It’s hard to be far away from people you love, especially when something happens to them. Also when what happens is just life, like parents getting old while you’re away. The autumn of life. This is an autumn story while we wait for summer.
We would chance upon them every now and then, leaning unsteadily on each other – mostly him on her – negotiating the steep stairs. Steadfastly turning down offers to help, his refusal a grateful mumble, hers blunt and abrupt. He dragged his feet, but he smiled. She was weary too, but strong enough to pop her gray head out of her doorway, barking about us slamming the door and such. Wearing the dressing gown to which her wardrobe had been reduced.
Sometimes we would find her outside our door looking confused, always in her dressing gown, always blunt – and then she would scurry to the safety and uncertainty behind her own door. We would hear them more often. Sounds carry well through open windows in an old building in the south of France. His pain, her despair and anger. Words she refused to hear …he is very ill…he cannot live here anymore…you cannot do this on your own. She didn’t want to heed and she dealt with it the best way she knew how – being blunt. They stayed.
Then there was the knocking on our door one night. Could we help? Her husband had fallen out of bed and she couldn’t get him up. Then, a few months later, another knock and a question – did we need extra bedclothes? The bluntness having receded to helplessness now, a shivering in her voice. This was her way of telling us that she had lost him. She wouldn’t need his bedclothes anymore. Now, she was even smaller and couldn’t help the tears. So she scurried back to the safety and emptiness behind her own door. But she accepted our help now.
Mourning is a time of vulnerability and naked emotions, also when most of your life is behind you. A bouquet of flowers and she called us ses petits amis. But then she pulled herself together and closed the door behind her once again. A little while later, there was a knock on our door. Could we help her to get a vase – she couldn’t reach it?
We never saw her again. The next time we came, strangers walked in and out of their apartment, which was as old and weary as they had been. When we asked for her, we learned that she had passed the same morning. So she had followed him. I found myself smiling, the way you do when nature confirms itself.
Their son had come down from Paris and was already throwing everything away. A crimson armchair, worn gray where hands had been resting for years – a life. A cane and a walker – an old man. An old fur coat, how pretty she must have felt thirty, maybe forty years ago – a woman. For several days we saw bits of fur on the stairs and out on the street. And he threw away the dressing gown.
Then there was the strong smell of paint through open windows.
We see them several times a week. Always at the same table by the window, always next to each other. They don’t see us, they’re too into each other. A chair has been removed to make room for her weelchair. He holds his arm around her, kisses her cheek. And he feeds her. Afterwards he’ll put on his beret, place a colouful plaid over her legs and walk her home.
A different couple in another country. Sometimes stories don’t need names and places.
By Unni Holtedahl, May 2013