Where Meaning Lives

Disregard the drooling mouths, the incoherent babbles, the lack of fine motor skills: babies are geniuses. At birth, babies can discern every speech sound found in every language. They may not produce much more than dirty diapers, but they absorb the sound profiles of languages like sommeliers sampling pinot grigios. Send a Japanese baby to Britain, and she’ll distinguish red from led. Drop a Brazilian baby in southern Africa with the Ju|’hoansi, and he’ll crack the code of their consonantal clicks. An American baby can decipher that meaning lives in the tones of Thai. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for American men, and when I decided to move to Thailand in 2011, I soon realized that my linguistic genius had been discharged decades ago alongside a spate of soiled diapers.

Even beyond my non-baby status, I was hesitant to uproot my life in Atlanta. Moving abroad, I left behind family, friends, and my first full-time job to join Andrea, my fiancée, now wife. She had accepted a Fulbright scholarship to teach English at a rural secondary school near Ubon Ratchathani, a city close to the Thai borders with Laos and Cambodia. I’d traveled to Thailand once before, in 2009, then too because Andrea—more adventurous and ambitious than I am—had made plans to go. She’d been volunteering at an elder home in the countryside for six weeks before I arrived, at which point we began a two-week tour of the kingdom. For me, the highlights of that trip were overshadowed by my first night, the worst of my life.

When we stopped for dinner that night at the only street cart in sight, I should have followed Andrea’s lead and scooted a couple cubes of what looked like maroon tofu to the edge of my plate where they could only spectate as I shoveled the lukewarm green curry into my mouth. But I wanted to say yes to everything. Meanwhile, having spent the previous weeks living with a host family who spoke as little English as she spoke Thai, Andrea was hungry to share her experience, and she wanted me to dive into the culture mouth first. So, along with the maroon tofu—which we learned years later was congealed pig’s blood—that day, at Andrea’s behest, I also tried durian. A spiky rugby ball of a fruit, the durian’s doughy inner flesh smelled, felt, and tasted to me like a two-month-old mango left to spoil in a dumpster full of skunks. To Andrea, it was delicious. Love at first bite.

We made it back to our hotel before this conglomeration of partially digested, foreign food tethered me to the bathroom inside our room. Over the next eight hours, my digestive tract revealed the contents of its character like clowns spilling out of a clown car—front and back seats simultaneously. The food poisoning stopped me from stomaching sips of water, much less the antibiotic antidote. The blessing in all this was how Thai bathrooms are designed. The showerhead hides behind neither glass nor curtain; enter a Thai bathroom and you’ve essentially stepped into an oversized shower with a toilet in one corner and a sink in the other, the entire floor slanted toward a drain (the entire floor—thank you sweet Jesus—designed to get wet).

A sleepless night behind us, we left early for the nearest hospital, hopping on the back of an enclosed pick-up truck—a common form of public transport called a สองแถว (translation: “two row,” on account of the bench seats facing each other inside). Andrea wisely brought her Thai phrasebook along. (In a month and a half of language immersion, her mastery of the language had yet to include vocabulary for “vomiting” or “diarrhea” or “nonstop all night.”) En route to the hospital, as Andrea flipped through the book’s pages, one phrase stood out: “Is the needle clean?” She planned to ask—interjecting before any injecting. But it was while staff pulled her away to complete paperwork that my nurse pulled out a needle. The mystery injection spurred my recovery. And, two years later, the memory of that hospital visit spurred something else: if we were going to spend a year abroad, we were going to learn the language.

***

Within a baby’s first year, her perceptive superpowers fade. A twelve-month-old raised in Tokyo won’t hear any difference between red and led. A one-year-old raised in Rio has closed the door on the Ju|’hoansi’s clicks. That’s not to say these abilities disappear completely, but they have to be relearned. A 2018 study of more than half a million people indicates that kids as old as ten can start learning English as a second language, master it throughout their late teens, and speak without an accent. Still, much as my exposure to Thai came far too late for its tones to come naturally, I created my first Thai alphabet flashcards at twenty-three—thirteen years late to the speak-without-an-accent party.

With its forty-four consonants and fifteen vowels, the Thai alphabet is long but phonetic. Unlike in English, where we can spell the vowel that sounds like the letter “E” at least ten different ways (be, bee, bean, fiend, quay, people, amoeba, receive, lovely, alley), in Thai, if you know how a word is spelled, you can probably pronounce it. They also don’t put spaces between their words, a feature that reflects the way humans speak: Abarrageofwordsblurringtogetherwithoutpause.

In the weeks before my departure, my best friend stopped by and flipped through the flashcards stacked on the kitchen table. He balked at how similar some of the letters looked, pointing out one pair: ม and น, the Thai equivalents of m and n. On a piece of scrap paper, I scribbled the letters h and n, spotlighting the subtle difference between the two. Learning Thai, like learning any language, was all about training your eyes and ears to notice the differences that matter, the ones that hold meaning.

Imagine a language’s bank of speech sounds as a palette of colors. Perhaps the k sound—known linguistically as the voiceless velar stop—is a cool cerulean. Let’s say the ow vowel sound (as in “Ow, I stubbed my toe”) is hot pink. Throw the colors of the English palette onto a canvas in the right sequence and you can sound out Shakespeare in abstract art. A brushstroke of cerulean on the left, one of hot pink to the right and you’ve composed a cow.

The palettes of English and Thai aren’t that different. Just swap out a few consonantal colors and throw in an extra vowel. But Thais don’t rely on colors alone to paint their world with meaning. There are, of course, the tones—five of them: low, mid, high, rising, and falling. And vowel length can further change the meaning of a word. Thais can take that abstract portrayal of cow and turn down the contrast, emphasizing the low tones and voilà: เขา, a gender-neutral pronoun translating to both “he” and “she.” They can tweak the contrast again to produce เข้า, meaning “to enter.” Next, they might add another dab of hot pink, lengthening the ow stroke to capture one of their most beloved words, ข้าว, meaning “rice.” One last tonal change gets them ขาว, “white,” and they’ve finally exhausted the possibilities for interpreting what in English still looks like the same abstract cow. No flashcards could train me to perceive such subtleties. I needed to be there.

