Charles got off the plane and walked slowly through the Jetway to the terminal. There he was directed to customs. He stood in line patiently as the customs officers questioned, checked, and approved each visitor. When it was Charles's turn, he handed the man behind the counter his passport and waited.
“What is the purpose of your trip?” the kind young man asked in English with a slight French accent.
Charles sighed deeply. “To bury my wife,” he replied.
The customs official looked up from the paperwork. “I am sorry for your loss,” he said respectfully. Charles nodded, “Merci.” The sound of his tongue speaking French was so harsh to his ears compared to the melodic voice of his beloved Jeannette.
“Where will you be staying?” asked the dark-haired young man.
“With my wife's sister, who lives on Ave Rapp.” The customs officer nodded again. He stamped the passport and handed it back to Charles. “You are cleared to enter, Monsieur Evans. Again, I am sorry for your loss.”
“Merci beaucoup,” Charles replied. “Au revoir”
“Adieu,” the man responded. Charles picked up his things and started walking towards the baggage claim area.
Paulette Marchand was waiting for Charles in baggage claims. The 60-year-old woman ran over to him and gave him a suffocating hug. “Mon Cher!” she exclaimed.
Charles extracted himself from her embrace. “Paulette,” he said. This woman was younger than his dearly departed wife, and much plumper than her sister had been. Charles tried to smile, but he wasn't feeling it. “Thank you for picking me up here at the airport. I could have taken Le Metro,” he paused, "but it is good to see you instead.”
“I couldn't have you do that! Come, Jean-Pierre is in la voiture waiting for us.” Paulette helped Charles pick up his bags and guided him towards the door.
Charles stepped out of Charles de Gaulle International Airport into the sunlight. He blinked a few times. Paulette directed him towards a gray Renault. Charles walked slowly to the vehicle, helped Paulette put his bags in the back, then climbed into the back seat so his sister-in-law could sit in front with his nephew.
“Tante Jeanette arrived yesterday,” the young man said as Charles was climbing into the car. “Jean-Pierre!” Paulette scolded, “that is not the first thing you say to votre oncle the moment you see him!”
“Pardonnez-moi,” he replied. “How was your flight?” Charles laughed. “I would rather talk about Jeannette's arrival than that grueling flight. I despise flying.”
Jean-Pierre smiled a little bit to himself. He knew his uncle did not like to fly and thought the topic of his dead aunt was far more pleasant for the man than the flight. His mother, Paulette, would never understand such things.
Charles sighed deeply. “The last time we were in Paris, we buried your mother, Paulette,” he sighed again. “I used to love Paris, but now it is beginning to remind me of funerals and death.”
“Mon Cher,” Paulette sighed, “we will have to fix that. Perhaps we could do something fun before you return home?”
Charles shook his head. “My Jeannie wrote me a letter asking me to go certain places while I am here. I do not think I would be in the mood for anything fun at this time.”
“What kinds of places?” Jean-Pierre asked as he turned the car down a narrow street.
“Places that have many memories for us.” His voice shook a little as he thought of the letter his wife had written when she found out she had cancer. He was not allowed to read it until after she died.
Jean-Pierre could see his uncle in the rearview mirror and noticed the anguished look on his face. This was not going to be an easy trip for the 65-year-old man. “Would you like some company when you do these things?” he asked.
Charles sighed again. “Some of the places Jeannie said I must go to alone, but I think there are a few I could include you, if you would like.” He took a deep breath, “When are the wake, mass, and burial?” he asked Paulette.
“The wake is tomorrow, the mass and burial the next day. They will be in the same church you were married in, selon Jeanette's request, and the burial is in the same cemetery our parents are buried in.”
“Good. I will have time to go to Le Musée d'Orsay. That is the first place she wanted me to visit, and it was where we first met. I think I need to go there alone.”
“I could drop you there now if you want,” offered Jean-Pierre, “or would you rest first?”
Charles shook his head. “The museum is on our way, I prefer you drop me off. I can walk to your home when I am done.”
“Absurdité, you will do no such thing!” exclaimed Paulette. “We will wait for you until you are ready.”
“It may be some time....”
“We will wait, Oncle Charles,” Jean-Pierre reassured the man. “Ce n’est pas un problème.”
“Merci beaucoup, Jean-Pierre,” Charles smiled. It was the first time in a very long time that he smiled. Perhaps going to Paris wasn't a bad idea after all.
Jean-Pierre pulled up in front of the building where visitors can be dropped off. He handed Charles his mobile phone. “I do not know if your téléphone works here. You can use mine if you need anything. I turned off the security code so you can use it.”
Again Charles smiled. “Merci, Jean-Pierre. You are a good young man.”
