he was not suffering. He was unresponsive, still. I stayed until the late afternoon, exhausted. “Go home”, the nursing sister said, “we will call you if anything changes”.
They called the next morning. “You need to come now”, the sister said. Ten minutes later my brother phoned to tell me that my dad had died.
The last time I saw him he was cold, covered by a white hospital sheet, all the tubes and drips and machines removed. I sat by myself for a long time with his body, the curtain drawn around the bed after everyone else had said their goodbyes.
At his funeral I told the story of the Hemingway book in my eulogy. I did not relate what he’d said to me years before, half tipsy on brandy and coke: “I’ll die happy when I know that you’ve found someone who can love you the way you long to be loved.”