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Thursday, November 13, 2003

Very windy today. I went out to get some batteries and garlic (for some special delicious appetizer, Hehehe!). I almost got blown away.

Since I don't go to Starbucks in the morning, I don't get my "morning social" with strangers, any more. So, after Radio Shack, I went into Bundles, and Gap, and Jennifer Convertibles. "Just looking..." Hehehe!

Back to the little funky hotel in Paris.

Like I said, it had a past. Agnes, the owner, had inherited it from the last Madam when she died. In fact, she had already given it to her before she died. She was getting old, she wasn't interested in running a small regular hotel, too little money for just as much work.

The regular patrons were now mostly repeat customers from the provinces who came up to Paris to attend trade fairs, fashion shows, congresses, that sort of thing. Fair and square.

Then there were the one-nighters.

Then there was the "lunchtime" business, the married men who came in to meet their mistresses for an hour or two. They usually wanted some sort of room service, champagne and hearty little snacks. Agnes was very obliging and very discreet.

She had given me the Blue Room, all plush velvet, with a deep armchair where I could sit and read or knit. I was terribly nauseated at first, from the radiation, and Agnes one day suggested I come down and talk to her, as she worked in her parlor. She was always busy, making out bills, or working on her books, or ironing doilies, and table cloths and napkins, baking and cooking, whatever, for the lunchtime trade.

Some rather famous philanderers went through that hotel: I saw many of them, either on their way up or on the way out. Sometimes, I was very surprised indeed.

Agnes herself was a beautiful innocent soul. She was a poet, I discovered, she showed me her work, and so I was privileged to get to know her heart in a very intimate way.

As you may imagine, given the kind of business she ran, she was no false prude. She had a wicked sense of humor and besides many other human qualities, she was good company.

Some evenings, when she had finished her usual huge pile of ironing, she would say: "Do you feel like going to a jazz club?" and the two of us would get gussied up and take a cab to listen to jazz in town for an hour or two, drinking tea, most of the time. When we felt satisfied, we would taxi back, it was like riding off on a magic carpet to a world of beauty and sophistication, these were moments of exceptional resonance that made it good for both of us to be alive.

One evening, Agnes said: "Would you like to come to dinner with me? I'm going to Boulogne to have dinner at a restaurant run by a couple of childhood friends from my village."

Agnes came from a very small village in Normandy. Most of the kids who grew up there of her generation went into the hotel, restaurant or bar business.

We walked through the little park which separates Paris from Boulogne, a little park where I remembered playing as a child in 1944, 1945. It gives you a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach, when you find yourself in a place of your childhood, and all the statues, the fountains, the benches, the grass, the bushes, the little gravel paths, everything is the same, as if it had been waiting for your return.

The friends' restaurant was one of those very large, bustling brasseries, a place where you can get a traditional hearty meal at any time, beer on the wallop, pinball machines, a tobacco stand, lottery tickets and racing forms, TV at the bar, bright neon lights, people hanging out for hours on end talking over a small coffee at the terrace.

Jacqueline, Agnes's friend, settled us in at a table, sat talking with us for a while, and then went back to work. Her husband was at the bar. Clients were eating all over the place. It was warm, noisy and comfortable.

As we were eating, Jacqueline came back to tell Agnes that a mutual friend from the past was visiting, and suddenly, an appearance manifested itself, right behind her. I can't think of another way of describing this new arrival: it was a tall, gaunt woman, with deep set eyes in an ashen face that made your skin crawl when you got eye contact.

The woman stayed very little: she never sat down; she exchanged some simple words with Agnes, friendly but nothing special, and left, supposedly to go meet her husband somewhere.

"What did you think?" Agnes asked when she had gone.

"I don't know," I answered, "She makes me feel as if I'd seen a ghost, she gives me the willies!"

Agnes was startled: "But you have!" she exclaimed, "You are absolutely right, she hanged herself."

She told me the story. The stranger, who was happily married, so everyone thought, to her present husband, who ran a restaurant in Lille, in the north of France, went into some deep depression, which went unnoticed, until one night, when her husband came home and found her dead, hanging from the rafters. He cut her down, called an ambulance. They were able to revive her, but she remained in a coma.

Her husband loved her very much, it was not an option for him to let her go. She was put into a special place on life support. She was a flatliner, a permanent vegetative. The doctors held absolutely no hope.

Six months went by with no change in her state. One day, Jacqueline called Agnes and told her: "I can't believe this is happening. I can't stand not knowing. I want to go to Lille to see for myself."

She then told her husband she was taking the day off to go to Lille. She asked a neighbor to take care of her kids for one day, left her old man to run the business on his own, and took the first train for Lille in the morning.

When she reached the hospital, they told her she could go in but that she was wasting her time: her friend had been monitored at all times, there had never been the slightest indication of any brain activity during the past six months.

"Well," said Jacqueline, "That's my best friend, and I've come to talk to her, so that's what I'll do."

