When you Cannot Afford to say Goodbye

Dealing with grief when you’re too poor, too sick, and too far away to fly home

Whenever I’m lost, I fire up Google maps so I can take a look at the house again.

This is the house that grew three boys and two girls. For years, this is the house with an old rubber boot attached to the stone wall by the gate and out of which flowers sprout.

Number 24.

The boot has long gone, and a large square green mailbox is nestled between the railings. The house seems naked now. The enormous laurel shrub I loved burying my head in is gone, ditto the hazelnut tree, provider of tasty snacks to three generations.

It was a little stone house with stone stairs and living quarters on the first floor — one living room dwarfed by a giant dining table around which we’d all congregate, two small bedrooms, one tiny bathroom, one modest kitchen, and one restroom. The ground floor was used for laundry and as a root cellar.

My grandmother, Mamie, was a lifelong devotee of the scrubbing brush and washboard method, and still boiled linen in metal wash tubs.

She perceived her children’s repeated offers of a washer as an affront to her dignity so she never owned one.

Behind the house sat a huge vegetable patch that fed seven and more, and rose bushes my grandfather tended with pride, infinite patience, and love. There was a bountiful cherry tree, and an ancient weeping willow that stood regally at the bottom of the garden, where a waist-high stone wall separated the property from open fields.

It was Mamie’s home, the home she and her husband rented from the farmer who employed him. It was where Mamie lived until a stroke made it inadvisable for her to remain there, an elderly woman alone in a house grown silent, in a deserted village in Northern France.

Every year on her birthday, my heart contracts anew with the pain of absence.

Mamie relinquished her grip on life exactly a week before the Bataclan massacre, in 2015.

To me, she might as well have died yesterday, the shame of being unable to fly back and attend her funeral still very much alive. When I immigrate to America, depression fells me almost upon landing; it will end up taking away my writing voice and livelihood for five years.

At a time when my one job as an only child is to be present and hold my father’s hand, my household can’t even afford to send flowers.

Selflessly, my mother steps in.

“What do you want to write in the note?” she asks over the phone.

“I… I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t know. Sorry. Can I… can I text you later?”

I’m lost for words for quite some time, numb, unable to think or feel anything.

Eventually, my heart whispers “Goodbye, Mamie, thanks for all the love you gave us.”

In her elegant penmanship, my mother relays my message, and a flower arrangement appears by my grandmother’s casket on the day of the funeral. Later that day, my phone beeps with a picture message from an unfamiliar number. It shows a basket of flowers next to a golden handle on polished wood, and is accompanied by warm words of thanks I do not deserve from my father’s youngest sister, my beloved auntie.

For months, I’m unable to feel.

When a fictional character by the name of Mamie appears in a book I’m reading, I come undone behind closed doors, night after night. For several days, I am unmoored but for the loose anchor of shame, a granddaughter who didn’t even get to pay her last respects.

What few childhood memories self-protective amnesia hasn’t erased come flooding back.

It occurs to me Mamie would never have let herself become paralyzed by something as intangible as depression.

Mamie was 96 when she died, so frail she was bed-bound and no longer able to communicate.

When I last see her, before her mental faculties leave her altogether, she still knows me.

I’m surprised as I only visit infrequently, having spent my entire adult life overseas. On that day, I feel undeserving of such clarity. She routinely struggles to recognize her own children, often confusing my dad — her firstborn — with one his brothers or sisters. With them, she has one out of five chances of getting it right, but with nine grandchildren, the odds are a little higher.

But she still knows me.

“So you’ve come for a visit?” she says, “That’s nice.”

And we chat a little, with my dad acting as the MC whenever the conversation goes off the rails, which is every other sentence. Mamie’s spirit is already fading, it has been fading since she arrived at the nursing home.

It was a move of her own volition. By then, she’d been a widow for some fifteen years. The stroke forced her to acknowledge she could no longer look after herself in a small village without a doctor.

She chose to go straight from the hospital into care. She tossed her house keys to my dad and instructed him and his siblings to empty the house. She only requested a few essentials. “Chuck out everything else and give the keys back to the landlord,” she said.

And this is how a born and bred village girl, who once used to run the grocery store and café at the heart of this small community, moved on to the next stage of her life.

Why dwell?

Gradually, her body lets her down, and then her mind, to the point when her still being alive becomes a source of much pain for us all, unwilling as we are to accept the universal effects of time.

She, thankfully, is oblivious to her decline.

Death becomes the only possible deliverance from a life reduced to less than the human body’s basic functions.

But Mamie hangs on with all her might. First she disappears into herself then she gets smaller and smaller. She fades away, like a flame getting dimmer and dimmer until all the light has gone.

“You know, she was used up,” my dad keeps saying over the phone the day she dies, relieved yet in shock although he won’t acknowledge it.

“So you’ve come for a visit? That’s nice,” Mamie says for the nth time as my father and I exchange looks of total helplessness.

