Jessica Helfand | Essays

Our Bataclan, Our Selves

Two years ago next week, I drove my husband to the hospital and he never came home. The scene that day was disturbing and unforgettable: my handsome husband, entering what appeared to be the inevitable and final phase of a long illness, slumped over in a wheelchair in a waiting room overrun by college students who appeared, from my admittedly non-clinical (but probably pretty accurate) perspective, to be just ridiculously hammered.

It was the day of the Harvard-Yale game here in New Haven, a crisp, bright autumn day. This weather, this time of year—all of it a visual trigger for me still, an emotional trigger—because this is how we remember: with our eyes first, and then with our hearts. Visual memories sear themselves into the unconscious, bearing down and not letting go. For me, a sunny and cold football day is, even now, a laceration to the senses. 

My husband died four days before Christmas, on the winter solstice—the shortest and darkest day of the year—a quiet and elegant movie star death. (The invasive treatments took so much from him, but never stole his hair.) My memories of this remain, as ever, visual and palpable, emotional and enduring. But life goes on, and with it comes the occasional opportunity to reaffirm our own odysseys. So when, after he died, a friend invited me to come teach in Paris for a few months, I leapt at the prospect of resetting my coordinates in the city where I had spent my childhood. 

Soon, I found a perfect apartment for my daughter and myself, tucked away on a quiet alley in the 11th arrondisement, with a big skylight, a quiet garden, a big wall for my studio. My father, protective and concerned, fretted openly. Would it be safe, he wondered, when Fiona came home late at night? Would we be safe? It was more than safe, I reassured him. Our front door faced the back door of a large concert hall—the Bataclan—and there were bright lights (and big bouncers) to watch over us as we came and went. 

The Bataclan soon came to be our safe place. Sleep-deprived friends arriving from the US would be unlikely to find our little street in a taxi, so we’d rendezvous at the Bataclan cafe for coffee and croissants. The seats were roomy. The wine list was solid. The duck salad was, quite frankly, out of this world. 

And now I am wondering what world, exactly, I was inhabiting—and what it is that we think of when we picture safety—how profoundly personal, even idiosyncratic it is as a cultural conceit, a religious truth,  a racial or political reality? My students at Yale have felt their safety challenged, and whether or not you agree with them—indeed, with the very premise upon which their safety-challenged argument rests—we are all of us entitled to our own version of what constitutes a safe place. 

Mine was the Bataclan—a word that will forever come to represent the loss of innocent lives, a scene of horrific carnage, a world as far from safety as it is possible to imagine. Yes, we will always have Paris. But regrettably, not the Paris we once had.

Comments [6]

Beautiful, truly . . . I called my cousin in Paris. This is what she wrote . . . . We are all okay. I walked by the Bataclan 2 hours before the shooting began. Thanks for your concern. What a terrible world. Why? Does it have to be?
Steven Heller

Perhaps it is that so many of us have such found memories of Paris that makes it an effective target. I do miss William...so glad I was able to attend the AIGA Gala that year and hear his moving speech.
Clif Stoltze

Simply stunning, Jessica.
Debbie Millman

Wonderfully written Jessica. Thank you. Like Clif said, we all have such fond memories of our times in Paris. I plan to go back many more times and never let the recent tragedy scar the memories I hold. It's truly a great city with so much to offer.
Steve Williams

Sorry to hear about your loss. I hope that the world moves on from this time of pain and finds strength again!
Nathan Davidson

Excellent post share with us and this blog is impresses more people to reading that blog.
Taposy Rabeya

Jobs | July 21