The Gift of Grief

Ex-pat Parisian Ana Eskreis reflects on a personal journey through despair to new love

I’m often told that my life is a dream: I am an independent woman in my mid-fifties living in Paris -- the city of art, lights and love.  I take engraving and printing classes at the Louvre, meet friends for high tea, and live just meters from Trocadero.

But just two years ago, the life I was leading was a nightmare: suddenly, on a cold winter evening, I lost the man, who after knowing each other many years, had became my beloved. Phillip and I found love after enduring separation and divorce from our spouses. We each had been married for over 20 years and had grown children. We had met in 1984, when he was living in New York City with his family.  After a few years, they returned home to Paris, France. We each continued our lives, immersing ourselves in our jobs and careers, all while raising our children. In late November 2003, a surprise phone call appeared on my cell phone, it was Phillip on a New York City business trip!. Neither of us aware of each other’s separations, we met again for a quiet dinner. The date lasted an entire weekend and by Sunday night, we were in love. We started “crossing the pond” once, sometimes, twice a month: London, Paris, Brussels, Luxembourg and we traveled all over France. I joined him on his business trips to Las Vegas and Honduras, and he on mine to Miami. We taught each other how to live, love and laugh again. After being inseparable for almost 8 years we planned to get married in December 2011, he never made it.

The pain of his death was so intolerable that my daily mantra became: one more day without you, one less day until we meet again. I said it over and over and over again, wanting to understand where he was, and how could I reach him. I read 18 books on grief, and past lives -- about never letting go, and finding the afterlife. I visited psychics and contacted spiritual guides; I was hypnotized and saw myself dying in my previous life. And – I saw and heard Phillip speak to me. I have listened over and again to the tape of that was recorded that afternoon, wondering if it was truly his soul embodying my mind -- or just my mind playing tricks.

After many months of mourning and searching, I realized that in order to gain closure, I had to return to Paris, his home. And so, I packed three suitcases and moved to the city where I had blossomed as a young woman, years ago, and where Phillip and I had found our love and each other anew.

Is this what do we do in our fifties to overcome grief – carve a new path, all the while knowing that more than half our life is over? 

Now, two years later, I teach English and Spanish to mid and high level professionals in Paris.  I’ve moved six times in 22 months, the first move being the one from Phillip’s apartment a few days before his funeral. Through word of mouth, I found a beautiful studio, only to learn that I could rent it for 2-3 week stints, while the fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune was not in town...but the moment she returned, I was out on the street.  These are the unknown challenges for a non-French citizen trying to find a place to live. 

So, I reduced my three suitcases to one, ventured on a road of survival while I completed the TESOL ( Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate and waited for the Editor to move out. Two more places, a few days at a friend and a weekend at the Marriott later, I moved into the place I called home for a year. I settled into an apartment in Phillip’s neighborhood, near his 90-year-old aunt; I shopped in “our market” street and ran along the Seine; I learned to accept the memories and attempted to make new ones. 

And then, love crept back into my life. My first dalliance was with Phillip’s married friend, Jean Charles. He reminded me of Phillip in many ways, and being with him made me feel closer to my lost love. My grief psychologist had encouraged me to accept all that will never come back and learn to live without it  -- although I knew I was defying that with Jean Charles, I didn’t care. 

Jean Charles was a French gentleman who had been married for over 20 years; when I asked him about his infidelities, he quoted Janus, the two-faced Greek God. In one of our last dates, he invited me to a threesome, after a wonderful dinner at a Korean restaurant with a client. It wasn’t about him, he explained, his client, a woman, loved to be watched when making love to him. That evening, I was the woman of choice. 

I felt betrayed and naïve. I realized the affair was all a fantasy in my mind. He wasn’t at all like Phillip. The truth hurt and I once again had to come to terms with the fact that what had been, was never coming back. My therapist was right. I refused to watch and ran away to the next room. I heard the heavy breathing of Jean Charles and his lover. I started to think about me, my values, the life I lead as a wife and mother in Great Neck, NY, my life with Phillip, what was I doing there? How do you react to a situation like this? The sense of time and place was gone, and I felt more alone than ever. Some books say that the spirit of a loved one is always with you. Was Phillip there? Did he see what was going on? I think that maybe he was and he whispered in my ear: be strong, wait and he will take you home, a woman like you should not be in the metro at this hour. That is what I did as I waited for my ride home, quietly, in the next room.