Jean-Pierre laughed, “Tell that to my mother as often as you can. She says I am incorrigible.
“We will wait for you over there in the car park. If you like, you can call Maman when you are ready to leave and I will pick you up here.” Charles nodded, then turned and began walking to the building.
Once inside, Charles headed towards the sculptures in the section of the permanent collection. He stopped in front of “Nature Unveiling Herself.” He then pulled his phone out of his pocket and scrolled to an image. It was the photo he had taken of Jeannette as she sketched the sculpture. He stood in the place he had been when he took the photo and compared today to the photograph. Jeannette had insisted he bring that photo with him when he stopped here.
“There is no photography in the museum,” a voice said behind him. Charles looked up from his phone.
“I know,” he replied. “I am not taking a photo, I am looking at one. See,” he turned his phone so the security guard could see it.
“She is beautiful. Who is she?”
“That is my wife, Jeannette, on the day I met her. It was her dying wish that I come here and look at this photo while I stand in the place where I first saw her.” He turned to face the man. “I had been a photographer assigned to take photos of the architecture of this museum and had stumbled upon a lovely girl sketching this piece,” he pointed to the work. “I couldn't resist, I took her picture. That was many years ago.”
“Je suis désolé pour votre perte,” replied the guard. “That is a beautiful story, Monsieur. How long were you married?”
“45 years.” The tears flowed quickly down his cheeks. “I am sorry, this is very difficult for me.” he wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. “She asked me to do one more thing. Will you permit me to place this paper flower on the floor next to the sculpture? She made it for that purpose.”
The guard nodded, “I will allow it,” he said.
“Merci, Monsieur.” Charles walked over to the sculpture and placed the white flower on the floor next to the stand. “Merci.” He stood and looked at the flower and sighed deeply. Then he turned to the guard. “I should be going. Thank you for indulging an old man and a dying woman's wish. Que vous soyez béni pour votre gentillesse. May you be blessed for your kindness.”
“Le plaisir est pour moi” replied the guard. “Adieu, monsieur.” Charles nodded, and left the exhibit.
He called Jean-Pierre while he walked and the Renault was waiting for him when he left the building. “Where would you like to go now, Oncle Charles?”
“Your home will be fine. I am tired and need to rest.” Jean-Pierre drove the gray car to the building where his parents owned the penthouse. He drove into the parking garage, then helped his mother and uncle bring the bags to the elevator. They rode the elevator in silence, although Paulette was wanting to ask what Charles had done in the museum. Jean-Pierre had advised his mother to keep quiet and if his uncle wanted to talk, he would.
Charles was led to a room where he would be staying during his trip. He asked Jean-Pierre to place his bags on the davenport sitting near the window. Then he asked if he could be left alone for a while so he could get his head together and figure out what he needed to do next. Paulette reluctantly agreed to leave him alone and closed the door to the room as she left.
From inside a small, blue denim bag, Charles pulled out the letter Jeannette had written to him. He made a small red mark next to Le Musée d'Orsay. That left Pont des Arts, Champs-Elysees and Ladurée for macarons, and Notre-Dame. Charles sighed deeply. This was going to be a long 4 days.
Charles decided to take a nap. Around 7 pm, there was a knock on his door. “Who is it?” he asked. He heard Paulette's cheerful voice ask “are you hungry?” A grumble in his stomach told Charles he needed to eat. He wasn't hungry, but he knew he would need to eat so he could finish what Jeannette had asked him to do. “Oui,” he said. He got off the bed and went to the door.
The whole family was gathered at the dining room table including Jeannette's brothers and sisters. Charles was not in the mood to deal with that many people, but he knew this was something they all needed to help them deal with the grief of losing their sister. He took a deep breath and walked into the room.
The next morning Charles woke up at 7 am. He was surprisingly rested. Jean-Pierre was waiting for him at the table. “Breakfast is ready, Oncle Charles. Would you like an omelet?” Charles laughed despite himself. “Do you know what your aunt would say? Only croissants! We searched all over the United States for them and discovered no one makes them better than the French, and you can only find them in France. So, in honor of your Aunt, I will have croissants.”
“Well, it is a good thing my maman picked some up for you.” Jean-Pierre got up from the table and went into the kitchen. He returned with a basket of croissants and some jams, butter, and honey. “Would you like tea or cafe with that?” Charles chose coffee and ate in silence. When he was finished, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked at the young man. “Are you still willing to come along with me on my errands?” he asked the blond young man. Jean-Pierre nodded. “Excellent. Put on your walking shoes and let's go!”
Jean-Pierre ran to his room and grabbed a jacket, since it was a little chilly that April morning, and put on his walking shoes. He had come back to Paris for the funeral and was staying in his old room. He met his uncle at the door of the penthouse. “Where are we going, Oncle? Should I grab the keys to the automobile?” “No, young man, we are taking Le Metro. That is how your aunt and I traveled when we met, she would like me to travel that way now.”
