"Le temps faut du temps" - French proverb
"Where did he go? What happens after death?"
I will not detail the thought process that lead to my present beliefs on death and the hereafter. I want to record only what I observed and finally came to terms with : the physical disappearance of Jean-Alfred.
I knew where the physical remains were -- in a wooden box in the family plot, in a marked but unlined grave. We mourners had each tossed a rose into the grave before the undertaker's crew shoveled dirt onto the coffin. The cemetery is located near the canal that facilitates shipping on the Rhône River - a 53-kilometer cut through flood plain fields, channeling barge traffic around the rapids churning at the base of the cliffs known as the "Défilé de Donzere".
I often walked the canal towpath as far as the barrage. There is a nuclear power plant, Tricastin, on the opposite bank, located in the Département of Drôme. Its twin silos dominate the skyline. The Vaucluse side of the canal is rural and peaceful. Otter splashed into the water as I approached; once I saw a fox in the raspberry brambles. Traffic sped by at 140 kph on the A-7 superhighway, just 500 meters to my left. On my right, flotillas of ducks and loons fed in the shallow water.
If I continued south beyond the locks, there was a road which spanned the A-7. I could climb the road bank to the bridge and cross the highway. The cemetery was on the other side; often I would visit Jean-Alfred's grave before walking home through the village. I knew I would not be in France forever. When I left there would be nobody to take care of the family plot; Jean-Alfred had been the last of his family. The graves were covered with marble chips. I wanted to seal the entire plot with a solid marble slab before I left, but I had to wait for the fresh grave to settle. Jean-Alfred had died in September; the surface of the grave did not change during the winter that followed.
There is little snowfall in the Vaucluse but the Mistral blows incessantly. The Tricastin is not located where it is by pure chance. It was the first nuclear energy facility in France and was built at that particular spot in the Rhône Valley because that is precisely where the Mistral is the strongest. Winds reaching 160 kph are not uncommon. It was felt that, should there be an accident at Tricastin, the north-northwest winds of the Mistral would blow the toxic fumes into the foothills of the Alps where the population is relatively sparse.
I walked the towpath restlessly during the winter following Jean-Alfred's death. I walked south with the Mistral pushing at my back, returned in a northerly direction bent against the force of the wind. I visited the cemetery. Jean-Alfred was still there, still silent. Often I had the dogs with me. Snoopy peed on the grave (Jean-Alfred would have laughed), but Toutounette remained serious. Jean-Alfred had named her - "nette" to femininize "toutou".
Spring came, as it always does. My almond tree was a glory that year, masses of creamy white against the clear blue sky of Provence. The irises seemed to have doubled in number since the year before. They bloomed in their usual order - first the short, dark violet ones, then the pale purple giants, almost four feet tall.
The dogs and I changed the direction of our daily walk - we roamed the "petite colline" behind the house, climbing steeply to the ruins of the prehistoric village of Barry. From there, 300 meters above our more recent village dating to Roman times, I could look out over the entire valley. The canal, the Rhône, the A-7, the railroad with its TGV -- everything is funneled through the valley. From the heights of Barry I could see our village, my neighborhood, my house, the cemetery.
I went back to the cemetery one day. Jean-Alfred had been buried with his mother. French government regulations allow two coffins in the same grave, the first beneath the second. They also state that after twelve years the space occupied by a coffin is "freed". The clerk at the City Hall had told me that they would "move his mother's bones to one side" to make room for Jean-Alfred so that, "later, perhaps, someone else can be buried there - perhaps you would like the space for yourself."
Now the surface of the grave was flat. Spring rains had leveled the mounded earth. Heavy rains, an unlined grave, a wooden coffin. So -- the process had started for Jean-Alfred, too. I thought about the rain leaching through the earth of the grave, water pooling in the bottom of the coffin, infiltrating still lower into the soil. The cemetery is near the canal and near the Lez, a small river that half-circles the village. The Lez drains into the canal, the canal goes back into the Rhône, the Rhône ends in the Mediterranean Sea.
I thought about that often during the summer after Jean-Alfred died. I thought about various waters flowing to the Mediterranean. I thought about water evaporation during the hot, dry Provençal summer. The Mistral continued to blow, moving across the surface of the canal, pushing clouds over the Alps. I thought about an infinitesimal drop of fluid flowing to the Mediterranean, riding the Mistral, soaring over the Alps, descending again as rain.
September came, the first anniversary of Jean-Alfred's death,then the dreariness of a wet Autumn in that sun-drenched country. I was driving north on the A-7 one day, returning home from Avignon. The Mistral was gusty, playful. It slapped a handful of wet leaves against the windshield.
Is that you, Jean-Alfred? Is part of you in one of those leaves, are you the rain?
Snoopy died first, then Toutounette. I buried both of them under the almond tree. I began spending time away from France. I went to the cemetery whenever I returned. Finally, on one visit, there was a depression in the surface of the grave; the lid of the coffin had collapsed. I ordered the marble cover for the family plot.
I no longer live in France. I still think about currents of air flowing throughout the atmosphere. Jean-Alfred could be anywhere.