(Text graciously revised by Hannah Critoph)
It should be kept in mind that this is a text to be read aloud, small modifications may occur as the presenter sees fit.
My wife, Fabienne Berthelot, died on January the 27th 2018, Saturday, at 5:35 a.m.
/Music by Leonard Cohen/
You have just heard the first minute from “So long, Marianne” by Leonard Cohen: a song that will perhaps prove immortal. It is certainly more immortal than Marianne and Leonard, who were mortal and have died already. The song immortalising their love still exists, although they no longer do. Does their love still exist? And what about my love for Fabienne, which I still feel strongly? Has it ceased to exist because its object has gone? Undoubtedly, our love bore fruits, and they remain. But where is this love itself? Right now? Is it in my heart? Is it now pointless? Targetless? Meaningless?
My wife, Fabienne Berthelot, died on January the 27th 2018, Saturday, at 5:35 a.m.
6:25am: extra time for Fabienne (I’m with my son; we’re not announcing her death right away). 7:00am: phone call home. Fabienne’s recorded voice on the answering machine (the message is unchanged to this day). Up to 7:25: breakfast with my son at a bakery. Up to 12:30: we all stay with Fabienne. 12:30–13:30: we all spend time with the hospital psychologist. In the meantime, Fabienne is being taken away. Nicolas officially announces her death at City Hall. 16:30–17:30: Visit to undertaker. In the evening, we watch family videos.
When did Fabienne make it upstairs for the last time? Mid-December, when she was still strong enough. What about down to the basement? And which was the last book she read? Was it “Tanja’s Street” by Kalle Kniivilä? Well, she certainly read up to page 32, as evidenced by its folded corner. When did she last sleep in her bed? This I can tell you for sure…
Our house now appears to me as some kind of jungle, through which I know certain paths, but the remaining paths I’m discovering only gradually, when there’s some emergency, like a repair to be done or simply sheets to change. Before, I always had a local guide through this jungle: someone to keep me out of danger.
But now… Now I am lost.
31 Jan., Wednesday, 1:00–3:00, 7:00–7:25 writing my speech for Fabienne’s funeral. 10:30–11:30 ceremony in cemetery. 12:00–15:30 restaurant with those we invited.
The left side of the bathroom shelf is still cluttered with her objects, especially everything she needed to do her make-up, to apply eyebrows where hers had disappeared. But gradually I will move on, clear away objects – perhaps I already have – and the day will come when nothing, or almost nothing, will be as she left it. When I shuffle around her things in the bathroom, I think about the drawers in my poem.
You’ve become a habit
You’ve become a habit, like the air I breathe,
wherever I look it is only you I see,
at the back of my cupboard, in my drawers,
even in my brain, so that I don’t notice you anymore.
But last night, when you entered
suddenly I became aware of you again
next to me, I did not listen but
looked at you in wonder. I closed
my eyes. And kept repeating in silence:
“She became a habit, like the air I breathe.
She is the one who keeps me alive. ”
1 Feb, Thursday, driving all day to Fabienne’s village St-Lambert.
3 Feb, Saturday: ceremony in St-Lambert church, followed by a reception in the municipal hall (where we had got married 24 years earlier).
I will never know if and when she truly accepted the idea of dying.
It is not the same thing to fear death as to fear dying. I believe that as early as in 2013, Fabienne managed to stop fearing death – there is proof to that in her writing. But she was afraid of dying; she didn’t want to suffocate. And what luck we had! We could place our trust in Dr. D., who upheld this ultimate, this most important guarantee; Fabienne did indeed pass away with her breathing remaining calm, only ever less frequent.
24 March, Saturday (it would have been her 53rd birthday): a commemoration in Luxembourg, in the former chapel of the Neumünster Abbey.
Fabienne trusted people and, above all, did not want to be a nuisance. Perhaps that was the reason for her late diagnosis: she did go to see a specialist about her breast pain, but believed the faulty diagnosis without seeking a second opinion… and she hardly spoke to me about all this… not wanting to bother me in my grief for my father.
