A Visit to Montparnasse

I came to revere some of my long dead heroes—Beckett, Colette, Maupassant, Man Ray, Baudelaire, Brancusi, Serge Gainsbourg—but did not expect to feel grief. Not my own, but that of an elderly woman in a sky-blue checked suit, bent over a mossy, concrete tomb, clutching her rosaries, her weeping face hidden in her hands. Though I’d seen a few nontourists filling watering cans, sweeping away moldering leaves, arranging fresh bouquets of flowers, their actions seemed more a ritual than an expression of loss. If I’d been a more courageous photographer, I would have moved closer, filled the frame with her private grief. But I can’t do that anymore, not just because I’ve grown more cowardly, but because the intensity of her grief was so palpable I did not want to risk violating it. It awakened fresh memories of my dead father and how I had not wept for him, hadn’t felt like it. I missed him, despite my complicated relationship with him, but the loss was not inconsolable like this woman’s. Perhaps it was a sister, a child, a husband, a lover that lay in that tomb. Or perhaps she suddenly felt that soon she, too, would be inside that cold box beside the one she grieved for. As dozens of visitors wandered through the grid of graves, cameras and maps in hand, I began to feel the indifference of time. What would be written on my grave? Would anybody really grieve for me? Would there be money to pay for my plot’s upkeep? What’s worth leaving behind? Death is an enormously powerful equalizer.
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