May isn't only about Mother's Day, it was also my Dad's birthday.
And this short story is the one that makes me most realise how much I miss them both.
Dancing with Death
Glorious in your nudity, you lie on the green mattress beside the pool, cool in the shade offered by the wall of tropical plants growing behind you.
Leaning on an elbow, you play with your reflection in the water, making small splashes of light dance on your golden skin.
A tropical flower adorns your heavy mane of auburn hair. Your loose chignon lets a few rebel strands escape to caress a pink areola. The powerful Florida sun has brushed your face with a healthy glow, highlighting your cheekbones and the tip of your nose. Your strategically bent leg accentuates the curve of your buttocks, proving the power of suggestion.
I raise my camera. A smile tickles your full lips; your chestnut eyes gaze away in the distance. I play with the lens; try to find the best angle. You hold the pose. You’re used to it: your first husband was a painter and you posed for so many of his artist friends…
We are in Boca-Raton. My friend Zara has lent us her villa for the winter. The girls think this is a long vacation. They don’t realize that you are spending most of your time at the Lynn Institute. The disease growing in your breast has not yet left its mark upon you.
As I wind the film, an explosion of sound erupts in the house; Marie and the kids are back from the beach. I grab a towel and wait, ready to throw. The glass door opens, only letting out the girls. Marie, with her customary discretion, has gone directly to her quarters.
Little Ariane, who has spotted a new flower in the hibiscus tree, charges toward the garden bed without even glancing at us. Lugabi comes closer. Frowning, she registers your nakedness and the camera. Her face reddens and her mouth twists with disapproval.
“Daddy! You’re just a dirty old pig!”
Quick as a snake, she turns and rushes back into the house. Covered with earth and pollen, a pistil hanging from her lips, Ariane runs in after her, holding out a big flower as an offering to her Idol. A horrified scream greets her entrance.
We exchange an amused glance. As I often do, I express my surprise that you, so modern and free, managed to give birth to such a prim and prude young lady.
“That’s how it goes in my family,” you explain in your voice that still bears traces of a German accent. “I wanted to be a liberated feminist to annoy my mother, and she was a respectable and frugal gentlewoman to annoy hers.”
Suddenly, you look sad and tired. A wave of anger rises in me, but I am powerless against the crab that stole your mother away two years ago, that is slowly taking you from us now.
And yet, it is because of it that we are here, now, together again. Last year, our marriage was ending. Quietly, without much ado, life had extinguished our love. And then the diagnosis had fallen…
Today I rediscover the woman I met twelve years ago. The one who, wearing only a white bikini, danced for me in the blooming fields of the Ile d’Orléans. The one who dragged me up the Cap Rouge Railway Bridge to smoke my first joint, laughing at the fact that I was fifty-five. The one who, at long last, had initiated me to the pleasures of passionate love.
It’s as if the Divorce Rigmarole and the To and Fro of Contracts had never taken place.
Now I’m the one who bemoans the years between your divorce and mine. Four years lost because of the foolish dilly-dallyings of an old Catholic. You have finally forgotten all the little humiliations of adultery that I forced upon you without thinking: the little apartment off on a side-street, the separate cabins on cruise ships, the diverging travel itineraries… You have even forgiven my cowardice when confronting the eyes of my sons, my weaknesses when dealing with the eldest’s rages.
And it dawns on me why this Marriage Contract was so important to you: you needed to reassure those innate insecurities that I had certainly exacerbated by my actions. I have also realized that the unending bridge tournaments were to replace the work you had been forced to abandon, that what I had perceived as negligence toward the children was actually dismay, maybe even terror.
Slowly, our love is resurrecting from the ashes of these grudges that have been poisoning our lives for so long. We hadn’t known that passion needed to transform into love and friendship. Our battered hearts, fearful of the death that awaits you, have at long last learned the lesson.
A tear has fallen on the glossy photograph. I wipe it off delicately with my handkerchief, then dry my eyes. My desk is covered with pictures. Pictures of you.
Fifteen years of pictures… All that’s left of My Great Love. Yet I have my memories, while I’m afraid your daughters are starting to forget. Three years I’ve been working on this album. Three years since you left us. How I wish you could be here beside me; albums were your thing, after all.
What I wouldn’t give to hear your voice once more. I even miss your German accent, which used to irritate my old soldier’s soul.
Three years, and barely two pages to show for it. I need the eye of the Bauhaus trained decorator. You would tell me which photographs to keep, which to throw away. To me, each is magnificently beautiful, just as you were.
My sight blurs again; I reach for the handkerchief. My eyelids block the tears; I repeat the litany: you are at peace in heaven, your suffering is over, you are watching over us…
I open my eyes. Lucie-Gabrielle has entered the study silently. She is twelve now; I am not allowed to call her Lugabi any longer.
She lays a hand on my shoulder, gazes down at the carpet of images hiding my desk. She still looks like you, but a little less everyday. She has your hair, your mouth, and, thank God, your nose, but the Jolicoeur is creeping in more and more as she grows up.
She lowers her gaze, sees the picture I’m holding, blushes. Something flashes in her big green eyes.
“Daddy, you’re a dirty old man.”
But her voice is soft, indulgent. Before scampering away, she lays a kiss and a tear on my cheek.
Today won’t be the day. One by one, I reorder the photographs, putting them back in the envelopes. Each portrait triggers a flashback; each image slings an arrow.
The past calls to me with its siren song.
The girls take the pose under the orange flowers of the hibiscus. Ariane’s omnivorous tendencies hasn’t hurt it too badly: in the last two years it has grown as big as an apple tree.
Ariane is delighted to get to sit on Big Sister’s knees. Lugabi, tense and severe, endures the adoration grimly – at least I’ve interrupted the mathematics session for the photograph.
I ask for a smile.
It vanishes. Lugabi stands, pushing away Ariane. I don’t rebuke her. In fact, I barely notice. The picture has reminded me that you won’t let me take any more of you. All my thoughts fixate on the sliding door of our bedroom. It’s open, but you never come out, except to go to the Institute. You’re hiding.
I can feel your pain, it radiates out to me, along with your jealousy toward our health. I give Lugabi a day off from the mathematics and order her to watch Ariane. I close my ears to the protests and penetrate the cool darkness of your refuge. You are sitting on the bed, in front of the full-length mirror, crying.
The experimental treatment, the chemotherapy and the radiotherapy are slowly destroying you. Your face is sunk in; you have lost your hair and your breasts…
I have never been so glad to be a plastic surgeon, to be able to swear to you, without lying, that I can fix it all.
But first you have to get well; you must go through with this treatment. This terrible cure that resembles torture, that kills you as it kills the cancer.
Day after day, the fact that the odds are not in your favor becomes clearer. You are young, but the privations you endured during your childhood in post-war Germany have weakened your health. At each appointment, I notice the shadows in Dr. Lynn’s eyes getting darker.
I take you in my arms; I kiss your wet cheeks. My eyes go to the corner of the room. As always, she is there, in the shadows, waiting for you. Silently, I beg her: not yet.
She disappears. But in my head, I heard her farewell, her warning.
Boca Raton 1980 – Québec City 1986 – Boca Raton 1982