The first act of self-preservation is making a cup of tea,” reads a note I find in an old folder on my laptop.
Is my past self sending me a message?
Putting the kettle on is still the first thing I do whenever I get home, and the first thing I do in times of crisis.
When I moved to America, finding out an electric kettle wasn’t a standard kitchen appliance was the source of much frustration. The electric kettle is my constant companion, purveyor of comfort at the flick of a switch, and if you ask any Brit they’ll likely tell you the same thing.
Because tea is the magical brew that helps you cope with, well, anything.
That I am a French-American is neither here nor there.
I spent most of my adult life in the UK and still have a Sherlock accent. My sense of humor, demeanor, and linguistic affinities are steeped in Britishness. Although I’ve been stateside for six years, writing American English still amounts to misspelling everything.
I’m homesick for Europe a lot, but the country I miss the most is Britain rather than France where I was born.
Britain still holds my heart, but a part of it vanished last September when my best friend of over two decades died unexpectedly.
Hot on the heels of amorphous, omnipresent grief that felt like a lead blanket, depression threatened to sweep me away again.
And it very likely would have if I had let it, if I hadn’t pushed back against the nefarious thoughts of a brain still trying to kill me.
It stood every chance of succeeding so I remained vigilant and tried to manage my grief, which I’m still doing with very variable results.
While it’s hard to hold your own hand, this is what I’ve been doing for years, out of necessity rather than choice.
And no, there’s nothing remotely inspirational about being so cash-strapped you cannot access therapy despite having insurance.
There is nothing remotely inspirational about being so alone that your household’s response to your ongoing mental health crisis is one of resentment and apathy for five years.
Instead, this is the cruel reality of American life, not juxt mine but that of many.
Luckily, my best friend Anthony was there throughout, a reassuring presence in the background only a tickle of a touchscreen away.
Not only were my struggles intimately familiar to him, but he always maintained a forward-thinking outlook despite his own hardships.
It is this outlook I’ve been seeking to emulate for the last 20 years or so, an outlook that is now key to keeping myself functional.
Even though looking forward doesn’t feel natural, it’s the only way.
When my stepmom received a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis two weeks before Anthony died, I realized I no longer had the luxury of taking my own journey to wellness one day at a time.
I had to shape up, and fast, so I could go support my 71-year old father while my stepmom underwent treatment.
Because this is my role as an only child, geographical distance notwithstanding.
The challenge was to earn my transatlantic airfare through writing.
When I started putting words together again last summer, I had more modest goals.
I was relearning my craft at an unhurried pace, setting aside my modest earnings for a future trip. I wanted to go visit my father because depression had alienated him but there was no deadline. My aim was to mend our relationship, something that could only happen face to face as I hadn’t seen him for years.
Oddly enough, my stepmom’s cancer diagnosis gave us a massive head start.
The shock that rippled through our family was enough for us all to set aside our differences and just get on with life.
Because what matters now is to contain this cancer and prevent it from spreading further.
Although we’re aware the outcome isn’t brilliant, we do not talk about that.
Whatever happens at the oncologist’s stays at the oncologist’s: The Institut Curie in Paris has become our very own Vegas.
Despite the gaping hole my beloved friend’s untimely death has ripped through the fabric of my life, I had no time or opportunity to dwell.
I’ll probably keel over when I go see his mom in London but I’m trying to hang on until then.
This hyper-rational, hyper-practical approach is completely at odds with my nature. I’ve always felt everything so keenly I might as well have been born without skin, but shock has made me numb.
It still hasn’t worn off.
In a roundabout way, it’s a good thing as it’s enabling me to plan, to keep writing, and to get organized.
Whenever sadness attempts to lead me astray, I self-medicate with more work as it is what makes my presence in Europe possible.
The flip side of being self-employed and driven by vocation is that, sometimes, you don’t know when to stop.
I also make a point of doing everything I can to accommodate life and the people in mine.
It’s not discipline or denial, it’s auto-pilot mode.
And I default to it because I’m terrified of depression incapacitating me again.
I’m still getting back on my feet, it would be so easy for illness to knock me down, especially on key dates like Anthony’s birthday.
And yet, I know he wouldn’t want any of us to mope.
Instead, he’d be delighted to hear his mom and his sister had a day out in London to celebrate his birthday as they spread his cremains between all the places he loved as a child.
These bittersweet news dredge up everything I’ve been trying to suppress and nearly break me again. But because I’m in a safe place with people who are holding me together, the mental storm is short-lived.
We weather it.
Instead of letting grief wash over me, I set it aside again.
And then I ask my friends if they’d come with me to London at some point in the not too distant future and hold my hand.
Focusing on life doesn’t mean denying the possibility of death.
Death is omnipresent in my daily reality and informs many of the choices I make.
For example, I will pull an all-nighter so I can take the next day off and spend it with my stepmom if she expresses the desire to go somewhere or do something.
Because now that later is no longer guaranteed, living has become more urgent than ever.
And that’s precisely why all my energy goes into the present moment and into finding the words that can sustain this fragile equilibrium for as long as possible.
Words to survive; words to thrive.
Words that enable people, presence, and love.
As a way to keep your deceased loved ones around for a while longer, writing can also help you deal with grief.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.