I found an English teaching gig like Andrea’s, before catching my trans-Pacific flight. While she lived on site at her school about seven miles south of Ubon, I volunteered at an elementary school about thirty miles north, leading English lessons alongside Thai teachers. I was the pronunciation expert and brought an element of immersion to each classroom, while the Thai teachers served as interpreters and legitimate figures of authority. The school’s classrooms resembled those of my childhood in Atlanta with three exceptions: no carpeting, no air-conditioning, no shoes inside—teachers included. Outside each room, a bevy of amber and suede Chuck Taylor knockoffs indicated class was in session. Depending on the students, the shoes would lie in a neat row or a chaotic cluster. Andrea recalls that the same pattern held at her school, and the younger classes full of boys tended to leave “more wild piles.” 

After two months on the job, Christmas was rolling around and became the subject of a lesson I won’t forget. Though murals of Kris Kringle himself adorned several of the white cinderblock walls along the Foreign Language Department hallway, my students only understood his character on a cursory level—as I understood Thai. On this particular day, I can’t recall whether a tidy ribbon of shoes or a jumbled heap lined the wall outside the doorway—a class of mostly girls or boys. Given what transpired, I don’t know that I would have preferred one over the other. The Thai teacher and I encouraged the students to share what they knew about Christmas, Santa Claus, and the winter season. And so, in fits and starts, a room full of about twenty Buddhist middle school students whispered the words that popped into their heads. Everything was going as planned, predictably and without note, until from the back left of the room, one student mumbled หิมะ, the Thai word for “snow.” I recognized the word from my vocabulary book but had never heard it spoken. Excited, I repeated it at a much higher volume for the whole class to hear. Or at least I thought I did. The Thai teacher went wide-eyed; the classroom fell silent. The picture I had drawn with my words wasn’t an abstract expression evoking a wintery scene with thick banks of fresh powder. I’d used the right colors but the wrong tones. And I’d stretched the vowels out too long, turning the word “snow” into two different words. The second: the verb “to come.” The first: a slang term for “vagina.”

***

Between Christmas of 2011 and Christmas 2012, Andrea and I made fewer gaffes and more connections within our communities, and after a visit home for the holiday, we opted to return to Thailand for six more months. We spent this time working for a nonprofit in a different part of the country. And while we’d both resigned from our posts as teachers back in Ubon, we remained students of the language: our vocabularies swelled to more than a thousand words. When traveling through Bangkok, where the locals spoke more English and the foreigners less Thai, we would compete to see who could more frequently convince shop owners and food vendors to utter the phrase พูดไทยชัด: “You speak Thai clearly.” Andrea would win.

Looking back, one of the greatest joys of learning Thai came through exposure to foreign compound words, which offered new ways of seeing the objects and actions of life. The image of any simple word is arbitrary, an abstraction of color cast in shadows and highlights. But more intentional meaning lives in the compounds, those pairs of words juxtaposed, colliding in collage. Translated into Thai compound words, some simple English takes a literal turn. “Sock,” for example, becomes “foot bag.” “Fridge” becomes “cold cabinet.” But other words win their beauty not through playful precision but through rich metaphor. “Excited” becomes “to get up and dance.” “To understand” becomes “to enter the heart.”

Studying Thai was like discovering Cubism after spending decades as students of the Impressionists. Like mimes in their invisible boxes, we felt out the boundaries that enclose Thai civility and fence out taboo. We learned that if the subject of an expression is implied, it’s omitted—left to live in the negative space. And, in the common phrases and idioms spoken all around us, we caught authentic glimpses of Thai culture. But perhaps most importantly, familiarity with this new form yielded familiarity with those who produce it: Thais both young and old—these artists who fluently flick their paint onto canvas, wielding foreign tongues, vocal cords, and breath. By playing around with the Thai palette, we met them halfway. We swam in the sounds that color their kingdom. We perceived how light filters through their linguistic lens. Mutual respect blossomed between teacher and student.

After we moved back to Atlanta for good, Andrea and I located a Buddhist temple that offered Sunday morning Thai lessons. Outside of a small, wood-paneled room, an assortment of shoes indicated class was in session. We’d set up a folding table and two folding chairs and join our classmates—among them, a Laotian-American mother and son, a couple hexagenerians with plans to live out their retirement sipping coconuts on Thai beaches, and a half-Thai preschooler accompanied by her American father. Hoping to retain what we’d learned of the language, Andrea and I attended these classes for more than a year. And for the hour we spent there each week, our patient Thai teacher transported us right back to her home country, and the language’s familiar sounds rekindled the fresh perspectives we’d gained. From the start, we were too old for her language to come naturally, too entrenched in our own style of speech. But our age allowed us to delight in the differences in a way babies and teenagers cannot.

On any given Saturday, we may have woken up excited for the weekend’s events. Put on some socks. Grabbed breakfast from the fridge. But on Sundays, we got up and danced. Donned pairs of foot bags. And rummaged through the cold cabinet. A year and a half was too short to achieve fluency—I was conversational at best, with a thick American accent. But I believe I came to understand Thai. The language had entered my heart.

 

Such a Long, Long Time to Be Gone and a Short Time to be There

View of the Canal Saint-Martin by Alfred Sisley, Orsay Museum, 1870

The waiter was a gangly young man with a shock of brown hair and the exuberant manner of an Airedale puppy. We had only asked for water, but he seemed delighted by our request. The light glinted enthusiastically off his hornrims.

“Bien sur,” he said. “Il n’y a pas de souci!”

There was nothing to worry about—water would be forthcoming. In fact, we could have anything we wanted. Bread, butter, Dad’s request that coffee come at the same time as dessert and not before: everything was “pas de souci.” Emphasis on “pas.” There is no worry. 

