Mid-day I went down to visit Frenchie, our neighbor next door who had come home to die. Her daughter called because Frenchie needed to be moved and the daughter wasn’t strong enough to do it.
Frenchie is 88, a feisty Quebecois. Her husband, now gone, was from Montreal. Over half a century ago they had bought their cottage in Sebastopol as a weekend retreat and eventually moved up here. She was a devoted gardener who waged perennial war on the gophers. She held dominion over this area as residents came and went and the old Gravenstein apple farmers grew old and went on. In later years she filled her home with stuffed animals to keep her company. Her menagerie, she called it.
Frenchie lay on a bed in the living room, hooked to an oxygen tank. She still had fire in her, and when prompted she could eke out a yes or a no and a fierce yet gentle smile. You could feel the shimmering though, the giving way: her struggle was palpable. I stayed for a bit, and told her she was beautiful and strong. She was a lovely lovely woman.
It was a beautiful California day that felt to me strangely gray.
That evening Anna and I went to hear Jolie Holland at the Hopmonk. A founding member of The Be Good Tanyas, Holland came out of the Gulf Coast and her musical heritage has broad Acadian roots. I told Anna I felt so fragile, that I could feel Frenchie slipping such that any loss, even the closing of the damn record store in Sebastopol, felt like a sharp abrasion. It just felt so sad. Holland’s voice was sublime and provided some measure of relief, but nonetheless Anna and I were tired and we got in one of those kinds of fights that leave one drained and aching.
I fell asleep at home and awoke at 3 and couldn’t sleep. My chest compressed with that feeling of blank dread. I went downstairs and lay on the couch in the darkness, waiting and observing. I dreamt that I was on my way to Telluride but a snow began to fall and impeded my progress. The ache slowly dissipated. At some point I felt a release and opening up somehow and I fell into a thick slumber. At daybreak the dogs went mad with barking and raced to the windows.
Later Anna came and pulled me from my stupor. We should go see Frenchie, she said. I threw some clothes on and we walked down the road. Her son Louie stood in the dewy yard by the fence. She died this morning he told us. It’s funny, the others had all been dying lately. One 88 year old neighbor just last week. Frenchie was the last to go.
I later explained to Mazie that it’s like we’re a fabric, each person a knot of sentience in an immense dense weave. And as any one creature starts to go, unravel, whatever, the area of fabric around the knot shifts and shimmers and vibrates as that knot is unraveled into the nothingness. The description is of course not quite right, but perhaps close enough.
I lit a candle for Frenchie and let it burn for most of the morning. What is a flame, but the release of matter over time as light and heat and disintered material? A flame, be it life or fire, is again a verb, less a noun than a process. And when the time came, my breath pressed against the flame struggling to hold purchase on the wick. But the energy of the process couldn’t withstand the prevailing force which always is and it gave way and eventually extinguished. How does a flame go out? First there is the sequence of when it waves and bucks and bows. Followed by a brief flare before disappearing. The ember tip of the wick remains for another moment, burning yet before it too goes black. Then the long trail of whisping smoke that unfurls into space tracing designs and patterns until quite suddenly that too is gone. We are left with the dissipated carbon dioxide to be absorbed by plants and in quick cycle returned to life. And the inert stick of wax awaiting the next spark.