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.

About Redscylla

Stuck between a rock and a massive home remodeling project.
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9 Responses to L’Étranger

  1. She may be trying to spare her father the pain of having to deal with her dying. Or whatever drove her to move to the American Midwest is now keeping her from saying goodbye to family. Maybe she doesn’t want to see them again in this life…. It’s hard to know. Human beings are mysterious things. Our hearts are dark and complicated, especially when we don’t let others in.

    The state of California has a law that requires hospitals to have a roster of interpreters on hand to help patients and their families who can’t speak English. There’s nothing like that out there?

    This is a very moving story. I’m glad you shared it. I’m hoping now that someone comes forward to be with this woman in her last moments.

  2. Drude says:

    It’s hard to phone home from abroad to say you have cancer.
    It’s also hard to deal with a helpless and heartbroken relative while you’re in hospital yourself.
    …most of all it’s probably hard to actually fathom that this is the final it, and there won’t be a bit more time to sort things out.
    I don’t actually think I would mind dying alone, just with the professionals there and no drama. Who knows, maybe not.

  3. crankypants says:

    Oh god that is so sad. Excuse me while I go be verklempt elsewhere cuz I can’t see too well right now.

  4. Laurie says:

    Sick and alone is my worst thing, so the idea of not wanting/having someone close to me there is such a sad, alien concept. But it does make me wonder if she is estranged from her family over very difficult personal reasons and ponder over what other difficulties she might have been through.

    • Redscylla says:

      It is my and my boss’ impression that she has been estranged from her family for many years. A thing that I find heart-breaking, yet not surprising. My boss reports that Mme. Noir’s father seemed unaware that she had even been ill, let alone that she was deathly ill.

  5. lauowolf says:

    So sad.
    It is also a concern that some people feel shame or discomfort about the idea of cancer.
    I think it used to be more common, and makes no sense to me.
    But I think some people just want to hide.

    • Redscylla says:

      I do wonder if she had a very traditional Arabic reticence about womanly health matters, but another professor has hinted that there was a deep estrangement with her family. I also suspect that the factor in her refusal to contact some of her friends was denial. Until the very end, I don’t think she believed she would die, even when the doctor told her she had only hours left.

  6. brownamazon says:

    This is desperately sad. Mme Noir reminds me of a cat that slinks away to die in private. Because a solitary death is preferable to an undignified one.
    I read this post (and the following one) yesterday evening–if it had been earlier I’d have offered to help with interpretation over the phone.

  7. AuntieBellum says:

    How very sad. :(

    Although part of me (sort of) understands. If I was terribly ill, the *last* person I’d want around me is my mother. Even though we aren’t “estranged,” being around her is too stressful and emotionally draining to be healthy if I was also battling a serious health problem.

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