Caroline Smadja, 2011 PSP participant, Stuart Dybek workshop
Caroline Smadja is a French-born author of North African heritage. Her poems, fiction and non fiction have appeared in literary venues in the US, Canada, France and South Africa, notably in CA Quarterly and in The Flying Camel and Where We Find Ourselves, two anthologies published by Seal Press and SUNY Press respectively. In 2014, her poems “Crépuscule” (Dusk) and “Désirs d’Afrique” (Lusting for Africa) won second and third prize in two French Poetry contests. More recently, “The Village Elder,” a flash fiction piece, appeared in Cactus Heart and her poem “Spooning” was just accepted for publication by So It Goes, the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library Journal. She holds an MFA in fiction from Pacific University and lives between Paris and in San Francisco, where she teaches literature.
I worked on “Breathing” under Stuart Dybek’s guidance at the PSP in July 2011. I’d already had the opportunity to work with Stuart on an earlier version of the same piece back in 2001. I was thrilled to have his support and positive feedback. I have since revised it yet again according to his suggestions.
December 21st, 1995
My mother called me from Paris last night. “Come right away,” she said. My father is in the hospital with emphysema. She’s taking care of him after fifteen years of separation. On the flight from San Francisco, I mutter to myself like a crazed Orthodox, nose pressed against the Wailing Wall. Barouh Ata Adonai Eloheinou Meleh Ha Olam… I was brought up an atheist but on this dark, cramped plane that reeks of stale air, barely-eaten TV dinners and perspiration, I find no one to turn to but God.
I glance at my watch. Another ten hours to go. Why did I choose to live seven thousand miles from what used to be home? My hope flickers like the first Hanukkah candle I lit at sundown yesterday. Aside from Pessah, it’s the only Jewish holiday I celebrate. These are joyful holidays, stories of liberation and renewal. I repeat the prayer under my breath: Baruh Ata Adonai Eloheinu Meleh Ha Olam Asher Kedeshanu Be Mitzvotav Ou Tzivanu Lehadlik Neir Shel Hanukkah.
Before Ma’s call last night, I didn’t know how much I cared. Since I left Paris for San Francisco fifteen years ago, my father and I have spoken no more than twice a year. I call him for his birthday and he calls me for mine. He doesn’t like talking on the phone. Frustrating, he says, when someone dear lives so far away. He’s written me once a year at most. “You know I hate writing letters,” he replied the few times I expressed the need to hear from him.
After I hung up, cut from my mother’s voice, my father in no state to speak, my sister tied to her life as a housewife on the outskirts of Paris, I felt like an orphan. I sat out on the patio and tried deep breathing. In and out, let your belly rise with each breath, your mind focus on each breath. Since I enrolled in a stress-management class at UCSF six months ago, breathing practice has alleviated chronic insomnia and rescued me from angst.
Not this time. I looked up at the sky pricked with stars until my head spun and a question shook me. How does one talk to God? I asked myself for the first time in my life. I was tempted to join my hands together and barely stopped myself. Jews don’t do this. How do they pray? What do they say to help the sick? I wished that I’d been brought into a synagogue as a child, that I’d been taught the centuries-old rituals that are my own. The Judeo-Arabic I’d heard around the house in Nice, my grand-mothers’ cooking, my parents’ childhood friends, had given me a taste of our native Tunisia. Now I wished I knew how to be a Jew.
At a loss, I launched into the Hanukkah prayer I’d recited earlier that evening, the only blessing I know by heart. It felt right. I caught myself thinking: my God knows only Hebrew. After their victory over the Syrian oppressors, the people of Israel found in the Second Temple barely enough oil to last one day. Thanks to a miracle, the oil burned for eight days. To see my father alive at least one last time is all I ask, Adonai. Please, please, I’ve never asked you for anything.
Paris stinks of cigarettes crushed on the asphalt. The smell of gas filters through the heating vents of the Metro. The air is saturated with particles of soot. Paris is wrapped in a blanket of smoke. But the grey suits this end-of-the-year season. I’m more than twice the age I was when my parents brought me here at sixteen. Uprooted twice in three years, from Nice to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Paris.