And then my dad retrieves a deck of cards from Mamie’s bedside table and suggests she and I play a game of War, as we had done so many times when I was little.

Back then, my parents leave me in Mamie’s care during the summer with a bag of books so they can argue and fight at leisure, further destroying an already ailing marriage.

I spend my days outside, often with my nose in a book.

I also collect fossils at the bottom of the garden where I hope for a glimpse of my grandfather working in the fields.

If I’m lucky, Papi drives past on his tractor and waves, and I wave back, wondering when I might finally get a ride.

If I’m even luckier, he stops by for a few minutes, enough time for Mamie to march down the garden and hand him a sandwich of buttered baguette and saucisson.

I also pick tiny daisies — a lot of tiny daisies, they grow wild in the garden — and present Mamie with a bunch on an almost daily basis. Always with a smile and a kind word, she places it in a glass of water on the sideboard, next to the previous day’s offering.

Mamie and I run errands. We go to the butcher’s shop when there’s still one, the smell of raw and cured meats making me feel so light-headed I have to wait for her outside. We hurry to the bakery van, which comes twice a week, announcing its arrival with some happy honks of the horn. I run, hoping the baker won’t have run out of brioche.

We go to the little grocery store and café still run by Mamie’s sister, Gabrielle. I hoist myself up onto a bar stool, place my little elbows on the bar and mock-order a glass of red in a big voice to make Mamie and Gaby laugh. We also look in on old Mrs Thomas who lives alone in a dark, airless house with a loud grandfather clock at least ten times my size.

Back home, we pick runner beans and shell peas. We select the ripest tomatoes for dinner but I’m not allowed to pick them in case I squish them so I tiptoe around the vines and point dutifully at the reddest specimens.

In the morning, Mamie makes me hot chocolate in a big bowl in which I dunk a chunk of brioche or baguette; at night she bathes me in a tin tub in the kitchen.

Although my brain has replaced most of my childhood with blanks, I still have colorful recollections of my summers in the country.

I remember how the back of the house — covered in vine and home to countless hornets — would hum in the summer. I remember a Bayonne ham sometimes hanging in the living room window, secreted behind the shutters.

I remember how my grandfather always sneaked a slice of carrot into his tobacco pouch, to keep tobacco moist; I remember being allocated a small sliver of garden — near the marrows and melons — to plant mums and gladiolas (neither of which I can look at anymore, although they’re beautiful).

I remember collecting hazelnuts, and displaying my bounty in a wire glasses-wearing coconut shell monkey my father had brought back from Tahiti; I remember the fat peonies at the bottom of the garden, planted in rich soil bedecked with fossils…

In America, I discover white peony tea at the local bakery and its power to teleport me through time and space.

I make sure never to order it again lest I should start sobbing uncontrollably in public.

I remember the majestic weeping willow under which I read, and the fat rabbits by the toolshed. I spend hours sneaking blades of grass to them through the wire meshing of their hutch. Eventually, Papi decides it’s not a good idea for the grandkids to be on such familiar terms with their Sunday lunch and he stops keeping rabbits altogether.

We eat chicken instead.

I remember the prized cherry tomato plant in its own pot throning atop the septic tank lid; the wild strawberries I eat by the handful; the former Christmas tree that grew taller than the house because my grandfather couldn’t bear throwing it out, and the little blue Norwegian fir growing in its shadow, another survivor of holidays past.

I remember the bottomless glass bottle of ice cold water Mamie keeps in the fridge, water with the barest hint of mint or lemon cordial…

I also remember feeling lonely unless invited to play with the boys next door. They turn up infrequently as this is their country home.

I am lonely but nonetheless grounded, safe, loved, not at all out of place despite being a city kid whose natural habitat is a gray concrete jungle of ugly.

“So you’ve come for a visit? That’s nice,” Mamie says as she struggles to recall how to play War.

I’m so focused and flustered I don’t know what to say, what to do, wanting desperately to hop and skip joyfully down Memory Lane for my father’s sake, to give him that tiny bit of happiness his eyes are so hungry for.

In my hands is half a card, worn out from too much use, half a card that will leave me reeling with indignation for years to come. At the time, I don’t understand the reason no one had thought to replace Mamie’s deck isn’t stinginess. Instead, it’s because she no longer has any use for it, hasn’t had any use for it in years.

That day, she still knows me. As I leave the nursing home with a heavy heart and the knowledge we may never meet again, I start thinking about writing her eulogy.

But when her time comes, I’m not there.

Were Mamie still alive today, she’d be tickled pink to know she has finally crossed the Atlantic, albeit as pixels and data packets.

America loomed large in her imagination and she loved it through her television, especially the America of cop shows.

She enjoyed those shows so much she once mused out loud, without the slightest hint of irony, that she wouldn’t have minded joining the California Highway Patrol.

She was tall and strong and capable, kind but blunt and fair.

“So people are reading about me in America? That’s nice,” I can hear her say.

If only I’d written this years ago…

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor 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.

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