13 April, Friday: picking up her ashes from the crematorium. Saturday: Illegal partition of the ashes.
20 April, Friday, 10:00, burial of part of her ashes in the cemetery of St-Lambert (I do not attend).
In Fabienne’s diary for 1989, which I have never seen before, my name appears twice. On one weekend day she noted: “Anonymous call”. I will never be able to ask her about that mysterious call. Earlier this would have been much less of a concern to me. Earlier we had the present and the future together – left alone, now I have only the past to dig into.
Each of us believes our grief is unique, and yet all grief is alike.
People want to know how I get by and whether they can help, but I don’t know what to answer beyond the usual platitudes. I prefer reactions like that of a colleague, who gives me half of her cake and sits with me for ten minutes, saying that men are said to cope better emotionally in such periods than women do.
18 May, Friday, 18:00 Funeral Mass in Újpest, Hungary, followed by a “reception” at my cousin Aranka’s place. Saturday, 3pm: Inaugurating a plaque with her name on my family grave in Pesterzsébet. 4:00pm–11:00pm: Celebrating her memory in the garden of my friend Sz. Sunday 18:10: approx. 50 grams of ash strewn in the Danube from a public transport ship, just south of Erzsébet Bridge, roughly where, in December 1990, Fabienne first saw the Danube, with me, on her very first trip to Budapest by rail.
From today, Fabienne will always be younger than I am.
My eyes caress her summer clothes in the wardrobe. But her body itself is missing. Next thought: in the living room, some of her body is present, in the form of ash. A macabre idea, an impossible puzzle.
Previously, events happened either for the two of us to live them together, or for me to tell her about them later.
Tonight a bout of weeping came upon me in the bathroom upstairs when I remembered New Year’s Eve 2010/2011: we were standing there by the window, the two of us, watching the fireworks on the street, perhaps a bit saddened by the absence of our children on a skiing holiday, but as yet unaware of the diagnosis we would hear 13 days later. Looking back now, I see that we stood there strong and united, ready for whatever might come.
Will I ever be able to live with someone else? That question had long felt like a taboo, but now it is an idea I occasionally entertain. I remember in a bittersweet way what she once said: that if I died first, that would pose a problem for her, but if it was to be her, I would soon find a young blue-eyed eastern European blonde.
My daughter is back home for the weekend. It is already dark by the time I arrive home from work. To see her in the kitchen, at the stove, makes me happy: my daughter is home! But suddenly her face and her hair, even her posture and what she is busy doing, evokes a picture of Fabienne, whom I had seen so many times in just the same circumstances, as I arrived home in the evening,…
I dreamt of Fabienne. A kiss, and a real physical presence. She had to give me that kiss in a playful way. On our bed, I was sitting and she kneeling, leaning in for the kiss. Others were witnessing the scene, but it didn’t matter. I think the kiss didn’t happen in the end, because I woke up earlier, but I was sure it was going to, and I didn’t feel less happy.
Holding onto dignity becomes one of the main preoccupation of the dying: what a paradox that such a trivial thing as going to the toilet can become such an important concern in our very last days. I was troubled when I had to clean my mother’s genitals at her life’s end; I rejoiced when my father managed to defecate: I saw it as a guarantee, albeit a false one, of his survival.
With my colleague A. in the cinema, watching the romantic movie Zimna Wojna. We then spend an hour in a café, standing around talking. This evening is the first time in my present life I have been “out” with a woman.
Falling asleep… tossing and turning, looking for an optimal position in the bed… I suddenly “hear” what she used to say at such times: “tu t’arrêtes de jigoter?” “Stop wiggling, you wriggler!” Even the melody of the phrase is hers. I laugh out loud, and only some of my laughter turns into tears.
I order the plaque for her tomb in Luxembourg.
On Wednesday, I go to a movie, on Thursday to the theatre, with A. Both times we follow up with a chat for an hour, focusing on each other. It’s been thirty years. I’m out of practice; I’ve lost the habit or ability – if I ever had it – to talk to women. And this feels like a hot and cold shower on my heart.
Through the window the sun shines brightly, after and perhaps even during the rain; probably the only sunshine of the day. Over the mountains there lies a grey whirl of clouds. But the roof of our old home below me is shining, and there is also sunshine over the cemetery where she will rest. I can see the past and future at the same time: I am looking at the future, her cemetery, from the safe house of the present.
