Carl moved in with me. In fact, it wasn’t a decision we jointly made or even discussed. It just happened, gradually over the course of weeks and months. It started with a toothbrush and deodorant, then little by little my wardrobe was filling up with men’s shirts and Calvin Klein underwear. He even transferred his plants to make sure they got proper nurture. Carl had a bedsit not far from the Champs-Elysées, and when the six-month contract wasn’t renewed he just moved over the rest of his belongings. In fact, it wasn’t much as it it came down to an armchair and a lamp. I found a place for them in a corner next to the balcony, signifying the completion of our merger.
Carl dedicated much of his time to his work, often sitting in his armchair with his laptop working on projects he’d been put in charge of. I had found a job as a guide-cum-conservator at a small museum that had once belonged to a wealthy merchant family and now had been preserved in a state of arrested development for the benefit of the 21st century.
One afternoon, I took Carl to see my father. I hadn’t seen Papa in months, despite regular contact over the phone. Although living in the same city, we were both preoccupied with our lives, and opportunities for family reunions seemed few and far in between. My father was happy to see us and I could sense he and Carl got on well. Carl was well versed in financials and political affairs and, as I met Papa’s eyes, I knew I had his approval. Papa was approaching seventy. He had been working full time until recently, but now only lectured a few hours a week. He looked older though, and I secretly wondered how much longer he would be with us. It filled me with sadness, and I asked Papa repeatedly if he was fine. He assured me he was as healthy as ever, but despite his certitude I wasn’t so convinced.
Six weeks later my deepest fears became reality. I received a call from the hospital to which my father had been hastily admitted. The doctor didn’t want to explain over the phone but invited me over for a private conversation the same day. It was a rainy January afternoon, and I took the day off from work. Carl insisted on being there for me, and we jumped into a cab that brought us to Broussais University Hospital in the 14th arrondissement. I walked to the reception, asking for Dr. Bienfait. The receptionist asked us to take a seat. I couldn’t sit down and was pacing up and down the corridor. Carl got us some coffee, but this only further fuelled my frenzied state of mind. I watched the clock on the wall, timing my pace to half a minute, going and coming. I must have walked the distance at least fifty times, because it took nearly half an hour before a small, dark-haired woman in her late forties came to see us. She shook my hand with a firm grip before repeating the courtesy with Carl.
“Come this way, please.”
We followed her in silence, Carl walking half a step behind me.
She closed the door and pointed to two chairs opposite her desk. We both sat down at her command.
“I don’t know how much you are aware of your father’s condition, Ms Bertrand?” She paused, waiting perhaps for an answer from me, but as no such answer came, she continued.
“Your father was admitted to our hospital two weeks ago with pain in his abdomen, unable to hold down his food. He also had blood in his stool. We’ve done a number of tests checking for ulcers as well as cancer, and unfortunately a biopsy report came back positive for the latter. Mr Bertrand’s condition has worsened in the last week, so we scheduled an operation to open up his colon. Unfortunately it was discovered that the metastasis had spread to other organs and throughout the lymphatic system. It is what we call a Stage III-C, which is in almost all cases terminal.”
She paused to let me speak, but I was in too much of a shock to think of anything to say. Carl took my hand and thankfully continued the conversation, asking the questions I couldn’t even begin to think of.
“Is there really nothing that can be done for Mr Bertrand?” he started.
“I’m afraid not. We have started chemotherapy, and we already managed to surgically remove parts of the affected tissue, but only about twenty per cent. The question is if this will actually have any effect apart from temporarily slowing it down.”
“How long does he have…to live?” I felt another squeeze of my hand, which by now was lying limp in Carl’s.
“Well, if we continue the chemo, then perhaps three months. If not, it’s a matter of weeks…at the most.”
“Has he expressed what kind of treatment he would like?”
“Yes, Mr Bertrand is still very lucid, although this will change as the cancer progresses, and of course the morphine will have an impact too. He understands his odds and seems rather resigned to them. He has expressed a wish to discontinue the chemotherapy and let the cancer run its course. In the end we cannot influence him on this, and given the bleak prognosis, it’s a very human reaction. He wanted in any case for us to inform Ms Bertrand before stopping the treatment.”
“I see. Can we see him now?”
“Yes, of course. He may be asleep, and do bear in mind he’s under heavy pain medication, which may impact his speech and judgement.”
“Thank you doctor.” Carl looked at me. “Justine, are you ready?”
I don’t think anything can prepare you for a loved one’s mortal demise. The sudden onslaught of destruction, attacking every living cell until death is all that remains. The first thing that struck me was the faint odour of alcohol mixed with something decaying. I could hear the laboured breathing of my father as he lay still, blissfully unaware of the sadness that surrounded him. His skin, always a golden brown against his salt-and-pepper hair, was now dry, yellow and papery. His hair had gone from grey to white. I didn’t say anything, nor did I cry. Instead I stood there, transfixed to the scene that rolled out as if imprinted on celluloid for my mere amusement.
“I can’t take it any longer,” I said to myself. “I just can’t take it.” Carl took me by my arm and led me away. He hailed a cab, and I can vaguely remember getting into it. Then everything went blank. Perhaps I fell asleep.
I went to visit my father every day. Some days he was awake, others not. But gradually the times he would be conscious became fewer and fewer. I remember the last day we talked. I turned on the TV in his room and we watched the news together. Papa told me everything was arranged. I didn’t have to worry. He wanted me to be happy and to live out my dreams. In fact the last thing he said was, “Justine, never lose sight of love. Because love is everything.” With that he softly squeezed my hand, and I squeezed his. It was the last thing he said before falling asleep. Tears filled my eyes, I think for the first time. I knew there was so little time left.
Papa passed away peacefully on the last day of February. It was a cold winter morning, the rain of the night before having turned into treacherous ice. I received a phone call early in the morning – I didn’t check the time but the streets were still quiet – alerting me that my father was near the end. Carl called for a taxi, and despite slippery streets, we were at the hospital within the hour. I talked briefly to the nurse who confirmed my father didn’t have long to go. Hours, minutes, no one could say.
I walked into the room, which somehow had become a second home in the last weeks. I sat down next to my father, Carl remaining in the background. I told him I loved him, and that we would see each other soon. I told him to say hi to Maman, and to tell her I loved her too. And finally I told him that love was the greatest gift, and I would always remember that. As I stroked his cheek, I heard a last shallow sigh. Time stood still, or at least so it felt. I watched him intensely for any signs of life. A raised chest, a gurgle, a flutter beneath his eyelids. But everything was still. I checked his pulse, put my head on his chest, but all was gone.
So this is it, I thought. This is dying. It seemed so peaceful, yet so cruel and grim. I thought for a moment I sensed a dark shadow standing in the door opening, reminding me that the Reaper had called for another soul. But the spectre was gone before I knew it.
I thanked the hospital staff and asked them to send me my father’s belongings. A nurse wrapped her arms around me in an effort to comfort me, but I don’t think I responded. We walked down the stairs and out of the hospital. The air was crisp and I was glad to clear my lungs of the decaying stench of death that permeated my nostrils. We walked home in silence. I didn’t want to take a taxi or the metro. I just wanted to let my thoughts run wild. Yet my mind remained empty.