Through the glass doors of the Métro aérien that pulses above the city, the Eiffel Tower springs to the far right like a giant arrow of steel. The round, gold-leafed roof of the Invalides comes into view. Other domes zoom by, of different sizes and colors. Their sight jolts my memory. I didn’t remember Paris as a city with curves. In my teens, I saw it in only one dimension, flat, landlocked, with no blue water to shelter and set me free in the same breath, like the Bay of San Francisco or the Baie des Anges of my childhood.
The hospital lobby is flanked with a glittering Christmas tree that looks oddly cheerful in this intensive care unit. The temperature is suffocating. I take off my parka before reaching the elevator. On the threshold of the Lung Medicine Ward, a sign shows an oversized cigarette crossed by a red X. I walk along an interminable corridor, its walls a regurgitated salmon color, its floor, a bright green that calls to mind a field of psychedelic lettuce. Under other circumstances, I would laugh.
Room 5622 is tucked to the left at the end of the hall. “Promise me not to come, I’m all right now,” my father had told me on the phone before his condition worsened. The door is ajar. I pause to collect myself. “He’s changed so much it’s shocking,” my mother warned me. What if I can’t bear the sight of him? In between incantations, I worried about this throughout the flight. What if he really doesn’t want me there? He might be furious that I came after all. What kind of welcome will I get?
He’s lying on a narrow metal-framed bed, hooked to plastic tubes. My mother is seated by his side, like the dutiful wife she hasn’t been in over fifteen years. As soon as he turns his head to the door and sees me, my father cries: “Ma fille! Ma fille! Pourquoi, pourquoi tu es venue?” repeating words in the peculiar way of Tunisian Jews–My daughter! My daughter! Why, why did you come?– his grave voice tinted with a trace of song. There is no harshness in it, only stunned delight.
I rush to the edge of the bed and take his hand in mine.
“Ma fille,” he calls out again.
I had eleven hours of flight to imagine his body turned to stone. But his hand is as warm as I remembered, square, fleshy, still capable of squeezing tight.
“I’m worried about you,” he says.
“You’re worried about me ?”
“That you’d come all this way, juste pour ton vieux père, just for your old father.”
His voice is gravelly, his breath, raspy.
“Who would I do this for if not you?”
“Right!” my mother chimes. She’s sitting on the other side of the bed near the window that gives onto a row of tall apartment buildings grey with filth.
My father’s face breaks into a smile. In his thick lips cracked from dryness, I recognize my mouth. His pine green pajamas highlight the color of his bulging eyes. I notice the brown mole above his left brow as if for the first time. It looks like a smudge. He turns to my mother.
“Tell me, though, am I so ill she’d fly seven thousand miles to see me?”
“Don’t be silly,” my mother answers. “It’s her winter break. Of course, she’d come visit. You’ll be out of here soon.”
He gives her a wry nod. Since I last saw him, his thick salt-and-pepper hair has turned silvery white. His horse-like nostrils are deformed by the tube hooked onto one side of his nose. His cheeks, puffy from cortisone, are covered with white stubble. I have never seen him unshaved before.
“You see,” he says with a faint smile, “with this beard, I look like Hemingway.”
His sleeves are pushed up. The right arm is hooked onto the IV. In the hollow of his left arm and on his wrists, I see bruises the color of prunes. And tenderness is what fills me, that he would find the strength to joke for my sake.
“Exactly like him, Papa!”
Tenderness. Not pity. Or sadness. I feel more light-hearted sitting in this stark hospital room than I’ve felt in years; elated at the sight of these two people without whom life wouldn’t have happened, reunited beyond bitterness. The weight of displacement–being a Jew in Catholic France, an alien in the U.S., a Sefarad from North Africa among my Jewish American friends whose ancestors spoke Yiddish and lived in the shtetls of Eastern Europe– has been lifted. I am at last in the right place at the right time.
Where I belong.
The apartment buildings across the street have grown into a dark mass barely distinguishable from the sky. My mother gets up from her post at my father’s side. “Don’t turn on the ceiling light,” I say, guessing what she’s about to do. “It’d be too bright for him.” She complies begrudgingly–when I joke there’s never enough light for her taste, she replies she was raised in Tunisia–and switches on the lamp on the night-stand.
