It wasn’t superstition that made me take the day off. I don’t think I even registered that it was Friday the thirteenth. I just needed a break from my regular responsibilities, among them my job at Worldcrunch, an international news organization where terrorism is a daily topic. I was looking forward to the chance to take a mental break and enjoy a leisurely lunch with a dear friend from Nashville who was in town. We met in the sixth arrondissement, where we caught up at a charming Italian restaurant near Saint-Sulpice. Afterward, we wandered over to a famous patisserie for dessert, still chatting non-stop.
It was the kind of day I almost never get to have. My friends back home imagine me sitting in cafes with a book open, or shopping along the Champs-Elysées, or kicking back at the Tuileries Garden. But life in Paris is nothing like that. It’s commuting and jobs and homework, birthday parties and laundry (without a dryer) and scooping the cat box. It’s paying bills, making appointments with the pediatrician, and dealing with surly neighbors. Sure, we’ve enjoyed much of the culture and beauty Paris has to offer, but we’re not on vacation.
Last Friday was magical because I got to feel like a tourist, like someone who could look around with a sense of awe, who wasn’t checking her watch or busting it to make it somewhere on the train. I wasn’t toting a laptop, backpacks, or groceries. I was actually wearing lipstick and trousers that weren’t wrinkled.
Still glowing from what was a nearly-three-hour lunch, I picked up my sons from school and got them home. It was the end of the week, time for pizza and a movie and relaxing. The boys had their Power Rangers marathon, and I tucked them into bed, and that’s when the phone started ringing. My colleagues were calling to make sure we were all OK, my husband’s were checking in with him, and messages from back home started flooding my inbox. We turned on the news to discover that a handful of madmen had perpetrated the worst terror attack in France in more than a decade. I watched the news and answered emails long past midnight. I finally went to bed wondering what I’d tell those doe-eyed babies of mine.
We moved to Paris just shy of five years ago because, above all, we wanted our sons to become global citizens, to learn another language, to go to school with children from countries the world over, to see more of the world than a more conventional life in the United States would allow. A job offer is what made it possible to give up an already good life in Nashville, but the most persuasive argument to leave home wasn’t the professional opportunity. It ultimately came down to our boys, the chance to give them something we never had.
But the very centrality and symbolism of Paris is what’s now making us all feel more vulnerable than we ever have. Twice in the last year, I’ve had to try to make sense for my kids of appalling violence and death. On Saturday morning they came up from their room, sweet-smelling in Scooby Doo and Barcelona pajamas, and climbed into bed for our usual morning cuddle. I was bleary-eyed, but it was time to tell them something about what had happened, which they would be hearing about from friends over the weekend and at school on Monday, when recess and the usual outings would be halted until further notice.
I’d had four hours of sleep. I didn’t have time to research the best parental approach for conveying tragedy to children, but I’d also been in this position before—my office is near Charlie Hebdo, where a brutal terrorist attack was carried out earlier this year. I kept it simple, telling the kids that some very bad guys had hurt a lot of people during the night, and innocent people had been killed. I didn’t mention hostages, suicide vests, or Islamic radicalism. I told them that they would be noticing a renewed caution at school and that we would probably be sticking close to home during the weekend. Right or wrong, there was no drama, no hysteria, no tears. I didn’t want to scare them or let them see me unsettled.
A lot of good that did. A few nights later, our six-year-old woke up and came to get a glass of water. Noticing that his dad wasn’t home yet, he burst into tears. “Where is Daddy?” he cried, sobbing and running into my arms. “Did he get dead on the Metro? Did he get dead on the Metro?”
It was heartrending. I showed him the texts saying that Daddy was on his way home, but it took a while to calm him down. We are so fortunate not to have been in harm’s way during Friday night’s reign of terror on our adopted city. But what happened here has created a lasting fear in my kids, who are way too young to have to feel it. Mind you, I haven’t said anything to them about being afraid on the Metro, which we use every day, or about being afraid at all. And that’s part of what makes my sweet boy’s panic so agonizing. It wasn’t something someone put in his head. It was his own very real and present horror.
So, yes, there is fear, and most of it is irrational. I feel it every time I hear a siren at the office, every time there’s a loud noise outside my window, and—I’ll say it—when I’m in a Metro car with a group of young Arab men. As I write these words, the French prime minister is warning of a potential chemical attack, and hospitals across the country are being stocked with the first-ever antidote to toxic gas.
But what makes me hopeful is that there is so much more here than the fear. There are the beautiful falling yellow leaves in the park where I run; the huge smile from my little guy, who just got the best grade in the class on his spelling test; the gorgeous produce at the market; and the overwhelming sense of togetherness and unity we all feel despite our significant unease.
At lunch on Monday, some colleagues and I walked over to the Bataclan to pay our respects to the eighty-nine people who were massacred at the theater only a week ago. As soon as we got there, a musician showed up on his bike pulling a black piano with a peace sign spray-painted on top. As we all gathered around, he played a beautiful rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” And there we were, “All the people, living for today.”