Jean Charles and I lasted a few lunches and dinners; he helped me find my first job and was helpful to me in navigating the challenges of my new solo life in France. I also paid for his advice with the worst lovemaking I have ever experienced and found out, that even in France, size does matter. 

It took him over a year to understand that I was not looking for an affair with a married man, and especially not with him. His best line, in broken English while switching from 2nd to 3rd gear, was: “I don’t want to compromise your freedom”; to him, the fact that I did not want an affair, was “my problem,” since he was certain that he had fallen in love with me years before, when he had met me with Phillip. I still remember his first elusive whispers in my ear at the Montparnasse Cemetery, minutes after Phillip’s burial. I had no idea what he was talking about. 

Jean saw Phillip’s death as a fateful opportunity to come onto to me; meanwhile, I was a grief-stricken fiancée with a broken heart who fell into his arms. It was a good place to go, a bit of passion, desire, and it felt good to be wanted. I could close my eyes and feel again, knowing that I was with someone I knew. At that point, it was all I needed. 

Finally, I ended things for good; the Monday morning texts ended. His last message only used the words love, kisses and my love. I will always wonder if he wrote those while his wife was sleeping next to him.

Then came Delfine. We met on a meditation walk in Parc Monceau, my first “Meet-Up” with the Paris Wellness group. Somewhere in between my fifth and sixth move, Delfine offered me a home for three weeks. Her offer was loaded: a car, a “cave” (storage) and a beautiful sunny bedroom, a housekeeper to do my laundry, a beautiful kitchen to cook in and cable TV. The apartment was decorated in red, white and black, which are my favorite colors.  After 2 years, for the first time, I felt at home. 

Delfine was a psychologist – though, as I soon would learn, she was also a master of mental manipulation. Now in her early fifties, she had been married to a very successful and wealthy Jewish plastic surgeon for years, and had 3 grown children. After leaving her husband, she claimed to have had sex with 100 men; but, when she heard that her ex-husband was engaged to a young, beautiful architect  (who may have been pregnant with his child), she returned home. While she and her husband never remarried, they agreed to share the family home and bedroom only when she wanted to be “touched” or “loved”. She also retained her own apartment, where she often sleeps with her best friend (with whom she claims to have a platonic relationship).

After two weeks in her home, Delfine told me that she wanted my soul, my body and everything she could touch and own – and that I was not allowed to say no. She kept repeating, in bad English that “she needed to fix me”.  She also kept confusing “sensitivity” and “sensibility” in English. She, of course was “sensitive” and I “Cartesian”, unaccepting of my feelings. I insisted, “No”, ‘I am being sensible!” . It made no difference, she was in love, she was hot and she wanted me. Over dinner and champagne she insisted I would fall in love with her and come to want her, as she had with me.

One afternoon, after getting quite high, Delfine pulled me towards her as she lay on the ground playing “airplane” – she asked me to “ride” her feet like a child and when I refused, she kicked and fractured my left rib. 

This was her moment in time! She explained. And then insisted that our relationship was a vestige of a past life: we were a biblical couple reincarnated – she was Adam, I was Eve (not Lilith, the woman before Eve that all men wanted) According to Delfine’s version of The Garden of Eden, it was Eve who actually gave herself as a woman to Adam. She actually believed this!…all I saw was delusion.

Finally, I moved out of her apartment; she visited me a few days later to discuss her fantasies about me and to propose a compromise: I could go back to New York to see my children a few times a year, I could be with men if I wanted, same as she with her husband; however, we would commit to each other fully for the remainder of the time. And there were perks: French citizenship, an atelier for my artwork and a beautiful home in Parc Monceau. My first chance, ever, to be a kept woman.

 

She guaranteed that I would want to make love to her for hours. Her lesbian patients had described this sustained intensity (unlike with men, who so quickly fall asleep) I would be her 101st lover, as her husband did not count.  

When I refused her generous offer, she tried to convince me that she was the physical embodiment of Phillip, and we must watch “Ghost” together at her beach house near Barcelona. I realized she was sober, and this was for real. I politely turned her down, and angry, she stormed off.

As you can imagine, we are no longer friends.

******

Somewhere around my tenth book on mourning, I read that grief can be a garden: from death and despair, new life can grow. The garden is your refuge from those around you who view your gloom as helplessness, your melancholy as weakness. But if we till the dirt of this garden, and dig deep into its craggy soil, true eternal peace can spring. 

