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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

(“Photographs and memories, all the love you gave to me, somehow it just can't be true, that's all I have left of you”) …Jim Croce

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration
Chapter Two
San Pedro, California, November 25, 2002

The two large brass bells perched atop an old round faced alarm clock waited patiently for their cue. As the hands aligned north and south to read 6am the dutiful timepiece clanged to life with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. It vibrated wildly on the nightstand, the hammer striking the large brass bells relentlessly, vibrating so ferociously that it actually began to ‘walk’ toward the edge of its perch. Slowly, very slowly, a large hand, calloused from a lifetime of hard labor, rose from underneath a rumpled mound of blankets on the bed beside the nightstand. Thick fingers wrapped carefully around the blaring instrument, and ever so gently depressed the small lever in back, silencing the old clock a split second before it fell from the stand to the hardwood floor below.
François Bouchard, my old man, turned lazily onto his back and stretched, rubbing the crust from his ice blue eyes. Out of habit he reached over beside him, feeling around for where my mother's sleeping form should have been. He stroked the cold empty space beside him, sighing deeply, and caressed the sheet as if she were still there. Turning his head on an old weathered feather pillow he stared at the undisturbed linen beside him. This was Papa's routine, every morning he reminded himself that she was gone, each and every morning for a couple of years now. Giselle Bouchard died the summer of 1999 from complications with an acute case of emphysema. Her death wasn't pretty and it wasn't quick, it was a bitter, bitter memory, one he wished he could just forget. Whoever coined the phrase "absence makes the heart grow fonder" clearly had never had their heart broken. Sometimes absence just makes the heart grow harder.
It takes a special kind of courage to forgive without being vindictive. To be able to see past the bitterness that blinds you to the purity of the love you push deep into a vault where it can no longer be shared. My mom never meant to hurt my father, in fact I doubt she realized that she did. But I tell you this much, were the roles reversed she would never abandon her love for him, no matter what passed between them. My mother believed in love and she lived like she did, every day that I can remember.    
“Goddamn cigarettes!” François muttered.
            Papa had pleaded with her to stop smoking their entire life together; it was really the only thing they ever bickered about. And when she was officially diagnosed with her dire condition in January of 1995 his pleas turned to demands, which naturally disintegrated into bitter arguments, followed by days of silence and weeks of frustration. François prayed daily for Divine intervention, he was convinced that if Giselle humbled herself and stop poisoning her body, that God would show mercy. She didn’t, and neither did God, and so François was forced to suffer the agony of witnessing her slow, horrible death. At the very end my mother suffocated while she was attached to a full tank of oxygen. Her lung capacity had deteriorated so much, that she could no longer draw breath enough to sustain her life.
            It had been like watching a candle flame die out, the red glow fading to orange, then yellow, then blue, and then eventually to black, cold and final. He was bitter and felt he had the right to be. Only his faith kept him from mourning himself into rash decisions after her passing. He was grateful that her suffering was over, but secretly cursed her stubborn pride. Were it not for that she might still be with him.
“Je vous aime mon Cher,” (I love you my dear) he whispered.
            Tenderly he caressed the space beside him where she lay for forty-seven years. He imagined it was still warm to the touch, his memories defying the laws of physics. His glanced over to the nightstand on her side of the bed and noticed a gaudy, gold framed photograph of the two of them in happier times. It was a picture taken on their last real holiday together, before they were aware of the hell yet to come. François vividly remembered that day. They had been walking all morning, window shopping and visiting some old friends of Giselle’s, when they decided to stop for a quick lunch at one of her favorite cafés on the Boulevard Malesherbes. It was a quaint little place in the financial district, not far from the Madeleine Church and the Metro station. He had uncharacteristically asked the waiter to take their photo. The two of them posed like a pair of silly teenagers, all kissy faced and grinning from ear to ear.
            Papa took in a deep breath and sighed, imagining he could still catch the faint scent of her skin in the cooling blankets. Paris was her city; she had been born and raised there. And Giselle had remained every bit a Parisian, even after moving to the United States with him at the tender age of nineteen. Ten years her senior, François had met Giselle shortly after mustering out of the French Navy in the winter of 1948. He had gone to Paris to reunite with his own family, only to discover that they had not survived the German occupation. And after a night of feeling sorry for himself and drinking beyond his limitations, he awoke early the next morning, face down in the tall grass of a local schoolyard. A pretty young girl kicked at his feet, and tried to rouse him.
