The man who sells me ham is the first person who would notice if I were dead. Experience supports this claim.
When my grandmother died unexpectedly three years ago, I left Paris for the funeral without warning any of my local shopkeepers. This led my charcuterie salesman to believe that I myself was dead.
Alarmed by my continued absence, and aware of my daily dining route, he hurried across the street to my wine guy to see if he had any news of me. I’m the human equivalent of a stray dog who wanders from shop to shop in search of whoever will give me a snack.
My wine guy hadn’t seen me in days either, so he called my friend, who explained about the family emergency. When I finally returned from Boston, there was no need to explain where I had been; the whole neighborhood had been alerted. And they turned out with hugs, condolences, even chocolates.
The ham shop is barely larger than a coffin and stacked floor to ceiling with pig parts. I come for the Snowballs, baseballs of sausage stuffed with black truffles and coated in Parmesan cheese. I stay for the company.
The ham man is the biggest ham of all. He knows about every bad date I have. He even gave my phone number to a stranger he thought I would like. (I didn’t.) Ours is not exactly the normal relationship between a shopkeeper and patron, but then again, not one of my food-based friendships is what you’d call normal.
I Snapchat with my cheesemonger. My barista lets me sneak in last night’s open bottle of Champagne to wash down my morning doughnut. My chocolatier’s daughter studying in New York has my sister’s number in case of emergencies. I have cried into my wine guy’s sweater more times than I can count, most recently when he moved away and I felt as if someone had cut off my limb. Where would I drink and weep now? At home, like a normal person?
My cousin was shocked last fall when we walked into my other wine shop and my wine seller, Patty, who is also an astrologer and tarot reader, said that she had been debating whether to call me about something she had seen in my astrology chart.
“Your wine seller has your phone number?” my cousin asked.
Of course she has my number, I thought. How would I be able to confidently make terrible life choices if my wine-selling astrologer couldn’t reach me?
How have I made all of these food friends in Paris? I compulsively seek out people who are trapped behind counters and forced to listen to my tales of woe. I show up at the same places and overshare to people who are paid to be pleasant to me until they develop a form of Stockholm syndrome that makes us friends.
It was startling to realize that my ham purveyor is a more consistent presence in my life than any friend, family member or romantic interest. Sometimes, I think I need to make some lifestyle changes so that the first person who would realize that I was missing or dead is not the man supporting my ham habit.
Other days, when we’ve had a good gossip and I’m stuffed full of charcuterie and he has given me a pocket sausage for the road, I think I’m doing it right after all.
I used to be able to count on my mother to be the one to track me down in the event of my untimely murder; lord knows she has imagined plenty of gruesome ends for me. I can’t tell you the number of times that public safety officers showed up on my doorstep in college because I hadn’t returned her calls swiftly enough.
Now, she doesn’t know how to call my phone number in France. She struggles to put on her seatbelt. Her brain and body (and seatbelt) just don’t click in the right way anymore.
Two months after I moved to France, she learned she had Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder. My parents told us on Mother’s Day. By us, I mean they told my two sisters in person and then, as a family, called me on Skype. Throughout that conversation, my mother’s concern was not for herself or her future but for me, because they were together to process the news while I was alone.
It’s her greatest fear: one of her children, alone. A fear I have exacerbated by moving overseas. I didn’t come here for a relationship; I came for a job. And when that job ended, I stayed, much to my mother’s chagrin.
To others, my life in Paris must seem fairly perfect, all croissants and long walks along the Seine. What people don’t see: my chronically ill mother sobbing into my neck and begging me not to go. Me getting on that plane anyway, convinced I am some kind of monster.
“I have only have a few more good years left,” she says, and it’s poignant because it’s true. My friend Katie’s father found out he had Parkinson’s roughly seven years before my mother, so her family serves as a bellwether. Katie constantly reminds me to appreciate these moments because these are the good years, while the medication still works.
Or mostly works. Last year, during three months of tonsillitis, I stayed with my parents in Massachusetts for medical care. I had a prescription nasal irrigator that required mineral water. When I requested that my mother purchase some, she proudly returned with a case of carbonated water. I had said “mineral,” hadn’t I? She failed to see why sparkling mineral water was a problem.
Yes, these are the good years, I had joked to myself as I waterboarded my sinuses with San Pellegrino so my mother wouldn’t feel bad about her brain’s inability to put all the pieces together.
It’s dangerous to define a person by disease. She is a person with Parkinson’s, not Parkinson’s itself. And by all evaluations, she’s doing fairly well. She was able to dance at my younger sister’s wedding last October. She got to be at the wedding in the first place. Not everyone is so lucky.
And yet, the pain of watching a parent unravel, the grief, amorphous and real, of missing someone even as they stand beside you, takes its toll. I am losing my mother by inches. She’s not here. She’s still here.
However hard it is for us to watch this new reality, it’s even more difficult for her to experience it. Despite this, we have been able to maintain a gallows sense of humor in an attempt to productively deal with our pain. For the biennial Parkinson’s Walk done in her honor, my sister named our team “The Movers and Shakers,” because if you can’t laugh at your mother’s neurodegenerative disease, then what can you laugh at?
When I was back in Boston recently, I stopped at her dry cleaner. Seeing that I was alone, the dry cleaner quietly asked if there was something wrong with my mother.
“She’s been coming here for the past 16 years and has always been so bubbly,” she said. “But now she asks me the same question over and over. She’s slow and careful when she takes out her wallet to pay.”
I explained about Parkinson’s and how there can be a dementia component for many people.
She nodded. “You don’t need to worry about your mother here,” she said. “We will always take care of her and help her get home.”
Her offer was so kind, I later cried in my car. It’s a constant concern of mine: Who will help her when I am not here? The same concern, I imagine, that she feels for me. Who will help me when she is not here?
My ham man, I want to reassure her, although I doubt that charcuterie holds much solace. You don’t need to worry about me, I want to whisper. I have created something from nothing here. I have willed a way of life into being. I have found kinship networks in France that nourish me.
“My mother was my first country, the first place I ever lived,” the poet Nayyirah Waheed once wrote. My mother will always be my first home. But I have learned a second language, a second culture. I have learned how to build a home for myself in the world, and I have learned to be at home within myself.
It is not an easy choice to build a life apart from the people I love. The only explanation I can offer is that maybe this is what I have been doing all along, looking for the people who will help me find my way back home, wherever that may be.
Catherine Down, who lives in Paris, is a food writer completing an essay collection about dating, dining and questionable life choices.
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