Every breath my father takes tears his chest apart. The constant glouglou of the oxygen tank sounds strangled. I find myself gasping for air. He lies limp, eyes half shut. Only this morning, he could nibble, chat with us, sit up on the pillows. He’s too weak to walk. His legs, once the legs of a volleyball champion, powerful enough to spring his body half-way above the net, have shrunk down to sticks, scaled like a crocodile’s. They gave me a shock when the nurse pushed off the covers. Three times since I arrived, he asked us to leave the room so he could pee in the plastic bottle attached to the right side of his bed. The indignity of it brought me close to pity.
“J’en peux plus,” he heaves. I can’t go on.
My mother and I exchange a glance across the tangle of tubes that plug him to life.
“Hang in there,” she says in her most cheerful voice. “You’re going to be okay.”
The young intern who could pass for a college student with her pony tail and smooth freckled cheeks, drops by to check on him. My mother and I step out in the hallway.
“We have the last X-rays,” she tells me. “His right lung is completely gone.”
“Worthless, shriveled like a prune.” She clears her throat. “The doctors hoped the left lung would be in decent shape but . . . it’s half ruined.”
My mother’s new hair color, a shade of blond turned brassy, clashes with her olive skin. It makes her look sickly.
“Forty-five years of smoking,” she adds with a sigh.
She acts calm for someone I once saw crouched on the kitchen floor, in tears, hitting the tiles with her bare fists, in one of those unraveling-of-marriage scenes my sister and I witnessed as teens. My father stood by, powerless. We’d moved back to France then, after our failed immigration to Israel.
“He doesn’t know how grave his state is,” she continues. “We must keep it this way.”
“I don’t see why a patient shouldn’t be informed of his condition.”
“To spare him. It’d be cruel to let him know he’s so close to–”
“It wouldn’t spare me. Disease isn’t a taboo in the States. Patients are treated like adults.”
“You mustn’t say anything. He’d stop fighting. Besides, this is France, not the United States.”
Back in my father’s room, I notice the hyacinth bulb placed on the sill above his bed. In the fake terra cotta pot above his head, some green has begun to appear, the promise of a leaf. I wonder what color the flower will turn out to be. If it grows healthy, it’ll be a sign, I catch myself thinking. He will be spared. I’m aware this is a little ridiculous. He would sneer, he who dismisses all religion and superstition as silly mumbo-jumbo. He, whose father used to eat ham on Yom Kippur. Yet, I want to believe in a force higher than any of us. Baruh Ata Adonai . . . She Assa Nissim Leavoteinou. Blessed are you Lord, who performed miracles onto our fathers.
“He’s got three weeks at most,” my father’s best friend, a reputable doctor who grew up with him in Tunis, warned us today. I’ve been bracing myself for this verdict. Every morning, I sit cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, and practice deep breathing. I’ve added Hebrew prayers to this ritual. Invoking God comforts me. It makes me feel less alone. We Tunisian Jews have not been well-prepared to handle grief. I grew up hearing adults mutter Allah Kader, “May God spare you,” at the slightest hint of faltering health. When one of my mother’s sisters was bed-ridden with pneumonia in her youth, my grand-father instructed his four other children to tell visitors she’d gone away. Aside from illness, the paternal side of the family tends to push sorrow under the carpet like shameful dirt.
My sister and I have inherited this trait. We’ve just parked in the hospital’s gloomy garage, with its low ceiling and charcoal walls. Through the Bois de Boulogne, the congested streets sparkling with lights, we hardly spoke, though it was the first time since my arrival that we were alone. When I stayed over at her apartment last night, we were surrounded by her three children, the youngest one, an eleven-months-old baby I’d never seen before.
My sister opens the door of her beaten grey Renault. I try to do the same but my side is stuck.
“Wait,” she says. “It can only open from the outside.”
She struggles with the handle, I hear her muttering. Finally, the door creaks open. I slam it behind me but it remains only half shut.
“Piece of shit,” my sister growls.
Her swearing makes me laugh. It surprises me. Most of the time, she’s nothing like her old self. She’s turned so proper since she became a housewife. We’ve grown apart, and it isn’t only a question of geography.
