Nov. 13 started out like any other day except, of course, the obvious eeriness of the date falling on a Friday.
It was also my father’s 95th birthday, a day my mother and I planned to visit the cemetery, neither one of us believing it had been 34 years since he passed. I woke up with a strange malaise filling brain and body, but never an inkling or notion the day would unfold with unthinkable atrocity.
By nightfall I was glued to my television watching repetitious headlines of breaking news: Paris Terror Attacks. Words so seemingly incongruent I had trouble reading them on the screen – all of them coming across like a poorly crafted sentence written by some misinformed journalist or novice writer. The kind of sentence structure begging to be erased, revised, deleted. Like everyone else watching around the globe, I wanted desperately to rewind the night.
I learned this pairing of words in Diane Maliani’s beginning French class when I was in seventh grade. But by midnight, “port ouverte” would take on a whole new meaning and be an emergency hashtag signaling Paris residents to open their doors for those stranded by the attacks – a plea to offer safe shelter.
Feeling frantic, I knew I must check on Romain Pacaud, the young French student who entered my life exactly one decade ago, a chance yet fate-filled meeting at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. He was alone and lost, en route to California to spend his summer with a host family that sadly turned out to be his worst nightmare. We adopted him on the spot and he spent his summer with us as we forged an unbreakable bond that would withstand time, distance, and now, even terrorist attacks. He was family.
And so as headlines erupted in Paris, Romain’s whereabouts and well-being became of paramount concern. After all, I knew he liked soccer, music and food and could have easily been spending his evening at any one of the targeted locations. I e-mailed, messaged on Facebook and sent pleading queries to his relatives.
Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK?
By early morning, he wrote me that he was safe. We met on our iPads, via FaceTime. Making eye contact, seeing his face, we talked for hours. Later that night, he sent me pages of reflections, a few of them translated here:
“In the same manner that I watch a Hollywood production, my eyes are not able to leave the screen. I am in shock. I do not recognize Paris. These images. All the blood. Deserted streets. I can’t believe these images are taken a few kilometers from me.
“I look out the window and realize that I have not heard any noise outside for a while … not a car …not a pedestrian … no one. It is 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s done. My eyelids are heavy. One last time I realize there is no noise in the street. Only silence.”
More than a week has passed and there are new posts, prayers and pictures. Fatalities have climbed while names, stories and memorials make this tragedy all the more real and unbearable. I find myself caught in a grief relapse I cannot shake for now. It’s a strange paralysis, magnified by the other tragedies closer to home on our college campuses earlier this month. Walking into walls, staring into space, I talk to myself in French in an effort to soothe my spirit.
It’s hard to imagine a way out of this madness. We find ourselves holding breaths, walking on eggshells, and functioning on high alert. Waiting for the next shoe to drop, waking up feeling small and powerless, but the truth of the matter is each of us must do something. Even if that means calling our mothers, reaching out to friends in need, mending fences, performing acts of kindness or reciting sacred prayers for peace.
Showing up for each other is a good place to start, and with the holidays right in front of us, the timing couldn’t be better. We can’t leave this for politicians, power brokers and world leaders to fix.
I am a longtime collector of French fairy tales. My book collection was born in a tiny flea market in Paris the year I studied abroad – back in the early 1970s. Through the years, I have gathered dozens of books, ones I now enjoy reading to my grandchildren. Tonight I want to read them the line promising that somewhere in time, we will crush hatred and all live happily ever after.
Il etait une fois….
(Once upon a time)
Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship” and a collection of essays called “My Name is Armen.”