four days in paris

It was not a mid-life crisis. I felt very comfortable with my career and my family. I felt completely at peace with who I was – who I am – as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, physician, and human.

It was that I felt unlinked. Disconnected from myself. In being so many things to so many others, I needed to rejoin all of these elements of myself and remember who I was – who I am – at the core.

To do this, I needed to be alone.

In early January, shortly after the new year, I traveled to Paris for a solo vacation. I was only in Paris for four full days, but those days were fulfilling in a way I had never imagined possible.

I began contemplating the idea of a solo vacation about a year before. I do a fair amount of travel for work – committee meetings and medical conferences, mostly – and I’m typically alone for these. However, my work trips are not vacations, and any free time is typically filled with networking or catching up with friends. My days are structured, with committee meetings and working lunches or dinners, or with conference sessions in chilly meeting halls, one after another. Often, by the end of the day, I’m ready to order room service for dinner and not leave my hotel room until the next morning.

With the encouragement of my husband, I booked airline tickets to Paris. He didn’t really understand my desire to travel by myself, but he knows that, unlike him, I am an introvert and that I cherish being alone.

I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport at 6 am on a Thursday morning. It was still dark as my driver navigated the highway and then the streets of Paris on the way to my hotel on Rue Saint-Sulpice in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We spoke about the workers’ strikes that had been going on for weeks and the difficulty getting around the city since they began. In one neighborhood, vehicles were forced to drive slowly through a group of protesters soliciting donations from the drivers of the cars attempting to pass. My driver rolled his window down and passed some bills to a man with a megaphone. This elicited cheers and we were allowed to pass.

Like that first drive into the city, so many moments from my time in Paris are ingrained in my memory of those four days.

the hearing

When the man in baggy orange prison scrubs and handcuffs shuffled into the hearing room, I looked down at my hands in my lap. I took a deep breath and focused on stopping my handwringing, on staying calm. The bailiff seated him on the opposite side of the table from me and then returned to his position to the left of the judge, seated at the far end of the T-shaped table arrangement. I sensed the prisoner’s eyes on me, but I could not look at him. I felt nauseated just being in the room with him, and I didn’t want him looking at me. My attorney, seated to my right, reached her hand under the table and patted my leg, offering this small measure of comfort. It helped, knowing she was beside me and had this all under control.

The prisoner, in his mid-50s, was disheveled, with a long, thin face framed by shoulder-length brown hair that looked as if it had not been washed in a week. It probably hadn’t, as he’d been in jail since his arrest one week earlier for violating the temporary injunction order that prohibited him from any contact with my mother. This man was one of the two men who moved onto my mom’s property shortly after my grandmother died in March 2018. The second man would be brought into the hearing room soon, once this first part was over.

We were sworn in, and the judge began the hearing. She read the details of the injunction to him – a final injunction for protection against exploitation of a vulnerable adult. He mumbled his consent to it and an apology, but I continued to look only at the judge or her clerk. The clerk occasionally looked my way, and I believed I saw compassion in her eyes. When the judge stopped talking and paused to sign three copies of the injunction order, the man spoke again, clearly directed at me this time, not just to the judge.

He told me he was sorry, and he said it several more times, in slightly different ways. I ignored him. He was speaking, these apologies coming out of his mouth, but I did not look his way. I could not look at his face. I pretended he wasn’t speaking, wasn’t even in the room. My heart raced and my breathing quickened. He continued to apologize as the bailiff led him out of the room. When the door shut behind them, I let out a sob and covered my face with my hands. I will not forget the judge getting out of her seat and walking to the adjacent bathroom I had not known was there to grab some paper towels. I won’t forget her kind smile as she handed them to me.

One down.