It was Thanksgiving, and my sister Claudia, my Dad, and I were in the market for some good news. That morning, I had gotten off a plane laden with the kinds of provisions Americans miss when they live abroad—two jars of Skippy peanut butter, a tube of Colgate, and a box of Trader Joe’s cornbread mix. But before I even got to the house, Mom fainted on the way to the bathroom and hit her head. She had been sick again for about six months, and the doctors had just decided to suspend treatment, so Claud and I had flown in for Thanksgiving, worried about waiting until Christmas.

So we had traded our day of baking cornbread in the parents’ high-ceilinged kitchen for the grind of hanging around the emergency room at the Hopital Saint-Louis, in an eastern quadrant of Paris. Ordinarily, this would be a fairly exotic locale for a girl from a row house in Northeast Philly, but Mom and Dad, hometown sweethearts, had lived in France since 1966, so it was just normal.

Once the doctors told us they wanted to keep her overnight, Mom sent us home. We were half-guilty at leaving her alone, half-elated at getting sprung from the place. On our way, we had stopped off at this half-timbered restaurant on the river. It was a clear night, quiet but for the hum of activity emanating from the handful of restaurants along the quay. After the aseptic glare of the ER intake hall, the restaurant was warm and comforting, with copper pots on the walls reflecting firelight and roasting smells curling out from the kitchen. Maybe there really was nothing to worry about.

By the time we got home, I was too tired to do anything, even get ready for bed. I was just talking to Claud about a screenplay she was working on when the phone rang. The phone in the parents’ house has a long insistent tone, like a bratty kid. Claudia and I looked at each other. There is no good news after 1:00 a.m. The phone rang again, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to get off the bed to answer it. Waaaaaaaah, it whined. Not yet, I thought. We just need a little more time. Waaaaaaaaaaaah, insisted the phone. I stood up. The phone stopped ringing.

I didn’t get the chance even to pretend it was a wrong number because the hospital called right back. Dad talked to the doctor, then I talked to the doctor, then I asked them to repeat everything again to make sure I had got it all straight. The impact had caused a cerebral hemorrhage, which had formed a blood clot in Mom’s brain, which wasn’t operable due to the fact that Mom was already dying of leukemia and was too weak to withstand surgery. There was a chance it might resolve on its own, but we’d have to wait and see what happened.

Dad sank onto my bed. He looked haggard.

“It was the fall,” he whispered.

***

Eventually, we each went to bed. I took an Ambien, but I couldn’t sleep. In fact, I never wanted to sleep again. I felt strangely powerful, as if I could keep Mom aloft, like a bird in the sky, through sheer force of will. If I just kept thinking of her, in some bizarre way, I thought I could keep her safe. And if the night didn’t end, things could still go either way.

When I woke up, the dread in my stomach was so thick it was almost tangible. I couldn’t believe that yesterday might really have been the last day we had together. It had been so boring, so uneventful, Mom just lying on her wheely bed, eyes mostly closed, and Dad and Claud and I chatting amongst ourselves, letting her rest. When we left, I kissed her, but it was so anodyne, so see-you-tomorrow; it felt like that couldn’t possibly have been goodbye.

But when we got back to the hospital, Mom seemed a little better. The doctors told us that if she made it through the next five days, then the clot might be treatable. In the meantime, we had to watch for any neurological disturbances, any slackening on one side of her face, any violent headaches.

In the interim, Dad decided it would be better not to tell Mom the truth. Since she didn’t seem aware of anything more wrong than usual, there was no reason to frighten her. I wasn’t so sure. Wouldn’t she want to know? What if she wanted to talk about it?

We had been here before, 20 years earlier, when Mom had a bone marrow transplant, a treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I had gone to see her on the eve of the procedure; Claudia, six years younger, was still in college in the States. I was 27 and terrified. Life without Mom seemed an unimaginable catastrophe. I didn’t see how people could go on after losing a parent.

I had sat on the side of her bed. The transplant had the potential to cure her. Or it could fail and she would die.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if you die,” I said, and burst into tears.

“Don’t say that,” said Dad sharply. “She’s not going to die.”

“Sam,” said Mom, warning in her voice. “Don’t interfere. I want to talk about it.”

Dad kind of melted away in the corner.

“I’m so scared,” I sobbed.  

Mom stroked my hand. “I know, sweetheart,” she said.

As it turned out, the procedure was a success. She went back to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back every month, then every six months, then once a year. And so 20 years passed. Mom saw my sister get married and have kids. She saw me get married—at last!—when I was 41 and, even more improbably, have two kids of my own.

***

Now here we were, back at Saint-Louis. This time, I just let things be. We played Go Fish. I read Mom a long and really boring article in Vanity Fair, which pleased me by its very boringness. We asked her repeatedly if her head hurt. She always said it didn’t. It looked like it might be possible that Mom would be discharged on Tuesday and we could just have a late Thanksgiving then.

But the next day, the left side of her mouth started twitching uncontrollably. There was something violent and cruel about it, like a goblin was pulling her lip by a string, just for fun. Mom didn’t seem to notice. She couldn’t raise her left arm. The mental timeline I had made myself—that Mom could make it through the holidays, that she might even see the spring again in her garden—always as fragile as a soap bubble, shimmered and vanished. They sent her for another brain scan.

Dad looked green. “Could you go?” he asked weakly.

When she was wheeled out of the MRI room, we were left alone for a spell. She is going to die, I thought. Today, or tomorrow, or the day after that. That hematoma isn’t getting reabsorbed—it is going to compress her brain and kill her. The desire to tell her, to confide in her, bubbled up in my chest. How could I not tell her how scared I was, how much I would miss her? How could I not ask her if she was afraid too?  

