This is a true story about a French man who died at an airport, but he didn’t actually die there. You don’t die in flight; you die in peace and solitude and on your own. You die with rose petals placed on your forehead and sheets wrapped tightly around bones and loose leaves passing for skin as you slide down a chute and come up a tree or a shrub or a long lost ancestor going the other direction. You die in a house surrounded by strangers or family or both, surrounded by white shirts then street clothes then black shirts then black. You die alone because you never lived alone even when you were barely alive, even when your only friends were the strays and leftovers and hitchhikers and nomads and other transients regardless of hair. This is a true story; Marcel died at an airport but he left in a house.
Early last year, Marcel made his way to the airport somewhere outside of Boston—if you count Logan as outside of Boston—and Marcel had home on his eyes, two contact lens, one with an Eiffel tower, the other refusing to stay a moment longer. Not that he didn’t enjoy the U.S., but France was the homeland, his first love to which he needed to return. He loved France, he needed France, but America wasn’t this barren wasteland that a less-traveled European might lead you to believe. America was a beautiful land, he would tell his wife, really though the fat fucks get a bad rap, you would think it’s a wasteland with a constant buzz of bullets and buckets of KFC handed out at every terminal, but no, there are lakes and rivers and mountains and gorgeous cities and deserts and valleys and peaks and horizons over blue as long as the eye can see. The sun still rises, the sun still sets. The colors of the flag are in a different pattern, but there is still beauty in this other land.
Marcel stopped coming to America for business years ago. He used to spend extensive time—weeks, months, one time almost a year—as a financial analyst and specialist for foreign markets. American corporations paid top dollar for Marcel’s extensive knowledge of European trade regulations and patterns, dollars Marcel earned. Economics were not just a job for Marcel, they were a passion; he loved reading the Wall Street Journal, Britain’s Financial Times, Asian circulations such as India’s Economic Times and Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun; he played both small and big markets, throwing dimes both small and large at fruitful and rotten endeavors; money was Marcel, and he consumed the ghosts of past failures and dropped seeds for future crops.
When the companies stopped paying for Marcel’s flights, he chose to come stateside, dipping into his own pockets. A man must be traveled, he thought, a man’s heart echoes to an engine and his brain thinks on a passport. Or his heart pumps fuel and his brain thinks that the 7:10 to Reno is a solid choice. Or his heart pumps and his brain thinks or it forgets and keeps on beating a different song. A song that called for movement. Or a song that asked to stay. But there was a song.
Bones and skin do not travel. They wait to stop. Marcel only embodied bones and skin, his mind was sinew and hard muscle, not a hard head but a head that could stay hard, a crack on the skull that leaked all the colors of the flags that fly on well-traveled ships, a forehead you ski down slalom-style, a nose that has smelled the perfume of every pretty girl which looked away or back or down upon the reflections of pennies lost and francs learned, ears that heard sirens and wails and shrieks and mon dieus, a chin you could crush a nut with, eyebrows that crawl along the steps and stoops of narrow roads and smaller rooms and bigger issues smaller people did not account for.
Bones and skin do not travel. They travel in the back of black limousines with the upholstery on the outside. Marcel does not know American customs, does not understand Southern sensibilities or Northern hey fuck yous. Marcel is a foreigner and never intended for a domestic death. But Marcel does die. Marcel dies at the airport.
And by death I don’t mean the moment, but the moments before the moments. The first time you realize it, you’re laying in bed asking, “Is this it? Shit shit shit!” but Marcel did not have a word, he had a cold, which turned into a flu, which turned into facedown on the tile as a rush of He’s still breathing billows over an Adele track that is number 247 on the playlist. Or maybe there isn’t a playlist but a station, but there’s still a playlist, there is always a playlist. There is always a predictable series and while not always in sequence, the series begins and ends and you’re listening and you’re not. Marcel was listening and then he was not or he was but it was the blur of a car buzzing past or a plane landing on the tarmac with a skid and a crash and a Welcome to Boston. Marcel was listening and then he was not conscious and he left the airport dead but still very alive.
