Paris Attacks Hit Home

View from My House in Telluride

View from My House in Telluride, Colorado

It’s sparkling white here in Telluride, Colorado. We’ve been graced with bright blue skies after a major storm dumped about three feet of snow on our already snowy mountains. Normally my heart would be singing with the excitement that comes with the start of each ski season. But despite the glorious scene that lays before me, I feel cobbled together with a jumble of emotions I’m doing my best to manage.

I did some work with hospice about twenty years ago and learned in the training that each loss brings up a past loss. I suppose by the end of our lives our hearts are filled with an accumulation of losses. A grim thought, but hopefully we find out along the way how to balance our complexities of emotions. But still, there are times when the bottom seems to fall out of our hearts.

This has been one of those times for me. The horrific events in Paris of just one week ago have touched so many of us. They’ve triggered thoughts of 9/11and other PTSD moments, big and small. They’ve made us weep for a beautiful city loved by many whether we’ve traveled there or not. They’ve made us feel the ultimate violation of enjoying a sense of safety in the most civilized parts of the world. They’ve made us feel like one. We are one, we are one with Paris, one with France, one with the whole world.

In a city of over two and a quarter million inhabitants, I wanted to make sure that everyone I knew there was safe last Friday night. On ne sais jamais. It’s bad enough that this horrible violence was happening but I prayed that all my loved ones and contacts from having had a close connection with the City of Light for almost four decades were safe.

And then it came. The news that my ex-husband, Stéphane de Bourgies, had lost his wife, Véronique Geoffroy de Bourgies, in the attack on the little bistrot, La Belle Equipe, rue de Charonne. I felt shattered. Vraiment boulversé. No, no, please God, don’t let it be true. I had been checking Steph’s Facebook page all night for news and finally the unimaginable was posted. I had already written on Véronique’s timeline that I was thinking about her and her family and hoping everyone was safe. Oh God, please let this be a mistake.

Véronique and Stéphane Preparing Dinner at Their Place in Paris Just a Year Ago

Véronique and Stéphane Preparing Dinner at Their Place in Paris Just a Year Ago

But it wasn’t. It happened in my old neighborhood, mon quartier général. The names of familiar streets churned in my head along with a heap of memories as CNN recounted the events pieced together on their coverage that evening. Place de la République, boulevard Voltaire et hélas rue de Charonne. C’est pas possible.

And Véronique. How could such a vibrant lady be extinguished like that? She was enjoying a dinner in her neighborhood with friends from Grenoble, two friends that desperately tried to resuscitate her but to no avail. Stéphane, a photographer, was away working in Shanghai. I can only imagine the call and the long trip home.

I messaged Steph to tell him I was with him in spirit. To encourage him to take care of his basic needs–eating, drinking water, that sort of thing–as he traveled home. I encouraged him to tap into the kindness and compassion of strangers. I reminded him that most airports have quiet places you can go to pray. I told him I remembered how it was when I flew home from Paris when I learned that my brother died tragically. I remembered that each loss brings up a past loss.

I feel such a strong heart connection with Stéphane–how could I not feel his pain? He is a fine man with whom I spent almost ten years in Paris and have enjoyed a close relationship since. Our love felt like a fairytale for many years; we shared and discovered so much together. For Steph, I showed up at just the right time because he had tragically lost both his parents in a car accident just a year and a half before we met. Then the challenges of life piled up and eventually felt too great to bear, especially for me. I lost my brother not long after having had multiple miscarriages. Prior to that I had had lots of health problems in the aftermath of bladder cancer. Despite my love for Stéphane, I couldn’t get out from under the bleak landscape of the grey days of Paris and the tremendous loss I felt from within. I felt like a failure on so many fronts. Going home–back to the U.S.–offered my only comfort.

Fortunately Steph started dating Véro within the following year or two. I knew exactly who he was talking about when he first told me about her because she had come to one of our parties, a super fun Halloween party, long before the French started to celebrate Halloween. (Much to Stéphane’s surprise, the guests did dress up, Véronique included.)

Violaine, (Steph's sister), Me, Steph & Véro at Dîner Chez Eux

Violaine, (Steph’s sister), Me, Steph & Véro at Dîner Chez Eux

French Cheese, Bread and Wine Chez Steph and Véro

French Cheese, Bread and Wine Chez Steph and Véro

They married and eventually adopted two children from Madagascar. I was so happy for them. I would see Stéphane every time I returned to France, often with Véro who happily attended signings for my books as well as other gatherings. That’s the kind of gal she was–she never made an issue about me being “the ex.” She was exuberant and full of life. I had dinner at their place (in the eleventh arrondissement) just a year ago and we had a wonderful time over a feast highlighted by gigot d’agneau, vacherin (a gooey cheese that Steph remembered I loved) and lots of bon vin rouge. We talked about plans for them and their two children, Mélissa and Diego, to come visit me in Colorado the following summer, plans that ended up being postponed, plans that will never take the same form again.

My heart breaks for Stéphane, his children, all the family and friends, most of whom I know and, of course, for Véronique. I am with everyone on this grieving journey and am hoping that my thoughts and prayers can offer them some measure of help. This terrible sense of loss feels so familiar. Indeed, every loss brings up past losses.

Stéphane

Stéphane

After the heartbreak of Paris, I eventually moved to sunny Colorado where I’ve created quite a different life for myself. The wide open spaces of the West and the majesty of the mountains have been my healing ground. In addition to pursuing my writer’s life, I became a ski instructor twelve years ago, a move that miraculously lifted the sadness over not having children of my own. Instead, in addition to teaching adults, I create magical memories with “my kids,” souvenirs that last a lifetime–for me and I believe for them as well.

Côte amour, I’ve been with the same man for seven years who is funnily enough named Steve (actually Stefano, since he was born in Italy). He’s also a gemini like Stéphane and enjoys good food, drink, travel, Europe and fun. This week has not been easy on him because in addition to being pained by the Paris attacks himself, he knows that these events have dredged up a lot of stuff for me. Life can be complicated, particularly when it comes to loss.

My only hope is that Stéphane and his children can somehow find their way through this terrible sadness. Perhaps they will even find it healing to make a trip to Colorado this summer. As for Véro, I’d like to believe that God called her up for a higher cause. She definitely made her mark on this earth, and with the help of others and her undying passion and perseverance, I wish that Zazakely Sambatra, the NGO she created for the children of Madagascar, lives on in her name.

Véronique In Madagascar with Children from Zazakely Sambatra

Véronique In Madagascar with Children from Zazakely Sambatra (photo by Stéphane)

As for me, the mountain officially opens next Thursday on Thanksgiving and I will be sure to count my blessings. As I do my first turns of the season down the slopes, I’ll also resource my mind, body and spirit with the thrill of being outside in the American West. Yes, that will realign my emotional compass, something I wish for all.

God bless.

For more on Véronique and Zazakely Sambatra, the NGO she created, read A Husband Remembers His Wife, ‘Merry, With Her Camera and Surrounded by a Bunch of Kids,’ which appeared in the New York Times this week. Véronique was also highlighted in the NYT piece, Paris Victims, Remembered.

Stéphane gave a powerful and inspiring interview on TF1, French television, which you can listen to (in French) here.

Much of the information in the Washington Post piece, Stories of Those Who Died in the Paris Attacks, was derived from Stéphane’s TF1 interview.

To help you find peace around these senseless acts of violence, I suggest you read #Prayers4Paris:  A Litany for the City of Light by Cindi Sansone-Braff.

 

 
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