I open the door again, slam it again. Again, it doesn’t shut tight.
“I’ll do it,” my sister says.
I have barely enough time to move over.
“Piece of shit,” she repeats under her breath.
She swings her leg back like a soccer player ready for action, and gives one strong kick in the door with her leather boot. The sight cracks me up. Soon, I’m howling. She is too. When she bends over, her hair falls across her face like a curtain of dark waves. Our roars echo in the empty hospital garage that reeks of gas.
We bump into each other in our padded coats. I put a hand around her shoulder. We both have tears in our eyes.
“C’est dégueulasse, Yuck.” My father attempts to push his food tray away. I set it on the night-stand. My sister returned to her suburban life. My mother walked down to the cafeteria to grab a bite to eat.
“Do you want me to run and buy you something?” I ask.
“Why not? I could be back in a few minutes.”
“Why won’t you let me help you? That’s why I’m here.”
“I know.” His voice softens, I almost hear gratitude in it. “I feel bad that you’re spending your vacation in this hospital room.”
“Don’t. I’m happy to do it.”
“Where would you find food around here anyway?”
His voice is tinted with disdain. I don’t know the answer. The closest grocery is at the Metro station five blocks away.
“You’ll find nothing.” My father. True to himself, even in this state.
“I have an idea! I can go to the Chinese restaurant down the street and get some take-out.”
“There’s a Chinese restaurant around? No way.”
“I pass it every day.”
“They don’t do take-out here. You’re not in the United States.”
“They will for a patient in the hospital. Trust me.”
His pout gives me pause. Is this what my mother and his mother before her had to endure? This man who says Non as a matter of course? Last time I was here, he refused to let me come up to his apartment. “I have no decent chair,” he declared. “I’m not a stranger,” I protested, deeply hurt.
I remember this as I sit next to his bed, careful not to step on the tubes snaking at my feet.
“You know what? Bring me an order of fried rice,” I hear over the glouglou of the oxygen tank.
His words sound like a gift to me.
“You got it. I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t kill yourself.”
As I’m zipping up my parka, he gestures to the drawer to his right.
“There’s plenty of money in there.”
“I don’t need any. I can pay for my father’s lunch once in a while.”
“Don’t argue with me or I’ll get sicker.”
His eyes are lit in a smile.
“What a stubborn daughter I have! Do as I tell you.”
“Look who’s talking of stubbornness.”
I lean over and take out fifty francs from the night-stand drawer.
“You don’t have enough.”
“I’m just going a few blocks away to the—“
“Don’t tell me where you’re going.” He takes a strangled breath, as if our banter had worn him out. “I’m not stupid. But something could happen. You never know.”
I give in with a shrug, and pull out a two-hundred-franc bill.
“Let’s hope I don’t get abducted on my way there and spend it all on ransom.”
“Idiote.” One of his terms of endearment.
As soon as I step out, the cold makes me feel lightheaded. I keep my eyes to the sidewalk smeared with dog shit. I pass a poultry shop where game, still feathered, hang by the neck from metal hooks. While I hurry back to make sure the steaming rice doesn’t get cold, I can think of nothing but the pleasure of serving my ill father.
“Here,” I say, back in his stuffy room. “I asked for soy sauce on the side in case you need some.”
My mother is seated on the edge of the bed, her back to the window, the line of high-rises covered with soot a now familiar decor.
“Do you want me to unwrap this for you?” she asks.
Her sweetness touches me. When I was ten, she carried me piggyback–Gribabes, she called it in Judeo-Arabic–around the house after I’d broken my leg. My father tries to do it himself, but his hands shake too much. He closes his eyes in exasperation, I know his pride is hurt, I imagine how debilitated I’d feel if I were no longer able to perform the smallest tasks. My mother feeds him a spoonful of rice and for a moment, he acts like a docile child. As soon as he begins to chew, his mouth curves into a grimace. I try not to feel disappointment.
“You can keep your soy sauce,” he grumbles. “It’s too salty as it is.”
“What a spoiled brat! You can’t even thank your own daughter.”