For as much time as Marcel spent in the states, he never truly made a friend. There are acquaintances, business relationships, and friends, but never truly a friend, never someone who says Marcel it’s so good to see you, or If there’s anything I can do, please let me know. When you pass out on the floor of the bathroom of the airport, they don’t like shoving you on a plane, but they don’t like sticking you in a hospital either, and if you have no friends you’re dead, you’re dying and you’re dead and there is a home nearby, the social worker said. She said, It’s cancer, or rather she said, I heard it’s cancer, the doctor said it’s cancer, he does not have long to live. Marcel never stayed on top of his ailments; a man’s man, or rather, he was not a burden. But death does not care how tough you are, death arrives as a bump deep in your colon and spreads to your fingers and toes and eyes and shoots out the mouth like the loudest silent scream you never heard.
Marcel, you do not have much time. You have no money, you have no one here, and we cannot put you on a plane. There is a hospice house in D.C., Joseph’s House. They will take you. You will die there.
A social worker is not so blunt, but you cannot dress up a death note. No matter which suits or silks he wears, death comes cold and often without a call. You have no money, Marcel. Marcel was lucky. He received a telegram while on the toilet. Marcel—not looking good. Perhaps you should sit down for this. And he laid and may have broken his nose. It’s hard to say. His nose is classically French, but he still laid out on the tiles with no look of life in his eyes and a note that says Marcel—not looking good. Perhaps you should sit down for this. But Marcel did not sit, he laid on his face and maybe broke his nose and a social worker later told him Marcel, you do not have much time. You have no money, you have no one here, and we cannot put you on a plane. There is a hospice house in D.C., Joseph’s House. It is hospice in the most hospice way possible. They will take you. They will give. As will you.
Marcel arrived with an oxygen mask on his face. Marcel will die with that oxygen mask on his face, but this is not the first time for Joseph’s House. This is a home for the sick, this is hospice for those who don’t or won’t or can’t have a bed. Late-stage AIDS patients end up here, and they die, but they do not die alone, along with the late-stage cancer patients who end up there too, but they do not die alone, they die in a bed with a cat or a moth or a woman who lightly touches your hand as you watch a show on the back of your eyelids or as juices trickle from the corners of your mouth, holding on for no reason but instinct and last breaths and stages of grief.
You have no money, but what about my investments? What about my accounts? You have no money, Marcel. You may not be Marcel. You are a kid in Provence, a city in the south of France that still keeps a wall, even if just for appearances. You are a kid in Provence before kids in Provence stuck gel in their hair and wore tight zip-up tops. You are a kid who chews on persimmons as he lies in a bed, you chew persimmons and the nurses hear you in should-be-better-English mumble.
Can you get me a persimmon?
And when the dying who never ask ask, they get what they want. The nurses called around the city looking for persimmons—it’s not like you can just find persimmons at any store. But a Whole Foods had three. Three persimmons for Marcel. Joseph’s House can’t promise you Cary Grant or Farrah Fawcett, but ask for something small and they will work like it’s something big. The dying never ask for the moon. A child only asks for dreams. The older you get, the more you want memories, not impossibilities. Or you want to color your memories, paint in and out of the lines, or tape-in lost lengths of film to the reel.
Two nurses sat with Marcel, waiting for him to wake up, with a few persimmons in tow. Marcel had not been in Joseph’s House for long, and his diagnosis did not allow him to make plans. You do not come to Joseph’s House for a resort, or to make plans, but there is spiritual cleansing. As much as you don’t want to believe it, a house of the dying is not a sad place but a holy place in a truly agnostic way. Whatever your god may be, whoever he or she may embody, if she may be anything at all, she will always walk with you through the doors or gates or into the pits or wherever, she will walk with you until she stops and you feel her leave and you turn around and she’s gone and you’re gone and gone. The two nurses sat with Marcel, a few persimmons in tow, waiting for him to wake. Marcel had not been in Joseph’s House for long, and no one stays in Joseph’s House for long.