 

I saw two films this year that reflect on this notion of rebirth after tragedy: Silver Linings Playbook and La Delicatesse. In Silver Linings, Jennifer Lawrence’s character “Tiffany” is estranged from her family, and considered crazy and mentally unstable after her husband is killed in a hit and run accident. She is not allowed to grieve – instead, her family insists that she take medication. Eventually, she finds comfort and love in a man that been through his own emotional turmoil. They find common ground in their mutual marginalization, and the medication that they refuse to take. 

Through running and dancing, they find their own garden of love.

Similarly, in La Delicatesse, Audrey Tatou plays “Nathalie,” a young woman whose loving husband is killed during his daily morning run. Nathalie’s husband had written her a poem that morning: it ended with “C’est soir, on fait un bebe” -- tonight we make a baby. In the film, Natalie is described as feeble and divine, a voluptuous incarnation of a tragic feminine creature.  Eventually, she finds love again, much to the disappointment of her best friend, a woman. She returns to her husband’s gravesite with her new boyfriend and finds spiritual acceptance. 

Nathalie, and Tiffany are beautiful, young, vulnerable and side-swiped by tragedy. Their loves were taken away, without saying goodbye. And, in their own ways, they found the garden of love once again – and began life anew.

In these last 22 months, I have felt much like these women. Phillip left me in the middle of a NYC snowstorm in January of 2011; his heart gave in and he fainted as I prepared a romantic dinner. The ambulance took him -- we never said goodbye.  At first, my family tried to medicate me, telling me to block the pain with a manicure, Xanax, and massages.I felt handicapped for months, as if I had a lost a limb, yet, I walked and moved, as if through mud and always in darkness.  But soon, even my children agreed: I had to return to Paris, our secret garden. I came back to continue our life and our dreams, alone.

 

In Paris, Jean Charles and Delfine tried to use my delicate and weakened state to their advantage. At first, I gave in to their strong wills, agreeing to sex and other manipulative behavior, much as the girls in these movies. But soon I realized that Jean and Delfine wanted to control me and own me – in my despondency, I was their prey. 

This was not the love I wanted for myself.

And then, in the middle of the only NYC snowstorm in October of 2012, time stood still again. There he was -- my new love -- in the bar of a restaurant on Broadway. We were the only two people there; he introduced himself, I put down my 18th book on grief. He listened as I cried; we left and I found that he lived on the 11th floor of the building where I was temporarily staying. It was the same building where the ambulance came, and took Phillip away.

I realized that at 54, it was the first time in my life that I ever went home with a man I did not know. I felt love again, he said he adored me, but it did not feel strong enough to stay. As planned, I packed and left not knowing where that piece of the puzzle would exactly fit in my life. 

In the last two years, I have learned that life is just a big, messy closet: we’re constantly adding things in, taking things out, hoping to fashion that perfect wardrobe. Some things get lost, others are stolen…we gain a pound, we lose ten; things go in and out of fashion. The quest for the perfect boudoir is never complete  -- and why would we want it to be? Is anything ever perfect?  

I think about this journey of my fifties – a decade that started with romance and love and became one of loss, reflection, pause, inertia, and then, finally adventure. And though these last two years in Paris were punctuated by pain, I triumphed. I am stronger for it. 

Now, just turning 56, I look to my next adventure: the blossoming of a new romance from my garden of grief – and the trek home. New York City will be home again this coming July. I no longer feel handicapped, I feel all my limbs attached (except for my still healing rib!) the mud is gone and the sun is shining my path. I have once again found that place within, where the heart aches so much from being apart from your loved ones, that you realize it is time to go home. I waited for the courage to enter that abyss again, where I would just fall into the safety net of my own inner strength. 

This past December, after many silent months, there was the snowstorm man, waiting at the airport.  On Christmas morning, as the sun shone into his living room and the red curtains turned the room pink, he asked me if I loved him. Much to his surprise, I told him yes, that I once did love him but that now, I had actually fallen in love with him. There never is an order to things and nothing is ever perfect, but, as my new universe begins to unfold, I look forward to the next phase, in the pink room. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born in Argentina, Ana Eskreis is a US citizen, an Architect with a masters degree from Columbia University and owner of RAMax Studio, an Architecture and Design firm in NY. Bi-lingual in English and Spanish, and fluent  in Hebrew and French, Ana holds a TESOL Certificate worldwide....