In the small plastic pot above my father’s head, the leaf of the hyacinth bulb has unfolded. A stem is pushing through. My hurt vanishes.
“It’s all right, Ma,” I tell her. Toda, Adonai. Thank you, God.
“I don’t think I could do it,” my sister says. I hear a sigh on the other end of the line. “Spend all this time with Papa.”
This is her way of saying she’s impressed with me.
“The hardest part is to watch him suffer,” I reply. “And I can do nothing.”
“He complained to me on the phone, about these new pains in his back.”
“Yesterday was a nightmare. His chest hurt too. He moaned from after lunch—“
“Did he eat?”
“Almost nothing–to past nightfall, when I left. We hardly spoke.”
“Poor he, you mean. But it is . . . hard to watch. Very humbling.”
There’s a pause, that tells me my sister thinks no one should be humbled so.
“I couldn’t do it,” she repeats. “I have no clue what I’d talk about day after day.”
“When he’s well enough, it isn’t a problem.”
“Really? What do you talk about?”
I’ve gotten greedy with God, like in those stories where the hero keeps asking for more wishes from the good Genie. Now, I want my father’s story. The thought that it could end with his life has begun to haunt me. I want him to share all he’s got of the native land I left too early to remember, a gap that begs to be filled but can never be. There are so many questions I never thought to ask, so many questions I didn’t know were there. Tell me is all I really want to ask. And it isn’t even a question.
“I started playing volleyball when I was sixteen,” my father is saying, his eyes shiny, as I’ve noticed they get as soon as he reminisces about his youth. “There was an empty lot behind the apartment building where I lived.”
“Oui. After the liberation of Tunis, there were a lot of GI’s left behind. They taught us how to play baseball, but we also played volleyball. Every day.”
He closes his eyes. I lean over him.
“Ca va, Papa?”
“Not too well.”
“Is there something I can do?”
“What can you do, ma fille?”
“I don’t know. Bring you a glass of water?”
“I need air, not water. . . Later, I played for the Alliance Sportive de Tunis. I became a champion.”
He breathes as deeply as he can into the plastic tube.
“You didn’t smoke?”
He looks at me with reproachful eyes.
“We played all across Tunisia, in Nabeul, Sousse, Gabes in the South.”
“Did you smoke then?”
He lets out a grunt.
“I didn’t start till I was twenty-three”
“Did you play overseas?”
“At that time, the team of Montpellier was champion of France.”
“In 1948, I went to Lyon as a student. A few days after I arrived, I tried to join Lyon’s Federation of Champions, the FCL. They turned me down.”
“Were you not good enough?”
He gives me a funny look.
“Jews weren’t allowed.”
“What? How could they? Right after the war and–”
“Precisely. Pétain’s government had fallen, but anti-Semitism was still very strong.”
“Is. This country has nothing to be proud of.”
He nods. “Let me finish, there’s more to this story.”
I pull up my chair closer to the metal bar of his bed.
“No one would have me, so I joined one of the shabbiest teams you could imagine, led by a Russian émigré, they hadn’t won a game in eons. Everyone in the FCL laughed their heads off.”
“Papa, maybe you should stop. This tires you.”
“Leave me alone. Who’s the parent here, you or me?”
“By that time, I’d been a champion for several years.” He glances down at his shrunken legs that lie inert beneath the blanket and gives me a crooked grin. “I could jump higher than anyone. And I’d been the captain of my team in Tunis. So we became the best players in all of Lyon. And you know the best part? The same jerk who’d refused to let me into the FCL came to tell me they’d reconsidered.”
My father smiles with satisfaction.
“I told him to shove it.”
I clap like a child.
“In exquisitely polite language, of course. I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to think Jews are coarse.”
The snow on the ground hasn’t yet turned to slush when I walk out to the boulangerie. I pull my scarf up to my nose to avoid breathing in the frost. But as soon as I’m back in my mother’s apartment, I strip down to my camisole. We’re seated at the plastic table that takes up more than half her kitchen space. My mother tears into her croissant after dipping each bite in maple syrup. I can barely watch her. The rich smell of coffee and buttered pastry nauseates me.
“What’s the matter?” she asks.
“There isn’t enough air.”