“Mom,” I said. The words you are going to leave me squirmed on my tongue. I hesitated. “I just want you to know that I am honored to be your daughter,” I said finally. “I love you so much. I don’t think anyone has a mother as tough and brave and loving as you.”

But she had stopped reacting, as if her mind had abruptly walked off, like someone leaving a tedious conversation at a party. She was staring fixedly off to the side. Her eyes were open but dull. I felt sick with fear. Was she angry at me? Had I made her think, “That’s just what everyone says when you die”?

When we got back to her room, she still had that fixed look, but she was looking right at me. I sat by her bed and took her hand. I tried to make my face look like the sort of face you would want to see if that was the only thing you could focus on. I tried not to look the way I felt, which was worried that, in order to relieve my feelings, I had burdened her. But a little later, when she was herself again, she motioned to me.

“It made me so happy to hear that,” she whispered.

“Well, it’s true,” I said. “I just needed to say it.”

In fact, the big declaration was a Mom Special. She was so intense that she always operated in a zone beyond embarrassment. Like a character in the operas she loved so much, she would launch into lengthy soliloquies that expressed how she felt about us, how she saw me. She was the one who divined “something poetic” in the nature of my prosaic, baseball-hatted husband.

Once, when I was particularly lonely and sad, leaving her at the airport to go back to my single life in New York, she told me, “You think nobody sees how hard it is for you, how much you’re trying, how difficult it is for you to be alone. But I see you. I see how valiant you are.” She looked at me, her eyes shining with tears. “I am your witness.”

I wasn’t quite as baroque as Mom, but I still couldn’t keep things inside. Back at the hospital, I thought about the links forged between us.

“We’re kind of alike like that, aren’t we?” I said. “You were never afraid of expressing the big emotions. Even the corny ones.”

We were quiet. My heart glowed. We were so connected, so alike—everything I hated hearing when I was growing up felt so good right now. I always had my mother’s face (“Little Myrna!” lesser-known relatives would exclaim, making me wish I could curl up into a ball) and I shared many of her traits, most of which I wished I could shuck off. She was so dramatic, so easily hurt, so self-critical. If she happened to come into my room late at night, what could otherwise have been a cozy midnight chat could easily devolve into tears.

“I’ve made so many mistakes!” she would lament.

There was a downside to all that feeling as well—bitter silences, violent rages, times when she would scream at me, “You don’t love me! You don’t care about anyone but yourself!” Mom, who never swore, would sometimes call me a bitch when she was upset. And then she would forget she had ever said anything like it.

I only reacted by retreating. I’d go into my room, shut the door, and refuse to come out or to speak to her. Mom would eventually send Dad in to broker a peace deal, and he would ask me to apologize.

“I don’t have anything to apologize for,” I’d say. “She should apologize to me.”

“You know how she is,” he’d say.

What kind of an excuse is that? I wanted to scream. But that’s how it went. We lived with Mom’s volcanic rages because that was just the way she was.

Sometimes I would try to get her to admit she was wrong.

“You told me I didn’t love you,” I would accuse her the next day.

Mom would frown in surprise. “Did I?” she would say vaguely. “I’m sure that’s not right. I would never say that.”

“But you did,” I would mutter.

Accordingly, I spent most of my childhood trying to be my Dad. He was the cool one, always charming, always even-keeled. But right now, I was happy to be of one mind with Mom. As the afternoon wore on, she got worse. She couldn’t feel her left arm, she had a couple of epileptic fits. The doctors gave her some antiseizure medication and she dropped off to sleep.

On Sunday, Mom slept all day and couldn’t be woken. It was the medication, they said. All day I just wished that she would wake up, that I’d be able to talk to her one more time, that we’d have one more chance to be together. Please don’t go, I whispered to her. Please come back.

I got my wish. But as in the stories, you don’t always want what you ask for. Mom was awake, all right, alert and fully conscious. Up until then, she hadn’t been uncomfortable, she was glad to have us with her, she didn’t seem entirely aware of her impairments. But this morning, she could feel everything. She had been breathing through her mouth all the previous day, so her mouth was completely dry. She could barely speak. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t move her arm.

“I feel like a prisoner,” she rasped, her voice rising in panic. “I can’t move, I can’t speak!”

I watched her helplessly. I kept thinking about how, back at home in Atlanta, a bird had flown in through the chimney, then flapped around wildly, hurling itself at the windows, trying to break out. By the time I was finally able to wrench open a window, it had left a small dark smear of blood on the ceiling.

This was worse.

“I have to express myself! I can’t speak!”

I had wanted so much for her to wake up. But not to this.

“Mom—” I said.

“I’m fading,” she moaned, “I’m fading!”

Why had I wanted her to wake up? Irrationally, I felt like it was my fault.

“It’s like Pet Semetary!” I wailed to Tommy during a telephone break.

“How is that?” he asked patiently.

“You know how the guy’s kid gets hit by a car and he just can’t accept it and so he buries his son in the old Indian graveyard so he can come back to life?”

“Uh huh,” he said cautiously. I often wonder what goes through his head when we talk.

“And the kid comes back as a homicidal zombie? I wished Mom back and now she’s in torture and this sucks and why isn’t it over?”

By the afternoon, she was calm again. Her voice was guttural and faint, and she couldn’t open her eyes at all, but she was able to talk.  

“You mean everything to me, Sam,” she told Dad. “Everything. You and the children.”

He clasped her hand, then passed it to me.

“Having you and Claudia here has been a bomb,” she whispered.

I thought she was talking about how Thanksgiving had been ruined. “It wasn’t a bomb, Mom,” I protested. “We’re just happy to be with you.”

“She didn’t say ‘bomb,’” Dad said. “She said ‘balm.’”

Of course. Only Mom would use vocabulary so unexpected in her last hours.

There was a brief moment of peace. Claudia and I talked to her about our kids, who were each trying, in their own way, to help. I told her about the drawing Rachel had done for her, of a rainbow, and a moon, and a tree.

“That’s beautiful,” murmured Mom.