After a few hours, Marcel opened an eye. The whizzing of the oxygen machine sometimes shook him awake, but mostly Marcel stayed within dreams. Marcel, would you like one? A nurse held out a persimmon. As a child Marcel would’ve snatched the fruit like a fly from sensei’s palm; now a smile remained hidden behind fatigue. Yes, he said, or thought through his eyebrows loud enough for the nurses to hear, and maybe the smile showed through, and the nurse cut a piece of the juicy persimmon for Marcel, and he took a bite and they took a bite and in silence the three of them chewed on persimmons. The nurses enjoyed the flavor, the texture; they enjoyed sharing something special with someone who was special because everyone is special, and anyone and everyone who comes to Joseph’s House is special and given the attention that the lonely and alone and dying need. Marcel tasted a final stroll through the back yard of his grandfather’s vineyard. Little legs dashing about as the adults sipped something red over quiet or less-quiet conversation. Plates piled with fruit and vegetables and persimmons and cured and dried meats sat on a table and between games of tag or whatever he did as a kid—he can’t remember, the dying can’t remember it all—made him hungry and persimmons always sat on the table. Persimmons always bled into Marcel’s mouth, but he was not a lion ripping into a zebra, he was a mouse biting cheese, he is a rabbit nibbling a carrot, he is seven-years-old and too old and—
Please, leave me be.
Because it’s hard to go back and remember when you won’t have many memories left. It’s hard to be a child when you’re so firmly in the moment, when you are so stuck at a number that does not rewind. It’s hard sitting with two nurses who are there because you will soon not be, it’s hard knowing how fickle life is, it’s hard to not live with regrets. Did I say I love you enough? Will my children remember me when they are in a bed too? Did I have children? What did I have? And you have nothing because that’s what life is, you only own what you own until you are gone and then you own nothing because death does not allow a carry-on.
After persimmons, Marcel drifted back out and the nurses lingered until they drifted out as well, and Marcel drifted. Marcel met a love, dated her, married her, had four children, then died, or Marcel bit into a brie-on-baguette, or Marcel spent time on the Mediterranean with friends chasing what dogs chase, or Marcel shook the hands of a boss and a boss and a boss and said thank you, said I’m privileged, said to be a man is to support, said I love you, Marcel saw the mountains, Marcel met no one and died in that crash, Marcel drew on a cigarette, exhaled, inhale, you’re doing good honey I can see his head. Marcel was young and old and Oh god how did I end up here? but you don’t end up, you get down to business. Marcel had business and needed to get to the airport—he’s late. But you’re never really late, eventually you will get where you need to go.
Marcel came back and opened an eye and a nurse softly touched his hand. On the drift the nurse’s hand was his mother’s crossing the street looking both ways, or Renee in Nice with her top off and glasses on, or his sister in the cancer ward, but it was not the nurse’s. On the last bed you ever sleep on, you will dream and you will drift, and when you come back and realize that the bed is not the dream, you will try to shake out of it. You’re hurt so you know it’s real but how can you end up flat in a bed? It must be a dream, please let me wake up, please don’t let me wake up—
Marcel, are you ok?
Mom, please don’t let me wake up, how did I end here? The persimmons, I don’t remember them so dry, they were juicier, sweeter, bigger, there were more, but no one hears this, mon dieu, am I talking? Two nurses sit and stare at me, but they are not nurses. All I can taste are the beaches and summer suits, gin and tonics on red-eyes, the air, oh God the air. Mon dieu.
A nurse grabs my hand. This time I do not pull away. Mon dieu, I think, and my lips try to form the words but the persimmons, I don’t want to lose a drop of the juice.
We’re here for you.
There’s no rest for the weary, but I don’t want to rest. Please, let me go. Let’s go for a walk. The juice. Mom, can I have a napkin? Merci. Please God, give me mercy. There are no more persimmons left. I love you. My flight, it’s late, please God, mon dieu.
Marcel wasn’t here for long, but we felt him every second. We could feel the pain, to be lost in a foreign land. We could feel his heart go when we fed him. It hurts to know we couldn’t make it easier for Marcel. It hurts to know there is nothing we could do to make him happier, that you can only take so many bites out of a persimmon. Mon dieu.