“It’s below zero!”
“Outside. But it’s boiling hot in here.”
“It must be your nerves giving in.”
“Listen, worrying doesn’t change anything. We need to be strong.”
“I’m doing my best.”
“Do you remember what I used to tell you? What Ronsard wrote?”
“How could I forget?”
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie. The sixteenth century version of seize the day. My mother’s motto.
“I’m worried too,” she goes on. “Beyond worried. But we need to keep our head.” She slurps some coffee. “Our hope especially.”
She can be so brave when it matters most. The day I left for the U.S., she hugged me goodbye with the brightest smile, though she knew then I would not come back. But the night before my departure, I found my father prostrate at the kitchen table. He didn’t hear me come in. When he looked up, I saw his cheeks glisten. I stood in shock at the door, then tip-toed back out without a word. The next day, my mother and sister took me to the airport. He stayed behind.
“Come on.” My mother licks a glob of maple syrup from a tablespoon. “You must keep your spirit up. Up !” She repeats the last word in English.
I shake my head as if she were an incorrigible child.
“Ma? I want to thank you.”
She leans eagerly over the table.
“For giving me joie de vivre.”
Her small chestnut eyes light up, pink comes to her cheeks.
“If that’s all I ever gave you, I succeeded.”
“You did. In spite of all.”
Her face falls. “Of what?”
The word suicide hangs on my lips but I only say: “How I felt last year.”
“You never explained.”
I’d wanted to tell her about the daily sensation of being dragged into a swamp. But I feared she’d only say “You’re exaggerating.” For the first time in my life, I’d broached our immigration to Israel when I was fourteen, waking up foreign in a land with no landmarks, stripped of past and language. “Why stir up all this now? Water under the bridge,” she’d replied.
“You never explained,” she repeats, her mouth full of croissant.
“It no longer matters.”
I raise my cup and clink it against my mother’s coffee mug, the one I brought her years ago, that says I love San Francisco.
“Lehaim,” I say. To life.
The salmon walls of the Lung Medicine Ward remind me of vomit. I pass several rooms, doors wide open, where patients lie hooked to tubes. Cigarettes. I was taking a break in the underground cafeteria yesterday when a group of young men and women drew my attention. They all wore white blouses, all of them smoked. I recognized the freckled intern who takes care of my father and felt like barking How dare you? at her face. Instead, I watched in disbelief as she blew nonchalant puffs toward the non-smoking section.
Farther down the hall is a man that illness has stripped of age, his hollow eyes filled with death, his face so gaunt the word Shoah jumps at me. His burgundy pajamas remind me of spilled blood. He has no visitors. The sight breaks my heart. Oddly, I’d like to dwell on it as much as escape it
“Bonjour Papa, comment vas-tu?” I ask as soon as I walk in.
“Bonjour, ma fille,” my father answers in a shaky voice.
It will be night before we say goodbye. Last time we’d spent days together, I’d just turned sixteen. We lived in Jerusalem. He lay all day on his velour dormeuse, unemployed. I was attending the Lycée Français and had one month to prepare for the French literature orals of the Baccalauréat. He offered to help me review, a completely unexpected gesture on his part. He’d never been the care-taker type.
Each morning, he called me from the living room in his booming baritone. I found him stretched on his dormeuse, elbows sunk into the armrests, careful not to knock the ashtray balanced to the right. At nine in the morning, I was already sweaty from the heat; he was already drawing on a Camel.
“Go get your books and hurry back here. Allez, vite !”
I’d feign resignation at his fake grumpiness. Even cramming for a comprehensive exam couldn’t spoil my delight at having my father for a coach. Racine, Corneille, Molière, he made them all come alive. Our study of the eighteenth century philosophes remains my best memory. He praised Voltaire, his favorite author; marveled at his enlightened, near-secular view of the world, and relished his railings against the church and his arch-rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Rousseau’s a cretin,” my father declared. I found myself defending Rousseau as best I could–someone had to take his side–but my father only scoffed. “He believes that trees have a soul.”