After that, she got confused and started speaking French. I think she thought I was a nurse. I helped her suck a tiny bit of water out of a compress, but she could barely close her mouth over it. Then she started worrying about things left undone.

“I haven’t bought any presents for Hanukah,” she gasped.

We are not a family that plans ahead. A Hanukah present is never ready to be bought until the absolute last minute, when you’re forced to spend $14.95 on express shipping. But I thought of the enthusiastic waiter of our first night.

“They’re already bought,” I told her. “I’ve wrapped them. Everything’s ready.”

“But I didn’t put the flowers in the kitchen.”

“Ne vous inquietez pas,” I said. “We took care of it.”

“I forgot to take my cowboy boots upstairs.”

This one made me skip a beat. Mom, a tiny woman with an outsized sense of style, pretty much always wore floor-length skirts and flat slippers, often embellished with a bow. She had them in all different colors—gold and purple and forest green. But I don’t think she had ever even been in the same room as a pair of cowboy boots.

“You really haven’t worn your cowboy boots in a while, Mom,” I said. “But do not worry. We brought them upstairs. Il n’y a pas de souci.”

At the very end of the evening, she switched back to English. We told her we loved her and that we would see her tomorrow.

“That would be good,” she said.

I was holding her hand and squeezed it. Very faintly, like a radio signal coming from a long way off, I could feel the ghost of a return pressure.

That night, I found the box of Trader Joe’s cornbread mix sitting in the cupboard. I flinched. It looked wrong, and not just because it was a foreign interloper among the French biscuits and British teas. It belonged to a different time. A time Before. Before, when there was supposed to be a Thanksgiving dinner with homemade pie. I glared at the box. Its cheerful yellow lettering seemed to be taunting me. I shrieked and hurled it into the trash.

***

I was so grateful to have Claudia there—the only person in the world who knew what it was like growing up in France with our particular parents, with their white-tornado energy and insatiable appetite for Chinese art. We could admit to each other how much we wanted to go home and see our kids, and how sad we were. Every afternoon, we’d give Dad some time alone with Mom and go out to lunch. The hospital is on the edge of the Canal Saint-Martin, a formerly working class neighborhood which has now become a hipster heaven. We tried every café and bakery within a 15-block radius, on the hunt for the mythical Pastry-That-Would-Make-Everything-Better. I had eclairs and croissants and pains au chocolat, lemon tarts, and millefeuilles. We critiqued the frothiness of the different café crèmes we tried. Sometimes it helped.

Every evening, we’d spend hours on YouTube tracking down French ads that used to make us laugh when we were children. There was something comforting about going back in time and revisiting the man with the moustache who looked a little bit like Dad, explaining how Vicks pastilles soothe the throat and refresh the nose. We were delighted to find the sour-looking cleaning lady who methodically sprays Pliz furniture polish on a long dining room table, then, still sour-looking, takes a flying leap and slides all the way down the table on her stomach. Apparently, the Pliz shine lasts a long time. “And a good thing too,” says the sour cleaning lady, “because I wouldn’t do that every day.”

As the days passed, Dad and Claud and I developed a kind of symbiotic balance. Two of us remained functional at all times, while the third was free to fall apart. Then once that person could breathe again, we’d regroup and it would be someone else’s turn. I had a couple of those episodes. One was while we were walking from the stairwell to the car in the hospital garage—a distance of approximately 30 feet. I started after Dad and Claud, then abruptly could not take one more step.

I started yelling. It wasn’t fair. Why didn’t we even have any family here? Why did we have to do everything ourselves? And why wasn’t there someone to bring us a goddamn casserole?

Claud and Dad waited patiently at the car until I could walk again.

***

Tommy’s family was pretty much the opposite of mine. First of all, they are a gigantic Catholic family. Second, none of them ever left. They all live within a 10-mile radius of Gulfport, Mississippi. They have fifty people at Thanksgiving and eighty people at Christmas. And when Tommy’s cousin Mike had a follow-up hernia operation, there was a crowd of people at the hospital. His wife, their kids. His parents. Her parents. Three aunts. Two uncles. Six cousins. For an operation. Mom was dying and it was just the three of us.

On the one hand, it made sense. Mom and Dad had bought burial plots near their summer house in New Jersey, so the funeral would be there and we couldn’t really ask people to go flying back and forth across the Atlantic. But on the other, we were alone. Like a handful of shipwreck survivors on a raft. 

Fortunately, I had my friend Al. Al Prazolam. Mom has a dressing room off their bathroom, a small room, higher than it is wide, with a lovely arched window overlooking the garden. Built-in cabinets stretch up to the ceiling. And in one of these cabinets is the parents’ pharmacy. For some reason, be it long familiarity with the pharmacist, or a more relaxed attitude in France towards doling out medication, my parents have accumulated enough prescription drugs to stock a small dispensary. They’re piled in wicker baskets, to which Mom affixed cardstock labels on a little ribbon, almost illegible in her spidery handwriting: Antibiotics. Dermatology. Painkillers. For years, I used to go through the piles, throwing out anything expired, a process usually punctuated by me running into the next room, yelling, “Hey Mom! These antibiotics are from 1988!”

That day, I was on the hunt for something stronger. There was a small mountain of sleeping pills, all with their pharmaceutical names, since again, in France, you don’t have to “ask your doctor about Lavista” or whatever. The boxes with names ending in “azepam” or “azolam” looked promising. And there, finally, on the box marked “alprazolam,” was a note in Dad’s larger, clearer writing: “Xanax. For anxiety.”

After five or six days, Claudia and I changed our return tickets. Then we changed them again, an operation that necessitated multiple calls to the booking agency. After the third phone call, Claud switched off the phone and looked up.

“I can’t do this,” she said. “I’ve got nothing left.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll just say I’m you.”

