My cousin’s husband, Jerome, died in his sleep at home in Paris on December 18, 2003. He was 45 and had been diagnosed with lung cancer the previous March.
In France, death is treated more naturally than it is in many North American locales, especially big cities.
Jerome’s body was attended to and remained in the hospital bed that had been set up in the apartment’s dining room, with friends dropping by to visit individually or in groups of two or three.
It was comforting to have Jerome at home, and the intimacy of the visits was a temporary balm on the gaping wound of grief now facing Joanne.
There were no casseroles or people waiting in line to mumble their respects. There were bright orange tulips (Jerome’s favourite), a lot of tears, a lot of love and even some laughter.
There was also a six-month-old hyper-rambunctious Tibetan terrier puppy named Ladakh, who had “adopted” Jerome that fall, when he was still well enough to go for walks and weekend getaways to the coast.
Ladakh was distraught by the changes in the household, but he still had to be walked and fed, and would become a real lifeline for Joanne in the bottomless weeks and months to come.
The night before his funeral, Joanne, her mother and I gathered around the coffee table in the living room, adjacent to the dining room, for our final dinner “with” Jerome.
Joanne had saved a bottle of gorgeous Bordeaux from their wedding nine months earlier.
(Briefly, deeply in love in their 30s but separated by logistics and geography, Joanne and Jerome reunited in their early 40s and shared one blissful year together before his diagnosis. His illness brought them even closer.)
She cooked Jerome’s favourite meal: steak saignant done in a hot pan on the stove, and petites pommes de terre tossed in olive oil and salt and cooked in a cast iron pan in the oven. Simple and delicious.
We lit a special candle and set a place at the table for Jerome. Joanne made a brief, loving toast to him, noting that it seemed appropriate for his final night at home to be the shortest day of the year.
Jerome’s presence was strong in the room, and we were all dreading having to say our final goodbyes to him the next morning.
Joanne remained in the Paris apartment for another year and a half, before moving to Oxford, where she exchanged her view of the Seine for a short walk to the Thames.
She and Ladakh, who is now eight-and-a-half (60 in people years) and a much calmer companion, go for a long ramble along the river every afternoon.
Joanne continues her tradition of lighting a candle for Jerome each December and preparing “his” steak dinner on solstice.
Until last year, I was always there to eat that meal with Joanne in person, and celebrate the memory of her husband together. What was a truly heartbreaking meal eight years ago evolved into a joyful tradition with fewer tears and more laughter as each year passed.
This year on December 21, while Joanne slept into a new day in Oxford, across the Atlantic I raised a glass of Bordeaux to Jerome as I tucked into Alberta beef, rare, and oven-baked Yukon gold potatoes.