Mourning in Paris – The New York Times


He’d been sick for a long time, but the last time we spoke, he told me that he was on a new kind of therapy for his cancer. He said it would allow him to live 10 more years. I told him about my work and my new house and my move across the country; I told him I would try to get a story to take me to Paris. I began pitching a story about French anti-Semitism to travel magazines. I asked them to let me visit Paris one last time before they stopped allowing Jews in. No one bit. I never made it. I learned from a text message that he died. My sister had seen notes of condolence on his Facebook page. I pulled over in the parking lot of a ShopRite and put my head on my steering wheel and cried.

We were both journalists, Richard and me. He made documentaries about Russia for Channel 13 in New York, and then for Al Jazeera. He was the only other person in my family with a rebellious streak. We had so many similarities, and yet, he wasn’t a blood relation. “You look alike,” a Frenchwoman he was dating once told us. “You have the same” — she searched for the English word — “bigness to your face.”

My most enduring memories of Richard were from my and my sister’s stay when I was 18. We drove around in his BMW convertible with the top down while he played Billy Idol; we ate a sandwich outside the Pompidou Center, where he told me family secrets; he gave me his copy of “American Psycho” because he didn’t ever speak down to me or fetishize my youth or try to protect me; he took us to Euro Disney, right when it first opened, him insisting that we go despite our ages, all the time looking around in disgust and saying, “Look at all this canned happiness!” He leaned against a bar at a brasserie, downing an espresso in one shot — I don’t think I ever realized what it meant to be cool until I saw him do that. For years after, I tried to develop a taste for espresso shots, and for drinking them in his casual, leaning way. I couldn’t pull it off.

During my trip to Paris this summer, his affiliation with the city haunted every stop. I thought I saw him outside the Louvre. I thought I saw him in line for a movie. I thought I saw him outside the Zara shop. A man at the Orsay, a man at Buvette, a man at the Louvre, a man on the Metro. I thought I saw him in the lobby of my hotel — for a second they all looked like him, and in my protracted mourning, as my brain tried to calibrate for a Paris without Richard, I was sure he was everywhere. But he was nowhere, not anymore. Richard was everywhere, except that he was nowhere.

BY THE TIME I arrived there this summer, I had a fever for museums. For the last year or so, for the first time in my life, I worked hard to find a way to get to any museum I could, particularly art ones, for even just 15 minutes at a time. I have small children, and small children make museum attendance an act of defiance, as I batted away their boredom and resentment and tried to have a real moment with a Lombardo at the Met, or a Renoir at the Frick. But in Paris, for a week, I had the greatest art in the world to myself for a week. I found myself seeking out Impressionists, surrounding myself with Manets and Renoirs and Pisarros. But now, suddenly, I couldn’t look away from them. I moved around the Musée de l’Orangerie and its long expanses of Monet waterlilies that stretched around their own rooms. At the Orsay, I was struck mesmerized in front of the Van Goghs I had seen many times before. There was a Strindberg storm whose dark overtook me.

It is embarrassing to like Impressionists. Maybe it’s fine if you’re an art person, but let’s say you are just a museum tourist like I am — they convey a lack of sophistication. I knew this from when I was very young, when my school friends were framing Monet prints in their childhood bedrooms — I was subversive so I chose Warhols. I went to all the museums while I waited to go see my family, but each time I got drawn to the Impressionists. No, it turns out I didn’t want the blood bath that Paris was offering me at the Louvre. I wanted these paintings that were pretty, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why.

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Paris assures you that you are mortal, here for a blink of time, that the world will barely register your existence before you are gone.

Credit
Alex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times

PARIS IS A GOOD PLACE to mourn. I would say this even if Richard hadn’t lived there, but all the more so that he had. I went to visit his widow — my aunt — and their son, my cousin. She made lunch and told me about the last years of their life together, and about his last days. She brought out his photo albums and I looked at his pictures.

Richard was a gifted archivist of his life. On every page was a picture of him in a new setting, sometimes with other people, but never anyone consistently until he met his wife. He had a way of looking at the camera like he could see beyond the lens and into the eyes of the person staring. I went through page after page, and sometimes I saw him with my father or aunt or grandmother, or with me and my sisters. My aunt pointed out his old girlfriends, and his friends she was still in touch with, and the pictures from when their son was born.