Why I couldn’t just say I was calling on her behalf I’m not sure, but at the time, it seemed essential that some version of “Claudia Myers” make the call, so verisimilitude was key. Fortunately, Claudia and I have exactly the same voice, the same cadence, the same timbre—so much so that more than once, when Claudia has left me a voicemail, I’ll wonder why I called myself.

I put the phone on speaker.

“Hello, and thank you for calling Expedia,” said a man with an Indian accent. “My name is Mike.”

“Hi Mike,” I said, “This is, um, Claudia Myers. My mother is in the hospital so I need to change my ticket—it would be the second time.”

“Very good, Claudia,” he said. He pronounced it CLOW-dia, so that the first part of the name rhymed with “plough.” “I’m just checking your reservation now, CLOW-dia.”

Why did he keep saying “Claudia”? It was as if he suspected I was an imposter, and was trying to make me crack. Meantime, there was no way his name was Mike. The idea that there were two of us pretending to be people we weren’t seemed, for some reason, utterly hilarious. I could see Claud trying to suppress a giggle, her shoulders shaking.

“Stop it,” I hissed at her.

But Mike was relentless. “I will just put you on hold for a minute, CLOW-dia.”

Claud snorted with laughter.

“Stop laughing!” I told her. “What is the guy going to think? We’ve just told him Mom is in the hospital!”

“You stop laughing,” said Claud, wiping her eyes.

“I could if he’d stop saying CLOW-dia,” I protested.

The line clicked back to life.

“Thank you for waiting, CLOW-dia,” said Mike. He waited for me to say something. “CLOW-dia?” he said. “Are you still there, CLOW-dia?”

I gave up and buried my face in the pillows.

Claudia picked up the phone. “Yes, thanks so much, Mike,” she said.

***

Saint-Louis specializes in hematology and oncology, but because it’s France, they don’t bustle people out of the ward and into a hospice once there’s no hope. Instead, they just quietly shift to palliative care without even moving the patient to a different floor. It was how I imagined dying in another century might have been—no machines, no respirators, just an IV drip and the stately buildings you could see out the window. Even the nurses had old-fashioned French names—Honorine, Aurélie, Celeste, Manon. They were improbably lovely, with low musical voices and refined features. It was like being attended by the cast of extras from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

One morning, Honorine called the house at 8:00 a.m.

“Your mother has started having pauses in her breathing,” she said. “You should probably come to the hospital as soon as possible. How long will it take you to get here?”

The parents’ house is in the suburbs on the west side of Paris, near Versailles. Saint-Louis is all the way on the other side of Paris, at least an hour and a quarter’s drive away.

“An hour and a half,” I told her, obviously confusing us with some other family.

I threw on some clothes and went to wake the others, figuring we could be out the door in ten minutes. But in classic Myers style, it took closer to an hour. Dad wanted to shower. Then Claud wanted to shower. Then Dad started slicing oranges for breakfast. I eventually caved and took a shower too.

When we finally got there, Mom was indeed pausing in her breathing. She would breathe in, then stop. Claud and I watched her, unconsciously holding our breath. Then, well after we had given up, she would exhale. One pause was so long, Claud and I looked at each other and burst into hysterical giggles. Dad looked confused.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“The pauses, they’re just so long.” 

“I don’t hear any pauses,” he said.

After a while, Mom started to change. First, her left hand became really cold, then her arm, then her whole side. Her hands began to swell and stopped feeling alive. With her head back and her mouth slightly open, her throat got larger and larger. Her body seemed to be turning to clay. Only her forehead remained the same, warm and smooth. Aurélie explained that her kidneys were shutting down, which is why fluid was pooling in her limbs. But when I put my head on her chest, I could hear her heart thumping away, still strong. It was like Mom’s body was a factory where all the workers had shut off the machines and turned out the lights, and only her heart was still working—somehow it hadn’t gotten the memo—alone in that giant, darkened warehouse. Still going. Thumpetathumpetathumpeta.

On Thursday, Claudia and I went coffin shopping, so Dad didn’t have to. We walked out through the palatial stone courtyard—Saint-Louis was built by Henri IV in the early 1600s and it still has its original buildings—and picked our way across town to see the funeral director. His office was on the third floor, up a flight of marble steps spiraling around an ornate elevator cage. It was somewhere between the second and third floors that I stopped being able to breathe.

“I can’t do this,” I gasped to Claud.

“I’ve got it,” she said.

So I just sat mutely while Claudia gave the somewhat cheesy funeral director all the information he needed. Since Mom was to be buried in New Jersey, there were shipping costs and additional forms to fill out.

Then we turned to the coffin issue. I was expecting there to be a room with an array of sample coffins, but it turned out that this tiny office was all there was. Instead, the funeral director handed us a brochure, which for some reason was plasticized, as if it were the menu at a rest stop off the highway. The choices ranged from gaudy to garish, with preposterous embellishments like metal scrollwork and tiny Corinthian columns that didn’t hold anything up. Mom would have hated it. “It’s not my style, hon,” we could hear her saying. We chose the least bad option, wood rather than gilt metal.

In the last days, when Claud and Dad would go for a quick walk, I would curl up with Mom. I would take off my shoes, drag the armchair close to the bedside, readjusting it until I could get my head and shoulders on her bed and the rest of myself on the chair.

“Really, Mom,” I said, “If you hadn’t let yourself get so fat, there might be some room for me. You’re so inconsiderate.”

I snuggled up to her shoulder and put my hand around her upper arm. It was still warm. I closed my eyes. Her heart was beating fast. I told her about the beautiful things Danny had said (“I love you, Mommy. But I love Grammom more”). I recounted an afternoon the previous June we had spent at Auvers, where Van Gogh died. Mom was weak but still game to go places. We sat on the terrace of a restaurant, Mom and Dad and I, gazing out over a valley and drinking rosé so pale it was barely a color. I was utterly happy.

“It’s a funny thing,” I told her another time. “You were never really the cuddly kind. But this feels just right.”

