The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Matthew Arnold, 1851
Since the attacks in Paris, I’ve been watching too much television and enduring too many condo repairs and heat failures. None of which are conducive to writing. I’m attempting with this essay to forgive myself for the long silence.
Except for a change of planes, I’ve been to Paris only once for one day during a 2007 14-day summer cruise around the British Isles for me and my last husband’s 25thanniversary. Our side trip to Paris was the last stop before our ship’s final docking. Because of my husband’s left temporal lobe dementia, he had recently taken early retirement, and we had carefully chosen each side trip so that he would not become overwhelmed with its length and complexity. We both knew the full day Paris excursion would stretch his stamina, but thought that because so much of the trip would be bus ride time from the ship to Paris and back that he could rest on the bus. We were wrong.
The bus ride began early that morning with his discovering that he had forgot to bring his camera. I offered to let him use mine, which was the same brand as his though not nearly as hi-tech. Though he had given me that camera as a gift, he refused to use such a lowly piece of machinery. He wouldn’t even look out the bus window as we made the two hour drive from the French coast to the city of light. Thinking he would recover, I let him be. Let him rest. I was amazed how different from England everything in France was from the electric transmission lines to the farm lay outs that were less than 30 miles away.
Our first stop in Paris was a downtown department store, about the size of Pittsburgh’s currently empty Macy’s store, only larger because Paris blocks were at least three times larger than Pittsburgh’s. We had an hour and a half to shop, and I shopped while my husband glumly followed me. When it was time to go back to the bus, I couldn’t remember which door we had come in which is almost always a problem for me because I have no sense of direction. My husband had an excellent directional sense that I trusted, so I was not alarmed. But this time he was even more lost than I. Of course, the French clerks refused to speak English to us or give us directions, which didn’t surprise me, but enraged my husband. I decided to just go outside and circle the huge store until we found the waiting bus; we were the last people to board. And, when we came to our next tour stop at the Eifel Tower, my husband refused to leave the bus for fear of getting lost again and missing the bus. I could see that he was so upset, that to reassure him I stayed with him on the bus. I was able to see a few iron girders and a souvenir stand, not the storied Paris view.
Our next and last stop was a 90 minute, dinner barge trip down the Seine. This time my husband left the bus. We made our way to our assigned seats at one of the tables for 12, arranged along both side of the barge. My husband’s seat was on the aisle at the head of the table facing the river, mine to his right on the side. Even before the barge left the dock, our tour guide’s loud speaker spiel began, and we were served wine. Because of his medications, my husband refused wine, but somehow wordlessly conveyed how insulted he was to be offered wine. I chose a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, the noise level of multiple table conversations rose to drown out the tour guide’s information. At some point the barge’s photographer snapped our individual portraits. We were served a three course meal, including the best chicken breast that I have ever tasted, but because my husband does not like chicken, he took this as a further French insult. Then, came one of those moments when while dining, an entire room quiets.
My husband arose from his chair to shout, “I hate Paris!”
Quickly, the woman sitting next to me smiled while whispering to me, “Sometimes, I find it more enjoyable to travel alone.”
I looked around. Everyone kept eating and resumed their conversations. I assessed that my husband was safe, that there was nothing further at that moment I could do to help him; so I emotionally stepped aside, and on this last and only day I would ever be in Paris, I chose to enjoy Paris—the colorful houseboats, the huge cathedrals, lovers walking along the river, picnickers, women simply dressed, yet beautiful, and bridges leading over the Seine to a future none of us could ever guess.
A half hour later, the photographer returned to sell us our photos, and with my own money I bought both photographs. My husband’s was that of a horribly frightened and angry man, and mine was of the happiest picture of me that I had ever seen, the author photo I eventually used for my second book of poems—The Pastor’s Wife Considers Pinball.
When we came back to our Florida home, my husband, who had always been forthright about discussing his left temporal dementia, refused to speak of our Paris incident. For the first time he began attempting to hide his dementia, and he refused to go for his yearly dementia assessment with his psycho-neurologist. Gradually, he quit talking with me. Out of fear and frustration, I enrolled in care-giver therapy in the hope that I could learn how to better care for him and for myself which further enraged him. One of the first things I learned in care-giver therapy was the name for what had happened to my husband and ultimately to our marriage that day in Paris—catastrophic reaction—perhaps, also an accurate term to describe what happened in Paris in November of 2015.