A black-and-white photograph curled at the edges pressed between the pages of Anna Karenina falls into my hands as I fumble about the bookshelf. Anna Karenina. It appears I was using the photograph as a bookmark and apparently gave up after page 662. Do not judge me, dear Reader – I was only fifteen at the time. No doubt, I found the drama of my own life infinitely more interesting.
There is nothing dignified about death. I am not sure why I went, that first time, to the place of implosion. I guess I had some idea of standing there amidst the debris, my hat in my hands, saying a silent prayer for those who had left us. In its stead, a quarter mile away from the actual site, a rank odor announced itself like a foreboding. As I got closer, the mélange of rotting potatoes, overheated engines reeking oil, charred eggplants the color of ash settled like a second skin making me heave. I grabbed a tissue, forcing down the bitter taste of vomit in my mouth and went back home.
We were in Paris for two weeks at a stretch and after hitting some of the fabulous tourist spots – The Sacre Coeur, The Palais Garnier, The Notre Dame Cathedral – thought, we would cover every arrondissement by metro, tram and bus. Why? You may well ask. I can only shrug and say it seemed like a good idea at the time.
A lethargic breeze rose and ebbed with the tide, not quite cooling my beaded neck. I lifted my hair and wrapped it in a tight knot, so it wouldn’t cling like sticky fingers on my bare shoulders. It was low tide. Beyond the rocky terrain, the ocean muttered darkly, withholding its customary exuberance; I walked as close to the retaining wall as possible, making room for the “real “walkers until I came upon a lone man seated on the wall, an open carton of food balanced between his legs. Discreetly I moved away, noting out of the corner of my eyes, it wasn’t actually food, but more than half of a very large, creamy cake, the frothing, chocolate and other unknown sugary stuff oozing out of the box and dribbling on to the sidewalk like dog feces.
I have often tried to encourage my children to read. They are boys. They clamber on furniture, roll on rugs, tear into their surroundings secure in the knowledge that the new dawn will have reined in the chaos, cleared the debris they scatter wherever it may fall, with fresh ground for play. I want them to be still for a bit. Sit down, I want to say to them. Sit down and get acquainted with the passing thought, the laughter before it leaves the throat, the sigh before it escapes your lips. Having learned the art of sitting still, you can move.
Ninety years of living reduced to this: the slow counting of breaths followed by the Himalayan trek from bed to bidet to dimly observe the color of pee, the lethargic, sometimes movement of bowels, the hasty swipe with a baby wipe. And here we go again.