Mom never seemed that comfortable with certain kinds of physical affection. Dad, conversely, was easy. With Dad, I could just leap out with a bear hug. But around Mom I was the physical equivalent of tongue-tied. When I hugged her, I sometimes didn’t know what to do with my hands, or how hard to squeeze, or whether I should squeeze at all. I’m 5’3” and probably count as “petite,” but next to Mom I felt hulking and uncouth. It was Mom who pointed out that I slouched, that I sat with my legs too far apart, that I didn’t cover my mouth when I yawned. I felt like a barbarian.

I sometimes wished she were more like some friends of the family—the earth mother types who would envelop me in their arms and kind of squash me into them. Mom was delicate, like a doll. She couldn’t have enveloped me if she wanted to. But the few times I was just able to just lie with her felt like a distillation of love, as pure and untroubled as holding a sleeping baby.

More than once, we were told that Mom had hours left to live. But she just kept on stubbornly not dying, and the doctors started making impressed, not-bad-for-a-75-pound-old-lady noises. As time passed, I started to worry that something was wrong. Why wouldn’t she let go?

By the eighth day, I wanted so badly for this in-between state to be over that I just sat by the side of her bed and thought: Let go. It’s okay. Please, just let go. I couldn’t face coming back to the hospital one more day just to sit and wait for her to die, dreading to think that she was holding on so fiercely because she was afraid and scared and sad.

Friday morning, Claudia and I laid in wait for the doctor because I wanted—I needed—him to give me a time limit. As soon as he showed up, we pounced on him. Dr. C was youngish, handsome, and so well groomed that in the States he would track as gay, but in France, he just looked French.

“Assuredly,” he said, “your mother is very tenacious. But she is going to leave us soon.”

I felt a pang of gratitude, almost affection. “Elle va nous quitter bientôt,” he had said. He didn’t say Mom was going to pass away, or expire, or die. She was going to leave us. And not just me and Claud and Dad, but Dr. C as well.

And then, all at once, I stopped needing it to be over. Maybe just having asked the question had put it to rest. It would take whatever time it would take. And maybe Mom wasn’t holding on because she was afraid.

It hit me when I was at a café with Claud, sampling my eleventh entry in the search for The-Pastry-So-Perfect-It-Suspends-Grief—this time, a chocolate religieuse.

“I don’t think she is afraid to go,” I told Claud. “Mom, I mean. I think she’s doing it for Dad—she wants to be sure he’s going to be okay before she goes.”

“Sounds right to me,” said Claud.

“Right?” I said. “She’s doing it for love. Anyway, that’s what I choose to believe. I mean, really, who’s going to contradict us?”

The third time I cuddled up with her, after Claud had to fly home, I told Mom about it.

“Claud and I have a theory,” I said. “We think you are holding on for Dad because he’s not ready. But I think he is getting there.”

I listened to her heartbeat. Thumpetathumpetathumpeta.

“I think you’re helping him get used to the idea. So you take all the time you need.”

Then I just closed my eyes and lay next to her. Her arm was so shriveled that I just rested my hand on her shoulder. I sang to her like she was my baby girl, my voice barely above a whisper. Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there. I had started calling her sweetheart, like I called my kids. But oh my dear, our love is here to stay. I never wanted to get up.

That afternoon, coming back over the Canal Saint-Martin, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to leave if she was still holding on. Even if all that remained of Mom was a shadow, a breath, I still wanted to be near whatever was left. I would  miss these days, once they were over, because she would truly be gone. I broke into a run, suddenly afraid it was over already.

I burst into Mom’s room to find everything the same. Dad was typing, one-fingered, on his computer. Mom was still breathing and pausing, then breathing again. I sat down next to Dad. I told him, more or less, what I had told her—that his life wasn’t going to be empty, that he would still have love in his life. He had me and Claud, and his grandkids, and friends. He was going to be okay.

Dad made some kind of agreeing noise.

Then I noticed that the room had gone quiet.

“Wow, that’s rather a long pause, Mom,” I said.

But she was still. I got up and bent close to her. Her eye had opened just a bit. It was completely dull.

“I think she’s gone,” I said.

Dad looked stunned.

“What? No, she’s not. She just took another little breath, right there!”

“I’ll get the nurse in,” I said. “She can tell us for sure.”

I rang the bell. Mom’s throat made a weird convulsive motion. Dad gave a faint cry of hope. But I could tell it was just some kind of reflex. I had never seen anyone dead before, but it’s unmistakable. They’re just gone. The nurse, then a doctor, came in. “Your mother is deceased,” he told us formally.

Dad broke down and sobbed. I felt like I was underwater; everything around me was quiet and moved slowly. I was able to put my arm around Dad. I kissed Mom on her still warm forehead.

“Rest now, sweetheart,” I told her.

***

Mom was buried in New Jersey, on a wet, rainy December morning that could not have been more grim. The tombstone next to hers is for a man named something like Marty Fishbein. Mom’s tombstone is unpolished granite, sober, tasteful, with Mom’s favorite typeface that we had to special order. Marty’s is laser-etched with a photograph of his face. Mom would have rolled her eyes at how tacky it was. And yet the inscriptions on his stone are heartfelt messages from his wife and his kids, showing a man who was dearly loved. I think Mom would have liked him. When I’m feeling fanciful, I like to think of her and Marty, sitting on their tombstones, swinging their legs, chatting companionably, waiting—but in absolutely no hurry—for their spouses to join them one day.

 

Image at the top of the page is of View of the Canal Saint-Martin, a painting by Alfred Sisley done in 1870. It hangs in the Orsay Museum. 

Shame

"Alzheimer's Foundation of America Print Campaign" by Sabrina Fraley is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

It was one of the most shameful moments of my life. It is one that I will never forget and from which I will never recover.