A year ago we set out for Christmas, and tomorrow we will do the same. With a difference of one person.
Something our love achieved is that we had reached mutual harmony: we acknowledged that the other did not conform to our ideal and accepted the other as such; but at the same time we would gently modify each other according to that ideal, nudging the other closer to it.
At the translators’ party, ladies promise to send me “easy recipes”. On another occasion, I unexpectedly become the third person discussing the ideal way to sort laundry by colour and by the time needed in the washing machine.
Pouring ashes into socks – what a bizarre idea! But that is what I did last night, in preparation for the funeral tomorrow. For weeks it has been clear that I would have to use some piece of clothing to hide the ashes. Now it’s decision time. Okay, here’s a red cardigan. But what exactly should I use to hold the ashes in the pocket? It would be impossible to simply pour the ashes directly into the pocket… that is why, in the end I choose… a pair of beige socks, of which she had a dozen.
I warm up for the task by drinking two glasses of wine. How exactly do you transfer ashes, completely transfer them from a cylindrical metal urn to a textile container, without losing a single gram…? Ashes to ashes. Using a normal tablespoon, I was able to transfer 95 % in five minutes, but the rest took twenty minutes. Difficult to bear physically and emotionally. Ashes got stuck under the rim of the urn. I took out a folded sheet of paper (a thank you letter from the Cancer Foundation!), tipped the remaining ash onto the sheet, then used the paper to let the ashes slide down into the sock… but still particles remained stuck under the rim. I laid out the sheet on the table, placed the cylinder bottom-up on it, and gave the urn several taps… ash particles came out reluctantly, ever fewer … I repeated this about five times… the particles became minute but still visible… as a last resort, I ran my fingers around the inside of the cylinder, and then wiped the grey material from my fingers onto the sock… this too five times… and, as the very last thing I could do, I licked my fingers clean.
She would have had fun witnessing this!
I zoomed in on her photo on the computer screen, and caressed with my eyes her forehead, her ears, her chin, her mouth, her fingers… all the while thinking of the ashes I was saying farewell to, and which could correspond to any part of her body… Her fingers, her fingernails, where are they now?
25 January, 2019, Friday 11:00 am: inauguration of Fabienne’s tomb in Luxembourg.
The morning after, a message from A.: “How are you doing?”
Before the theatre, A. and I go for a quick pizza. She asks me about my weekend after the inauguration. I tell her about the fox crossing the highway at midnight. She says: “Perhaps your wife’s soul”. Then me on my kids; I happen to say that my son knows that “I went out with a woman”. She: “May I use this occasion to tell you something? I would like to make it clear that our relationship is a friendly one and should stay so.” Okay. She is my first real new friend since Fabienne’s death.
The play’s title was My heart will be broken and eaten.
To see S. again after so many years. Chatting for two hours. Her years are now more visible, her “Slavic” cheekbones have not sufficiently guarded her face; yet I still find her beautiful, especially when she laughs and smiles. In a parallel world, I would fall in love with her again.
R. on his mentally ill wife, I.: “Unfortunately, it’s been a while now that I don’t understand what she wants to tell me. In the end, I often ask her, ‘Maybe you meant to say that you love me?’ And then she answers: ‘yes.’ ”
I did not respond to Fabienne’s last “I love you”. During the first of our last three nights, in the hospital, I massaged and caressed her for hours, despite all the tubes coming in and out of her body. When she said “I’m coming” and then “I love you”, I did not immediately understand and did not say the same back to her. Why didn’t I? Did I feel my caresses were the best response?
Is it worse to lose a wife as I lost mine, or to be losing a wife as R. is losing I.?
Almost midnight: D. is making himself macaroni in the kitchen. I look at him, and am suddenly acutely aware that this exact moment is our present: we are both here, we are alive and healthy. Such “moments-in-the-present” are easily taken for granted, but we should appreciate them much more.
After the concert, a strange evening light paints my car black as blood. Gingerly, A. picks up snails from the sidewalk so we don’t step on them.
