all the light we cannot see

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{image is a photo of the book, All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr as it sits on my writing table. More detail in the body of the post.}

May 29th

I am packing to head back to my dad and Noelle’s for what I think will be the weekend. I have no idea that I will be there for more than two weeks. And even though I know the truth of it, I cannot yet fathom that she will have passed away by the time I come back home.

It’s only been a week since she told me about her definition of God – since we talked about the vast collection of spirits that she believed was out there in the ether – waiting. A week since we’d both found so much comfort in the thought.

I try to hold my tears as I reach for the clear plastic storage bag containing my Grandma’s scarves. I’m struck by how colorful its contents are, how intrinsically (not just symbolically) beautiful. I open it only partway … slowly, carefully, gingerly. I stick my nose into the bag and inhale her smell. I dread the day that the smell is gone – escaped, as it were, little by little, with every attempt to capture it. Ironic that.

I run my fingers over the scarves. I’m only three in when I find the one. A vivid purple one that almost looks like a bandana, but wrought of soft, easy silk. I close the bag, willing it to protect its contents –  the tangible remnants of memory. I pack the scarf.

The next day

It takes me a while to find the words. And the right time in which to say them. When I do, I worry that the idea will feel hollow or trite. I plow ahead anyway.

I explain that I’ve been thinking a lot about what she said. That I love the idea that God is a web of souls, that we avail ourselves of God’s comfort until we become God’s comfort. I tell her that I know that Grandma would have wanted to be there. That she loved her so very much and that she would have wanted so desperately to have cared for her, for dad. I tell her that I can picture Grandma greeting her when it’s time, offering her a piece of pistachio cake. Telling her she’s so thin, “Eat, sweetheart,” I tell her she’ll say, “Eat!”

She smiles at the thought.

I tell her that I’ve brought the scarf. That I wanted her to have it. That it might seem odd, but it feels right. The connection. The love.

She smiles and says two words.

“It’s perfect.”

Later that week

We are sitting on the patio behind the house. We’ve borrowed a neighbor’s chaise lounge, softened it with bed pillows and arranged it beneath an umbrella to avoid the sun. We’ve made a makeshift supply station out of two small tables dotted with glasses of ice chips, iced cubes and water along with a stack of towels and an array of containers serving various purposes. My dad’s brought out two fans to offset the overwhelming heat and humidity.

Noelle is adamant about staying outside. We spend hours there together. When she wants to sit up, I sit in the chair behind her. We stay until the sun goes down and then we scramble to replace the fans with fleece and blankets. She doesn’t want to go inside.

I’m afraid she’ll balk at the suggestion, but I ask if perhaps she’d like me to read to her. I’m relieved when she says, “That would be nice.”

She tells me that there’s a book inside the house. She started it a while ago, she says, but she wants me to start at the beginning because she’s sure she won’t remember. “Light,” she says. “The something light.”

I head inside, invigorated by my mission – happy to have something tangible to do when there’s so little that can truly be done. I find the book right where she said it would be. Of course I do. In this house, everything is right where it belongs.

Everything was always, as my dad would say with a smile, “just so.”

I bring the book back with me and settle into my chair at her side. I read the title, “All The Light We Cannot See.” The title gives me the chills, but I don’t tell her that. I read the synopsis on the back:

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Dubious, I ask if she’s sure that this is what she wants to read. She nods, so I begin. A few pages in, there are bombs raining down on Saint Malo, manmade demons unleashed in a fiery rage. Death. Destruction. I ask again if she’s sure this is what she wants me to read. She nods again, so I keep at it. When I finally close the book later she says, “”Use the scarf as a bookmark.”

We read for days on end. I do my best to make it entertaining and to make the dark parts sound just a little less dark. I trip over the French words and Noelle smiles as I try three times to pronounce the long, consonant-rich German words. She smiles again when I start replacing them all with farfegnugen, Volkswagen, and wiener schnitzel. 

The book, with Grandma’s scarf peeking out of it, will be by the side of the bed the night that Noelle dies.

I will notice it and smile.

I will picture my grandma, welcoming her with a slice of pistachio cake.

“You’re so thin!” she’ll say. “Eat, sweetheart, eat!” she’ll say.

I will take the book home with me, unfinished, the scarf marking the page where our reading stopped.

I will try hard to remember that there is always a light I cannot see.

5 thoughts on “all the light we cannot see

  1. I so wish that the days I came to see her I would have been able to sit outside with her. Seeing the love that surrounded her was very comforting. She was very lucky to have you and your dad.

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