She went in, sat down bedside and started talking. At first, she had no idea what to say, but little by little it came to her naturally. She started reminiscing about their early childhood, back in the village where the three of them (with Agnes) had attended school together from kindergarten on. Their families were all friends too, over three generations. She reminisced about their pranks, the growing pains, the time when two of them had fallen in love with the same boy, the endless memories that were shared by three young women who had grown up together and always been close, as close as family.

At one point, Jacqueline started crying and said: "You can't do this to us, you can't just go like this, we love you, we want you back, we want you to wake up."

Jacqueline felt a little stupid talking to herself, that's what it amounted to. She went for a short break, to get herself a coffee, and then came back. It became easier and easier to keep on talking: she was even telling jokes. Suddenly, in her peripheral vision, she caught a "blip" on one of the machines monitoring her friend's vital signs. She looked around--nothing, everything flat. She must have made a mistake. Suppose she hadn't? She got up and went to fetch a nurse: "I think I saw a blip", she said uncertainly.

The nurse came, "It would be quite improbable", she announced, "There has not been a blip in over six months."

The nurse checked the tape. And there it was: a blip of brain activity.

Well, nothing else happened that day, and Jacqueline went home to her husband that evening as planned. But the comatose Sleeping Beauty woke up the next day.

I stayed at Agnes's hotel for the whole time I was getting radiation treatment. The idea was that I would then go spend some ten days in Normandy with my stepmother, and then come back for a week or so in Paris before going back to my job in New York. I asked Agnes to give me a different room when I came back, not the Blue Room which by now was so associated with those radiation sessions.

"You can have whichever room you want", Agnes said.

"Can I have the paisley room?" I asked.

"Sure. Why the paisley room?" Agnes asked.

"I had a dream", I said.

I had had a dream which was all about Life, with a capital L. I was facing a world in which each person could choose their own path.

On the left hand side of the world, there were HUGE crowds, marching across smooth, well maintained roads over lush rolling hills; then in the center there were a few straggling souls, struggling over rough, rocky paths in barren landscapes; finally, on the right hand side of the world, there were huge mountain ranges, with snow at the top, nobody at all had chosen this way.

I chose the mountainous route and started up. It got more steep as I progressed, until I could hardly go from stepping stone to stepping stone, they were so far apart, and then I saw, as I looked down to set my foot down, that each of these steep, difficult steps was covered with flowers in a paisley pattern. The Paisley Path! How utterly beautiful!

Anyway, the paisley room had a beautiful paisley wallpaper, and a huge kingsize bed with a mirror on the ceiling. I saw it as a sign.

The first night I went to bed in that room, I climbed into bed naked and looked up. I had never seen myself naked, lying down: it was really great. It was quite different from standing naked in front of a mirror in a bathroom, where you always are still looking down at your feet. I couldn't help myself, I sort of moved around the bed, stretching like a cat in all directions, laughing, laughing.

I thought it was so funny, in fact, that I wrote to my Aunt Marie in Chula Vista and told her about it.

Some years later, my Aunt Marie told me an old friend of hers, a parish priest from Belgium, was dying of cancer and wanted to go home to die among his family. She asked me whether I could go meet him at JFK airport and help him connect to his Brussels flight.

"Did he order a wheelchair?" I asked.

"No, no, no, he doesn't need a wheelchair, he doesn't want a wheelchair", she said, "Just your company".

I worked for a really nice man in those days, who said by all means, go and help the old priest.

The first thing I did when I arrived at Kennedy was to get a wheelchair. It was a good thing I did: Father Albert could hardly walk down the steps, and his connecting flight was at quite the opposite end of the airport, literally miles away. He could never have made it on foot.

"What would you like to do, Father?" I asked, "We have a lot of time".

"I don't know," he answered.

"Are you hungry? We have plenty of time for a meal".

"No, I've already eaten," he answered.

"If you were not a priest," I ventured, "I would say, would you like a drink?"

His face lit up: "Can we go for a drink? Let's go for a drink!" he said.

So we went to a bar, fairly close to his departure gate.

And that is where I got the surprise of my life. After the first drink, Father Albert burst into tears, and started telling me about his life, about his death. Believe me, it was hard comforting him! Eventually, he was back on track, his usual self. We were on our second glass of wine, huge large glasses. I hate to think how much they contained. Suddenly, Father Albert was laughing.

"I know your secret..." He teased me, grinning and twinkling his eyes at me.

"What do you mean, you know my secret?" I was totally in the dark.

"The paisley room..." He was laughing quietly, "Your Aunt Marie thought it was so funny that she showed me your letter. I hope you don't mind."

Poor old man! I was so glad I went to help him at the airport, that I was able to give him a rollicking send-off from America, where he had served his entire life. He died just a few short weeks later.

Oh, by the way, you should always talk to coma patients. They do hear. It does register. If they come back, they won't remember. That doesn't matter.

Your love always makes a difference.
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