There are eight good reasons we call the building where I work Brain Tumor Hall, but we might just as accurately call it Cancer Hall. Besides the brain tumor five offices from mine, there is also the thyroid cancer in the office next door, and the breast cancer at the end of the hall. That’s the reason I’m writing tonight.
We’ll call her Mme. Noir, and she has been in the United States teaching French for the last twelve years. Over the last two years, she has struggled with breast cancer under conditions so private that until a week ago, only my boss and I knew. And only then because she’d needed us to do paperwork to do with her need for sick leave. Everyone else in the department knew only that she was “ill.”
On Monday, she went into the hospital because her lungs were filling with fluid. At that point, other people had to be involved. I had to scramble to find substitutes for her classes, and we needed people to visit her, because my boss was overwhelmed. She gave us permission to tell a few people she felt closest with. People she hasn’t felt close enough to to tell until now.
My boss asked her repeatedly if we couldn’t contact friends or family, but Mme. Noir declined. No one.
On Thursday, the doctor told Mme. Noir that she is going die, and quite soon in his estimation. Her lungs simply aren’t working anymore. A machine is pumping oxygen into them, but they can’t process enough of the oxygen into her blood.
Again, my boss asked her to give us information to contact her family or friends. No.
Tonight, the doctor said, “It’s a matter of hours. She’ll lose consciousness and then she’ll suffocate.” My boss relayed this information and repeated the request to contact her family. Mme. Noir gestured for her pen–she can no longer speak. On the paper she wrote a phone number and the words mon père après. My father after.
There she lies, dying in a foreign country, surrounded by, at best, kind-hearted acquaintances, and she only wishes her family to be contacted after she is dead. The hospital has overridden her directive to wait until after, and my boss is tasked with the call that will still come too late. At this late hour, they can’t get another French speaker, and Père Noir, in Morocco, speaks only French & Arabic. So my boss will call, and Père Noir will come, but only in time to claim his daughter’s body. All she wanted from him, it seems.
I try to imagine how painful it is, to go to your death without anyone you love or anyone who loves you by your side. I wonder is she without loved ones altogether?
It is a reminder that what we see of others may be nothing like reality. Mme. Noir is a gorgeous, elegant woman of 42 (my age), with a lyrical laugh and a quick wit. Black eyes, black hair, and as many black clothes as I have. I always imagined a long string of lovers waiting in the wings, and yet they are nowhere to be seen. She lies dying in Kansas with only her boss to witness.
As crazy as my family makes me, I think at least if I were dying, my sister would be there. Someone who knew me, at least. So tonight, I think of Mme. Noir, and hope that whatever becomes of her next she won’t be alone.