In the small plastic pot above my father’s head, the hyacinth bulb has grown pale curls, so small I cannot distinguish which color. I begin to recite the Hannukah prayer again in my mind. I’m leaving in a couple of days. By then, Adonai, you will have turned them into fragrant clusters. Shehe’heyanou Vekiyemanou Vehiguiyanou Lazman Haze. You who gave us life, sustained us and brought us to this day.
“I was fourteen when the Nazis occupied Tunis,” my father tells me as if this sudden statement was a follow-up to a previous conversation. As if he’d guessed I need to know as much as possible about his past, no matter the chronology. “The Kommandantur chose the building across from ours as their headquarters. So we moved into my aunt’s place, near the big synagogue, fourteen people in a basement.”
I put my feet on the metal bar of his bed and sink my chin in my hands.
“The occupation lasted a whole year. In the beginning, the Nazis rounded up a bunch of Jewish men off the street. Some were shot on the spot, others put in jail. My uncle Nahoum was among those. Afterwards, men avoided going out at all. My father put me in charge of opening and closing his store that served as Bureau des Otages Juifs.”
“What was that?”
“An office set up by the Jewish community, where the families of the men who’d been taken hostage could exchange news. My parents had me wear shorts. I wasn’t very tall then, I grew tall later, so I could pass for younger. The Nazis weren’t as suspicious of boys.”
“What happened to the Jewish hostages?”
“They were released several months after their arrest.”
“Baruh Ha Chem,” I mutter.
“God has nothing to do with this. They were simply lucky. We all were. If the Allies hadn’t liberated North Africa in ’43, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Concentration camps were being built. The Nazis had no time to . . .”
The rest of the sentence hangs on his lips, as always when words are too painful to voice.
It’s past midnight. I’m staying at my father’s apartment, in the room where my sister stayed once I’d left for California and she’d sunk into depression. She couldn’t bear living alone. She finds me weird. After a week of non-stop family time, I craved to be on my own. My mother sulked when I told her I needed breathing space. My father would understand.
Insomnia has given me no respite since I went to bed hours ago, and now, the couple next door are getting it on. The man’s groans respond to the woman’s moans, bedsprings creak under their tangled weight. On another night, I might envy them. Tonight, I can’t bear the panting on the other side of the wall. The very thought of pleasure strikes me as obscene.
The ceiling light is too bright for my eyes and mood. I find a thick white candle in the second drawer of the kitchen cabinet–my father always stocks candles there in case of a power outage–grab a saucer, pick up his lighter that’s remained on the dinner table since he was rushed to the hospital and go back to the room. The sight of the flame soothes me at once, as it used to on the sleepless nights that began after our move to Jerusalem. Alone in the dark, I’d watch the melting wax until I reached a hypnotic state. It looked like tears.
It occurs to me that this is the last night of Hanukkah. The burning candle takes on new meaning. Never mind that there is no Menorah here, that dusk is long gone, that I don’t know which prayer should be recited on the last night. God has provided solace for a week now, and I’m not ready to let go. The floor is covered with the red carpet bordered with black and white designs my father inherited from his parents, one of the few relics of their life in Tunisia. Though it isn’t thick enough to cushion me from the hardwood floor, I settle in the lotus position and begin to pray and breathe deep, slow breaths, lids clutched together. In and out. The couple next door have grown silent.
The light of Paris is so subdued that early afternoons feel like evenings. My father can’t lie flat on his back, “not enough air,” he complains, or sit up, “I feel cut in two, like I’m choking.” So I tap the pillows as best I can and position them half way.
“How is it now?”
I sit beside him on the edge of the bed. He shuts his eyes, in pain or frustration, I’m not sure, and tries to yank his right arm away from the IV.
“Don’t pull on it.”
“What’s the point?”
“What do you mean?” I know full well what he means.
“All this.” He opens his eyes again. “Look at me.”
He raises his arm, then lets it fall on the sheet with a thump.
“I’m of no use now. Sometimes, I just want to end it all, the suffering . . .”
The rumble of the oxygen tank fills in the blanks. I’m more aware than ever this is what makes the difference between his living and dying.
“Don’t talk nonsense.”
“It isn’t nonsense and you know it.”
“I do.” My voice is low. Ma wouldn’t approve of my truthfulness.