“Excuser moi Monsieur?”(Excuse me sir) a sweet voice had asked him gently.
“Excuser moi! Vous sont bien monsieur?” (Excuse me, are you alright sir) the voice asked again more insistently, inquiring if he was OK.
            François recalled squinting in glare of the morning sun, his head aching from the wine the night before, and seeing the face of an angel. He fell in love the instant he saw her. Or perhaps he fell in love with the notion of being in love, who could say for sure. All he knew for certain was that his heart had been touched, and the light in this girl’s eyes had somehow dulled the pain of his family's fate. He recalled her puzzled and amused expression. She was totally unaware of the wheels she had set in motion by her random act of kindness. In that moment, without really understanding why, he unconsciously began his campaign to win her heart. As it turned out, Giselle needed little coaxing, as she had been equally smitten, as hungry as he was for life to return to normal.
             Four years after that chance meeting they were wed, it was the winter of 1952. Shortly afterward, François and his child bride immigrated to the United States of America, to begin their new life together. Like so many immigrants before them, they settled at first in New York City. Their first home together was a tiny apartment at the top of a six-floor walkup located on the Lower East Side of the city. There was barely enough room for the two of them, but Giselle was young and anxious to start a family. She begged and pleaded with him to promise that they would try as soon as they were settled. He had tried to reason with her, attempting to explain that they needed to prepare a little nest egg before incurring such responsibility. But Giselle was still a girl in many respects, and had an enormous faith in the unwritten proverb that ‘good things happened to good people’ so as far as she was concerned, there was no reason for worry, they would be blessed, she was certain of it.
            François remembered thinking many times after these discussions, how could one argue with such optimism? After countless such talks she wore him down and they reached an amicable compromise. Mother agreed to wait until Papa found a decent paying job, and they set aside at least enough to cover the expense of bringing a new life into their new world. With that as inspiration, François ventured out amongst the throng of post war job hunters and searched for a place to hang his tool belt, and seek his fortune. And wouldn’t you know it, just as Giselle had predicted, good fortune smiled upon them and within a week he had found the perfect job. A diesel mechanic by trade, François had managed to find work in the vast expanse of the New York shipyards, at a thriving marine dry dock located right on the East River. It was a natural fit for him, given his years of service in the French Navy where he tended to the maintenance and repair of the huge diesel engines propelling the destroyer he had served aboard during the war, Defiant.
            Papa had spent five years aboard that vessel, patrolling the icy cold Atlantic Ocean hunting devil fish, a term commonly used to describe the deadly German U-boats that lurked along the coast of his homeland. The experience had molded him into a fine craftsman in his own right, and thus into a valuable commodity in this post war industry. Outwardly he credited his steadfast perseverance for their good fortune, but inwardly and secretly he acknowledged Giselle's mantra that 'good things come to good people'. He started that new job on the first Monday in May, just before the real heat of summer arrived in the Big Apple. And in no time he and Giselle had squirreled away a tidy little sum. Not a fortune mind you, but enough for him to keep his promise, and they began trying in earnest to start their family.
            Their luck continued when in March of 1954 Giselle beamingly announced that she was with child. She was of course, ecstatic, but for some unknown reason François felt uneasy, perhaps it was just the pre-papa jitters or maybe it was the significance of the news; that their lives would change forever. He did his best to hide that from Giselle, the terror and pressure he felt, but she was far too sensitive to miss such obvious clues, his quietness, his pensiveness, his far away stares. She suspected that he was just doing what all men did, make mountains out of  molehills; creating all sorts of havoc within their minds about futures that were yet to be realized. Why couldn't he just trust in God as she did? After all, hadn't he provided this moment exactly as he had promised?
            François frowned as he recalled that time of his life. Given the way he had wallowed around in a blue funk that he created with his brooding, it didn't take long for his bad attitude to start chipping away Giselle’s initial enthusiasm. But, to her credit, she never threw that back at him. Mother never let Papa's lack of faith reduce her own. Her mother had raised her well, and taught her that in marriage nothing was unforgivable, that when one of you is weak the other must be strong, that is your bond, and that is your duty unto God.  Papa had pouted and moped right up to the day mother went into labor, two weeks early mind you! And with little fanfare, she gave birth to a daughter, stillborn, the day after Christmas, December 26, 1954. They named the baby Marie, and buried her quietly in a brief ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was just the two of them in attendance. They would never speak of her again.