***

For years, my father had been showing the signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The once brilliant mind and sharp wit had dimmed a bit, and it was getting harder and harder for him to keep things straight. Conversations with my father had always been powerful for me. He had the ability to follow my ramblings, ask probing questions with genuine interest, and give feedback or commentary that often made me think further on a certain issue. He was this way with most people, especially my friends, and we had a running joke that my friends had better not start a conversation with my dad unless they had plenty of time on their hands. But his ability to carry on such dialogue had become curtailed, and his short answers, or even silence, stood in great contrast to the talker most people knew. One Christmas, I gave him the gift of an outing each month—just the two of us—to a place of interest for the day. Our car rides, which had previously been packed with storytelling or ponderings about life, instead became filled with wordless spaces and repeated information from previous conversations. His disease was advancing.

It was about six years after my parents became aware of my father’s likely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s when they decided to move to Georgia to be closer to where my sister and I live. When they first learned of his disease, they had discussed what was likely to happen and decided to just handle whatever came their way. But after those years of slowly taking charge of his affairs—first the checkbook and the bills and then daily dressing and shaving—and months of calming his nightly hallucinations and heading off his neighborhood wanderings, my mother became exhausted. Unable to physically and emotionally handle the stress, and at seventy-five, no youngster herself, my mother decided she needed for him to live in a place where constant vigilance would be possible.

We must have toured half a dozen places within a thirty-mile radius. All lookedthe same, with long rivers of green carpet punctuated by maroon chairs and gilded lamps. All gave the same pitch: bingo, chair exercises, sharing time, and music and art classes. I wanted very badly to believe that my father could still engage in these activities and enjoy these activities. My mother, ever the optimist, talked up these features to him and emphasized all of the interesting ways he could engage with people in a new setting. Looking back, I don’t think my father actually understood that each of the places he toured was a potential new home for him, but he nodded politely and looked around.

Not until we actually moved my father into his place did I realize that for those on the “memory care” wing, such activities were a pipe dream, as they were unable to follow along. The facility, about a thirty-minute drive for me and for my mother, was fairly typical in having different stages of care, with a passcode-controlled elevator to the memory care unit. Both staff and family members knew the code but not the residents.

I don’t know how we ever got my father to agree to move in. On some level, he must have known how hard it was for my mother and could tell from her demeanor that it was something she really wanted. After more than forty years of marriage, he could likely still read her needs and characteristically followed her lead. Yet when we moved him in, he really didn’t know what he was doing there or why we had to leave without him.

My father was a smart guy, and he was curious about the world around him. He was a great listener, a practical joker, a writer, a World War II veteran, and, at times, a mind reader. He lived a full life that was in some ways selfish and in others incredibly giving. He’d hand-fed his own mother for months after she’d had a stroke, which took hours. And he was wickedly funny. The kind of funny where you laughed when you knew you shouldn’t. The kind of funny my mother called “bathroom humor” but that we kids just couldn’t help but try to emulate. So how was a smart and very funny guy—one who knew that he lived in a house with his wife and not in this room that people keep wandering into—ever going to get used to his new surroundings? Well, he wasn’t. But he took it with good manners that day.

My mother was the first to leave. I think she, after decades of being a mother, did what she always did with firsts: dropping him off in his new surroundings and telling herself that he would adapt. My sister and I stayed for a while, but with little to say, and knowing my father had to get used to his new place, we had to leave, too. I don’t know how it was for him those first few nights since I wasn’t there. Because of work, I didn’t go back for several days. When I did, I realized that there would be no getting used to his new surroundings. It would never feel like home, and the place was a prickly reminder that my father was forever unwell.

***

One day, a few months after we’d settled him into the facility, I left work in the afternoon and made the half-hour drive to his facility.

I arrived toward the end of the lunch hour and sat with him, watching him ever so slowly devour his favorite food—strawberry ice cream. That man loved his strawberry ice cream. He wouldn’t be rushed. And with his new set of dentures floating in his mouth, he couldn’t be rushed.

I tried to make conversation with the other residents sitting at my father’s table but soon realized that my father was one of the higher functioning persons there. He could still hold a conversation, albeit one that could have taken place decades earlier. For the most part, he knew I was his daughter, though he sometimes got me confused with other people. Once, he was convinced that he needed to leave to be in court. In retirement, he had volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate for children who had been abused, and he often had to attend hearings. I tried the reality tactic, which mostly doesn’t work with people with Alzheimer’s. And then told him it was Saturday, that court wouldn’t be in session over the weekend, which calmed him down.

But on this day, he knew it was his daughter visiting, and he was pleased to be eating his strawberry ice cream. After he finished, we took a stroll around the floor, and I took his lead in the conversation. I don’t remember what we talked about, though I know he didn’t talk much. He must have thought it was just another day like any other, and we were just hanging out together.Everything was fine until it came time for me to leave. I had to get back to work.

So I said my goodbyes to my father, punched in that code, and steered him away from the elevator as I didn’t want him to see me go. But my father, being the smart man he was, and not at all being used to his environment, steered himself right back to me, fully intending to get on that elevator with me. As I stood there, I saw him coming toward me, upset and confused. He just wanted to go with me, back to the life he had and the family he loved. And I let the elevator door close.

I’ll never forget the look on his face, and the shame and betrayal I felt at letting that door close. I went out to my car and sobbed for a long time, horrified at what I’d just done, but I knew that I wasn’t going to get back the father of my memory, the one who could have left with me. I cried and cried and apologized. I mourned the man I had lost and the daughter I had become.

***

There were several shocking and arguably worse experiences in the months that followed before he died. There were things I saw and felt that turned my world upside down, filled me with panic that I could not escape, and made me cry until my eyes were sore. But nothing could compare to what he must have gone through—a brilliant man stuck in a decaying mind and terrifying end to a wonderful life. In the decade that has passed, I’m not pained less by those experiences or by losing my father this way. But it has changed the way I interact with people who are aging, gradually losing the things we all take for granted. I like to think it has helped me be a bit more patient, a little more appreciative, and aware that my time, too, will come.

 

Eckleburg