“So what’s the use? I don’t have the strength to . . . I’d rather . . .”
I empathize completely. I’d hate to be a burden to others, to know they’re spending all their time on me. But another feeling kicks in, that overrides all others.
“You’re of use to me, Papa. If not for yourself, you must fight for me.”
I’d never imagined I’d say this to him. He looks away, but I can see he’s shaken.
“I have only one father.” I keep my voice steady. “And I’m not yet ready to lose him.”
His tired green eyes brush mine as if to consider the point.
“Tell me something.”
He stops to breathe into the tube like a diver ready to scuba. I prick up my ears.
“What did you have for dinner last night?”
“What? Euh . . . Nothing much, I stayed at your place. But I had lunch at Maman’s. And you know her, a slice of ham and ready-made purée is her idea of cooking.”
He stops short of laughing; it hurts him; too much strain on his thorax.
“Oui, ma fille.”
“There’s something I want you to promise me. When you come out of this hospital.”
I roll my eyes and dislike myself for the charade.
“All right. If you come out of here, promise me to never smoke again.”
“This is one thing I can’t commit to.”
“This is unbelievable!” I gesture to the tubes that hook him to the oxygen tank.
“Would you prefer I lie?” His voice is weak but sharp.
“Of course not.”
I feel shattered, like a vase dropped onto a tile floor. Then I hear myself say, “If you did this, you’d never see me again.”
My words shock me almost as much as his did moments ago.
He nods. “I’d give it a try.” He inhales into the plastic tube, then exhales. “But I can’t promise.”
My mother is sitting on my father’s bed. I’m on the chair to his right, back to the door, as usual. My sister is on the chair to his left near the window. The last time I recall the four of us in the same room was after the birth of her son twelve years ago. There’s a picture on my refrigerator that shows us together on her couch. My mother wears a bandanna around her forehead, a headache remedy among Tunisian Jews. My father attempts a smile, a cigarette between his fingers. My sister looks away. I have dark circles under my eyes, which make me look old and sad.
The only other picture of us as a family was taken in Nice, in front of the villa where my sister and I grew up. I am seven, she, eight and a half. Papa stands lean and tall, his bare torso a near-perfect triangle. A cigarette hangs from his smiling lips. My sister and I each hold on to one of his legs. Ma hugs him from behind. We’re brown from the sun, we look radiant. A few years ago, my sister sent me a reprint of this photo. “I thought you’d like to have it,” she wrote. It made me weep.
My father’s state is getting worse as the day wears on, yet I feel no sadness. Oddly, I feel close to jubilation. Who would have known that this hospital room giving onto buildings covered with grime would feel more intimate than any holiday celebration?
My mother passes a hand over my father’s forehead, though he isn’t suffering from fever. “How are you doing?” she asks.
My sister purses her lips. “This is a superfluous question,” her face is saying. His every breath sounds like a moan. His eyes are glassy, only half open, the same as on the evening of my arrival. I return to San Francisco in a few hours.
Slowly, my father turns his head toward the dark rectangle of the window.
“J’ai peur,” he whispers. I’m scared.
Ma pats his hand, “Don’t be, you’ll feel better soon,”but she gives me a knowing glance from across the bed. “Well, today wasn’t too cold,” she goes on.
I wonder how she can carry on like this. I don’t believe it helps him.
“Papa,” I call out softly as if to wake him.
He doesn’t move his head. His eyes are shut, his mouth open.
“I’ve been wondering about that song the Allies sang at the liberation of Tunis.”
“He can’t answer you,” my mother says.
“How does it go again?”
She gives me a not-now look.
“You used to sing it to me when I was little.”
His head rolls slightly to my side.
“I have it on the tip of my tongue.”
I only hear the loud gargle of the oxygen machine in reply.
“It’s a victory song,” I insist.
For a while, he just lies on the pillows, eyes closed, lips apart, breathing in and out, in and out, so painfully that my throat contracts and my lungs almost hurt. Then, in a frail, cracked voice, a faint smile on his worn-out face, he begins to sing.
“It’s a long way to Tipperary,
It’s a long way to go . . .”
“Isn’t it ‘it’s a long way back home ?’” I ask.