I came to a photo of Cinderella’s castle at what was then called Euro Disney, with me and my sister and Richard in Mickey Mouse ears in front of it. We were laughing. “All this canned happiness,” he had said that day. But we were happy there. I know it for sure. We had played Billy Idol all the way there and my sister and I kept singing the same lyric over from “Flesh for Fantasy.” We were happy being better than Disney and the people who visited it. I saw that picture and I put my face in my hands and I cried. His wife stood up, placed her hands on my shoulders and put her head against mine so that we were both looking at the photo. She told me that they’d taken their son to Disney, too, and that he’d said the same things that day to them.

Their son came home. He is 8 now, beautiful and charming and smart. I wish I could tell Richard how I loved him immediately. My aunt told me he was the light of Richard’s life, how he had resisted becoming a father, but from the moment he was born, it was all he cared about. He has his mother’s coloring, but he looks just like Richard — and not at all like me.

They wanted to bring me to visit his grave. I didn’t know if I wanted to go. If I saw where Richard ended up, then I would know that he was truly gone. I didn’t want to stop seeing his face everywhere yet. Seeing him everywhere had been a gift, but it had also proven to me just how little I knew about him. Seeing him everywhere made me wonder what he thought of certain things. I didn’t know. I’d been too young.

I should have found a way to come sooner. I thought I’d had more time. I thought that adulthood would make me into someone who knew things about my family, but you have to do hard work to know people. You have to look at someone until you truly know him. That’s the thing about the Impressionists. They stared and stared at a singular scene or object until they knew it well enough to interpret it. They stared until they understood it. How do you learn to do that when someone lives so far away? How do you learn to convey your love when it all took place in passing? You have to find the time to stare at things; the time was never handed to us. It’s never handed to us ever anymore. You have to assume that you will never see him again.

Yes, to see him again. How I wanted to just see him one more time. How I realized now that I had never looked at him closely — not closely enough, anyway, not enough to know him and to memorize him and to not need these pictures to remember him. Maybe that was what was appealing about the Impressionists. Those artists, they knew what was up. They knew that the feat of art was to stand there and look at something — something as innocent and workaday as just another person — and see it so hard that you understood it. That you could interpret it. That you could know it so well that even as you made it fuzzier, it still recalled the detail of the original thing. Yes, that’s what the Impressionists were. They were people who spent time staring, though the world tapped them on the shoulder with all of the distractions of life. If I could look at Richard again, I would memorize him. If I could see him one more time, I would look at him the way he looked at the camera and I would know him forever.

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I should have found a way to come sooner. I thought I’d had more time.

Credit
Alex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times

AFTER LUNCH, WE WALKED to the cemetery. My aunt told me that Richard wanted to be buried in Vanves, the suburb southwest of the city where he lived. The grave is a full bed of flora, beautiful and wild-looking. At the entrance to the cemetery there are cornflower blue pitchers and they come here every week and fill those pitchers and water the flora on the grave. There’s a temporary marker that says his name. I hadn’t even known his middle name. I stood over his grave and I said kaddish for him.

When Richard and I last spoke, he was not stoic about death. He didn’t pretend this was all O.K. with him. And now he was gone, and I loved him, but I didn’t know anything about him, not really as an adult, at least. Left without a real understanding of him, all I had was his face, and now that would be gone, too.

I hugged my aunt and my cousin goodbye and I took an Uber to the Musée Rodin. I thought about statues, then, how they each represented years of people’s lives: The people who stood and painstakingly made them, the people who, absent Polaroids, posed for them. I thought about art, how the miracle of it is that it forces you to look at something hard, and that art itself is the result of someone looking at something very hard for a very long time and trying to make sense of it. I didn’t see Richard’s face again in anyone else’s face after I visited his grave. Instead I saw everything that was old and that was Paris and that would have been the same whether or not my uncle had ever lived there. I thought of Richard, in the ground, now a part of Paris forever, as if he hadn’t been already.

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