In this Eastern European city I see traits of a familiar face on many women.
But the womanly figure of my new acquaintance B. is more fascinating, and physically present.
A gesture of A.: with both hands, she lightly fluffs up her hair, then lowers her head and blows air upwards.
How many of Fabienne’s gestures did I not observe in this way, which have now been lost forever without description? How many of our gestures, how much of our individuality is lost forever? And does it matter?
B. and I have been messaging for three weeks, and now we are spending three hours together. When I talk about my children, she puts her hands on mine, as if to give me strength. Stepping outside, she offers her umbrella, and quite naturally clings to my arm. Even something that simple evokes a strong feeling in me. At some point, however, she has to leave. I watch her go – will I ever see her again? Just when I was starting to get to know her better.
Tomorrow it will be 16 months since Fabienne’s death. Yesterday, another step in the “Project Evacuation”: clearing boxes of photos and correspondence from the bedroom that have been left there for the past 14 months, from the moment when we were selecting photos for her ceremony in March 2018.
Later I also removed her clothes from the bed. However, I did not touch the shawl and the thin blanket left on the pillow beside me.
A long series of messages with B. She writes: “It happened only once that I met somebody I can talk for hours and feel so natural to be with. And I married him (…) I could not imagine to meet anybody like him. But it happened. (…) I noticed that I started to miss you.”
I did a trial yoga class. Yoga: another thing I would never have considered doing before.
B. has fallen in love with me, and I hadn’t dared to see it.
B. wants to find out everything about me, as I do about her. But she ends up writing: “I feel attracted to you, want to know you… But I don’t want you to waste your time… You should be looking for a woman who can be your partner.” Me: “Love is unpredictable and it can put us in situations we don’t want to be in. But love is something you cannot easily chase away just because it is impractical… we should meet”.
Before the encounter of our bodies, my messages to B. were emotionally pleasant tickles of seduction. But after seeing her, they grew to a perfect storm in my heart. Previously, my thinking was: let’s give it a try, there’s nothing to lose. But is there now nothing to gain? Then I would lose everything. And she wrote today that she could not keep cheating on her husband “on a daily basis”.
Today B. asked me to stop all communication. A few weeks ago, I wrote to her: “we’ve only spent 40 hours together, yet I could write a detailed chronicle of each of those hours.” But who would be interested in that chronicle now?
“When she joked in the evening that she would go out into town without her panties on, and people wouldn’t know… When our bodies found each other, at around eight in the evening (it was still light outside), standing between the bed and the door to the hallway… when she started to kiss me, with that kiss that was bound to happen… I soon slid the straps of her dress off her shoulders, baring her breasts; I made acquaintance with them: proud in size, wonderfully firm! I kissed them, her pleasure took off… soon her dress was gone altogether… she went to take a shower… came back… I touched her genitals and buttocks, ever so inviting… and already her pearly teeth were shining in her half-open, panting mouth.”
And even on the street, her lips attacked me in the middle of a sentence, drawing me into the depths of a ferocious kiss.
My psychologist says I should not hesitate to use the words “mourning” or “grief”, also in relation to a new loving relationship.
I am looking at Fabienne’s picture from 2014. A simple glance at her hands brings back the feeling of touching them. I can think of her body and travel across this planet. But my memory is imperfect, it has gaps. And there is no guarantee that my memories match reality – despite the fact that I had looked upon her body so often, from every angle, not (only) with eroticism but emotion. At the beginning of our relationship, she was even amazed: “I’m not the eighth wonder of the world!”
After twenty-six years of living together and eighteen months without her, this wonder, this miracle has become a mirage. Ashes and dust.
The Catalan poet Miquel Martí i Pol suffered the loss of his wife at an old age. He wrote this poem:
Out of this bitter silence I think you.
No longer will you be there when leaves come
to the poplars we watched in silence
from the front door.
So many things
have l lost with you that there hardly remains
enough of my own self to remember you.
But life, powerful, unfurls
even in so strict an ambit.
You are no longer here, and the leaves have come.
The green proclaims life and hope,
and l live, and by living l can think you
and make you grow with me until the silence
swallows me like it has swallowed you forever.