They walked down to the nearest Metro stop and went down into the subway system. Charles had purchased a travel pass that would allow him to travel as many times as he needed. Jean-Pierre had one also. Charles checked the map, selected what train they needed to take, and directed Jean-Pierre to the proper platform. “Where are we going?” asked Jean-Pierre as they stood waiting. “Notre-Dame,” Charles replied. There was a sadness in his voice.
“Why Notre-Dame?” asked the young man.
“Your aunt wanted me to look at it. Her heart was broken when she saw the cathedral on fire that fateful day in 2019. I watched her fall to her knees sobbing when she saw it on the news. We contributed to the restoration when we learned they were going to repair the ancient building. Before she died, she told me I had to go see how well the workers were coming along, to make sure our money was well spent,” Charles winked at Jean-Pierre. “I am curious, as well, and it's near our next destination.” Their subway train arrived and the two got on. They rode in silence, Charles lost in thought, while Jean-Pierre tried not to disturb the man. When they reached their stop, Jean-Pierre nudged his uncle to let him know they should get off. They found the exit and walked up into the sun.
Charles could see the building as they walked towards it. The facade looked the same, but that was not where the damage had been. As he got closer he could see the familiar spire was missing and his heart sank. Jeannette would be crying by now if she were here, and he felt a tear well up in his eyes. Jean-Pierre turned and put a hand on his uncle. “We don't have to go any closer,” he said quietly. Charles nodded. He had seen enough. He did not want to remember the building this way.
“What is our next stop?” asked Jean-Pierre. Charles sighed. “Pont Des Arts.” Jean-Pierre nodded, “we should turn around and go back to the station.” “No, we walk!” Charles exclaimed.
After about 20 minutes, they arrived at the pedestrian bridge. Charles walked directly over to a rail panel, searching for something. “It is here, somewhere,” he muttered. “Aha!” he exclaimed as he touched one of the locks. “Now to take it off.”
“Aren't you supposed to throw the key into the river?” asked Jean-Pierre. Charles laughed. “Your aunt told me to get a lock but didn't tell me it was supposed to be a padlock. I purchased a combination lock,” he said, pointing to the only one on the panel. “Now let's see if it has withstood the elements.” Charles turned the dial a few times and it opened. “Voila!” he exclaimed. “I can't believe I still remember the combination!”
“Why are you taking it off the bridge?” asked Jean-Pierre. Charles turned to look at the man. “Many reasons, but the main one is because Jeannette wanted me to place it in the coffin with her.” Charles then pulled a black ribbon out of his pocket and tied it onto the panel where the lock had been. Jean-Pierre leaned forward and looked at it. RIP Jeannette and the date of her death was painted on it. “Are you trying to start a trend here, Oncle?” Charles shook his head. “Again, that was your Aunt's idea. The weather will wear it away in a few years.” Charles turned and looked at Jean-Pierre. “We need to head back to your home and get ready for the Wake.” Jean-Pierre nodded and they headed to the Metro stop near Pont Nurf.
As they stood waiting for the subway train, the old man looked at the younger man, “I rather enjoy sharing these memories with you, Jean-Pierre. I think you have a greater appreciation for them than anyone else in your family. Thank you for being here with me.” Jean-Pierre nodded.
They arrived home just as Paulette was beginning to panic. She ordered the men to dress and be ready to go to the church in 5 minutes. “That is cinq minutes, not dix,” she scolded. Charles had put out his black suit before they had left and was ready in plenty of time. They then headed down to where the car was parked.
Jacques Marchand, Paulette's husband, was waiting for them in the car. Everyone piled in and went to the church.
The Wake was a struggle for Charles. The casket was left open and Charles could barely bring himself to look at his beloved, let alone place the lock into the casket. After, he talked to people, but his heart hurt so much for Jeannette. He wanted to crawl into a corner and cry.
The family drove straight home once the Wake was done. Charles excused himself and went to bed.
The next morning Charles got up, got dressed, and headed out the door. He had one more stop to make and he wasn't in the mood for conversation. He walked 1 kilometer to Champs-Elysee. Along the thoroughfare, he stopped at Ladurée and purchased a dozen macaron cookies. He then walked back to the house. Paulette was in the dining room when he placed the box onto the table. She sighed. “Those were Jeannette's favorite,” she breathed, tears welling up in her eyes.
The funeral mass and burial went as expected. Charles fought back tears as he listened to the pastor speaking in French as his beloved wife was laid to rest. Tomorrow he would be flying back home, without his darling Jeannette.