            Papa blamed himself for the tragedy, and tried his best to keep from sinking into a deeper depression with his guilt. He didn't have to try too hard as mother would have none of that! Her faith was tremendous and she knew that God worked in his own time. When the time was right, if she was faithful, he would grant her heart's desire, just as he promised in the Psalms. Her husband was easy to forgive; he was merely acting like a child. But forgiving herself would be harder, in her mind she had somehow failed her child. That never made sense to Papa, but he knew that she believed it, and she prayed to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers, for strength the next go around. As fate would have it though, the path to the next conception would prove to be a difficult one. They tried earnestly but fruitlessly, year after year, for the family that she so passionately yearned for, there seemed to be no hope. But isn't that when God's gifts are the most glorious?
            Giselle stubbornly refused to surrender her spirit to self pity or misery, never losing faith or her joyful spirit. And in the last days of the infamous summer of love, in early September, 1969, they were once again with child. Mother was convinced that it was a reward for her unwavering faith. And so, nine uneventful months later I arrived, a son, Patrick Henry Bouchard. I came screaming into the world without incident in the wee hours of June 7th, 1970. I would be their only child in this life. Mother had actually gone into labor as she and Papa stood in a hot crowded room downtown waiting to take their oath of citizenship.
            As the large group new citizens finished their pledge with, so help me God, mother frantically announced that her water had broken.  François sat up in bed and chuckled as he recalled the mayhem and confusion that had ensued. Dozens of fawning would be midwives from the old country scrambled in mass, coming to the aid of his blushing wife. After a few moments of general confusion, mother and an older Russian woman named Tanya, who actually was a registered nurse, were whisked away by INS authorities to an empty office where five and one half-hours later I was born, delivered expertly by their wonderful new friend Tanya.
            François remembered someone asking if they had a name for the child. He remembered looking to Giselle for help, but she was in another world. He recalled asking Tanya what her favorite boys names were, since they couldn't name their son after her. She looked at him proudly and in her thick Russian accent answered, “give boy American name, call him Patrick Henrygive me liberty, or give me death!” she said adamantly. François had loved the sound of it the minute he heard it, the name had a ring to it. And after mother nodded her approval, he introduced to the room their son, Patrick Henry Bouchard.
            François yawned and stretched once more then kicked off the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, feeling for his slippers with his feet. He recoiled slightly when his they touched the cold wooden floor. Finding his slippers he eased his feet into his soft and warm flannel lining, got up and walked out into the hall toward the bathroom, scratching his head and backside along the way. He had lollygagged longer than usual this morning, getting out of bed twenty minutes later than he actually should have. There wasn't time to shave, only enough to shower and brush his teeth before I arrived to pick him up for work. Luckily his lunch was in the fridge, prepared and packed the night before, as was his normal routine. This was the part of the day he looked forward to most of all, getting out of the empty house and away from his memories.
            After mother’s passing he'd been restless, and prone to bouts of depression. Were it not for my insistence that he either go back to work, or find a hobby to keep himself busy, he probably would have followed mother to Heaven and missed out on the birth of his grandson Gabriel. Papa wished that mother could have seen Gabriel once before she died. My boy had her eyes, and her smile, and her impish grin which he displayed coyly whenever he was up to something, just like Grandma. So, taking his my advice, Papa offered to help out around the house, doing chores and babysitting Gabriel whenever Michelle needed a break or had to run errands.
            That suited him, it was better than taking a real nine to five job. He didn’t need one anyway; he had retired fairly well off long ago thanks to the Pipefitters Union and some sound investment tips from a former shipmate from the Defiant days, Jean Michel Tondreau. Besides, here he was his own boss and could come and go as he pleased. François smiled as he thought about his family and reached in beyond the drawn shower curtain to spin the faucet handles and start the flow of hot water. He stood in front of the large mirror above porcelain basin while he waited for the water to heat up and wiggled out of his pajamas. He puffed out his chest, sucked in his small gut, and raised his arms, flexing his taut biceps. Twisting his closed fists back and forth, he watched with pride as the rounded muscles rose and fell impressively. 
“Fine figure of a man,” he said proudly to the guy in the mirror, admiring himself, thankful that the years had been kind to him. To be honest, at his age, most people were extremely limited physically. But at the tender age of 81, he was in remarkable shape, easily passing for a man 20 to 25 years his junior. He attributed that in part to a lifetime of hard work, but mostly to the wonderful care that mother had taken in making sure that he lived healthily. He put his arms down and waved dismissively at his image in the mirror, “bahhhh,” he muttered, as he stepped into the shower.


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