The second man, B, was soon escorted into the hearing room, taking the prisoner’s place across the table from me. For this hearing, though, my mother wanted to be present. As the victim – the vulnerable adult – she was allowed to there, but the complicating factor was that she liked this man. He was her friend. He took her places and had the only vehicle on the property. He took her out for lunch and for drinks. She wanted him to stay.

i let it linger

I remembered the show when I opened my phone’s calendar to check my meeting schedule for the afternoon. Friday night at 7 o’clock, I had three tickets to a show at the university’s Performing Arts Center. I had a sinking feeling, if for no other reason than I had been imagining how nice it would be to get home from work, change into my pajamas, order takeout for the family’s dinner, and not move from the sofa until it was time for bed.

Halloween had been the night before, and it’s always a huge event in our neighborhood. I’d rushed home from work in time to help both kids into their costumes and set up the candy dispensing station on our front porch: rocking chair positioned in the center, just at the top of the steps, a small table nearby piled with a pillowcase filled with a few bags of candy (with extra bags stashed nearby), a bottle of hand sanitizer (because a trick-or-treater’s mom asked me for some one year), a handmade “OUT OF CANDY” sign, and a roll of scotch tape to use to hang the sign at the end of the night. And a glass of wine. Trick-or-treating started a few minutes before six, and for the next two plus hours, I handed out multiple pounds of candy, one piece at a time, to a parade of costumed children and teenagers and parents of bewildered infants in strollers.  It was a lot of fun but exhausting and a bit overwhelming for this introvert.

On Friday, all I wanted to do was hibernate, and I began looking forward to this after my first two meetings at work that morning. Until I checked my calendar and remembered the show.

I sighed, gave myself a pep talk – you can do this, you’ll have fun, it’s only a couple of hours – and made peace with the idea of going out that evening. I could relax after, and I could sleep in a bit on Saturday. It would all be okay, I told myself.

I’d bought three tickets to the event months before, after showing my son the brochure for the upcoming season of events at the Performing Arts Center. He plays trombone in his middle school band, and he was interested in hearing bands with a trombone player. I’ve learned from him that the trombone isn’t often highlighted in a piece of music, and we have encountered this when we’ve tried to find sheet music that features the instrument. We read the description of the band in the brochure – Sammy Miller and the Congregation – and we both noticed that the jazz band had a trombone player. I bought the tickets as soon as they went on sale – one for him, one for me, and an extra.

One of Oliver’s friends, another 7th grader who plays the tuba in the same middle school band, joined us for the evening. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect when we sat down at a little cocktail table to the left of the stage. It was crowded – everyone had clearly arrived before we did – and we’d taken three of the last open seats in the darkened performance hall. Oliver and his friend were the youngest in the audience, and I may have been a close second.

We weren’t sure what to expect, but when the music started, what we got was magic.

As the band played and entertained the audience, I looked around the room and watched men who could have been my father’s age nodding their head in time with the music. An older woman with white hair and hearing aids tapped her hand on the table to the beat. A couple who had to be in their 80s smiled and swayed in their seats, moving their upper bodies in synchrony. My own feet were tapping on the floor, and I couldn’t will them to stop. I also didn’t want to.

The trombone player had some solos during some of the songs, and I sneaked looks at Oliver during these. He watched the tall musician intently, a faint smile just beginning to turn up the corners of Oliver’s mouth. He was captivated, and because he was, so I was also. I was filled with a sense of joy in that moment – in so many moments over the 75-minute performance – and I silently kicked myself for my earlier hesitation in attending the event.

I kept thinking, as the toe of my boot kept the beat of the music, and as I saw the joy on the faces around me, that my father would have loved this. My father loved all music, and he loved listening to live performances. I have memories of him with his eyes closed, face turned heaven-ward, listening to an album in our living room, smiling to himself during a particularly intense guitar riff. He would have loved sitting in that performance hall with us, and he would have been so proud of Oliver for his love of music, for playing an instrument, for wanting to attend a jazz show with his mom.

When the set ended, it was hard to stop smiling and feeling that joy that had so permeated the room, an intangible presence that I could feel in my heart and in my soul.

So I let it linger.