“Yup, doing great this week. No side effects from chemo so I’ll be able to face the next session on Wednesday with courage,” replies my stepmom after I ask her if she has “the fry.”
In my little corner of the world, “the fry” matters: You either have it or you don’t, and it’s always better to have it. “Avoir la frite” is a colloquial expression widely employed in Northern France and Belgium. It means to be full of beans, full of energy.
She and my father live in Paris, I live in the Pacific Northwest so there’s currently an enormous landmass and an ocean between us.
Until writing buys me a flight, being present remains a virtual affair happening mainly one silly, encouraging text at a time.
As they both adapt to this new reality, I’m trying to be supportive without overwhelming them.
The last thing they need is an overbearing daughter monopolizing their attention therefore our phone calls are infrequent. They only happen when both my father and stepmom are at home relaxing and have the time to talk, not running from one medical appointment to another.
The nature of my stepmom’s illness is such that her diary would put a government minister to shame. There’s doctors to see and all sorts of exams to undergo, and then there’s the ongoing effort to maintain as normal a life as possible. This includes going to the gym twice a week, spending time with friends, going out for a meal every now and then, and taking the odd day trip to the coast.
A good meal overlooking the ocean makes everything better for a few hours, allowing them to regroup and recharge. They last did this shortly after receiving the diagnosis. They both burst into tears in the restaurant after my stepmom told my dad that she could die happy now that she’d seen the ocean again. It was too much for him, but as he shares the story with me a few days later, he turns it into a joke. Humor is how he’s always coped with everything, but there’s a very sensitive man behind the funster facade.
Few people beyond our immediate family know this man, but now a seaside waiter has been inducted into the inner circle, albeit unwittingly.
As the waiter said, there’s no shame in being human.
Considering the magnitude of the catastrophe that befell my stepmom and father, they seem to be coping quite well so far.
Then again, I can’t help but wonder how much of this is putting on a brave face for the kids’ benefit, my stepmom’s son and mine. Although we’re both grown-ups, our parents are still trying to shield us from worry, hurt, and a very uncertain future.
When they look at us, they see toddlers learning to crawl, clueless little creatures finding their way into the world. As a case in point, Dad refused to remove a particularly unflattering school picture of me from his nightstand for years. No matter how many times my stepmom and I asked him, the nightmare-inducing picture remained.
This was the trade-off for him agreeing to take down another picture, that of chubby naked baby me lying face down in my cot but propped up on my elbows, wearing an impish grin, and mooning the world. Or rather whatever representatives of said world who came into the living room for some 20 years or more.
My father may look like a tank who jokingly refers to his girth as “the ab, singular” but he’s a softie and one of the kindest people you could ever wish to meet.
This is why my stepmom was always more concerned about my father’s wellbeing and mental health than her own, right from the start.
“I know your father told you but he’s far more rattled by it all than I am. He’s going to need a lot of support so I trust you to be there for him,” she texted me shortly after Dad told me she was sick.
This was one simple ask and I try and honor it every day by beaming strength directly into my dad’s pocket.
Smartphones may be time sucks because notifications prompt a Pavlovian response from many of us but they’re also a lifeline.
In trying times, a handful of characters and emojis can make a difference by dispelling gloom and alleviating stress, perhaps even fear for a few minutes. The difference between a shitty day and the glow you get when you know someone is thinking about you can be as simple as receiving a text from a loved one.
Our family and friends know we care, but we can never remind them enough that we do. With current technology, there’s no excuse not to take a few minutes out of your day to send someone a little joy.
And when words fail you, there’s always cat pictures (or dogs, or birds, etc… pets are excellent stand-ins for anything that’s hard to say).
My mom and I swap a lot of cat pictures.
Never underestimate the impact a few random words can have on someone else, be it a loved one, an acquaintance, or even a stranger.
I lost my best friend to cancer a few weeks ago. We used to communicate via Skype in lengthy, asynchronous texts and chatted on the phone regularly. I miss his voice every single day and have to fight back the urge to launch the Skype app and look for a message that’ll never come.
And yet, he still shows up in the most unexpected places, be it a poem about friendship or a text that is the perfect embodiment of the person he was.
While the people who wrote these two pieces are virtual strangers, the solace I found in their words is as unexpected as it is precious, a gift.
While language’s ability to conjure up random moments of respite is often more accidental than intentional, words are the repository of our shared humanity.
As is the case with my family right now, words in text message format are love made tangible.
And they often express a wish for a large side order of fries, not just the one.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.