Every morning, however late my uncle’s surgery had kept them up, they woke early. Neither bothered with breakfast. They sipped strong black coffee, and smoked, and talked and watched the sun rise over Brussels and over the forest to the South. She had a sleek and very sexy-looking cigarette holder back then, or she held a tiny ebony lady-pipe. An ornate silver lighter sat on the windowsill. Lovely crystal and earthenware ashtrays were always kept clean. Smoking, her way, was sophisticated. Tempting.
Uncle René was a well-known surgeon, but he refused to believe that cigarettes were bad for you. He called that theory “rubbish.” The belief that early detection of cancer saved lives was, he said, “just another one of those myths that people invent to comfort themselves.” He believed in facing fatal illness calmly. He performed difficult surgeries brilliantly, if he thought it would make a difference. Having honed his skill saving lives on the front lines of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, he scorned careful academic medicine. A surgeon must, he said, be able to keep working for twelve or sixteen hours, or through the night. The wounded don’t wait, he told me. I was ten years old then, and I have always remembered.
In the family lore, he was never wrong. We knew not to enter an argument unprepared. Most didn’t even try. He could call up facts and figures at will. Many a worthy opponent staggered, defeated, from the verbal battlefield—as I did, more than once. There is comfort in knowing he didn’t make allowances for my tender age: he treated me, at fourteen, like a full-fledged person.
In the end, his lungs betrayed him, though not with cancer. What killed him was a slow scarring, the aftermath of some infection, untreated for two years in a German concentration camp. He kept right on smoking, and coughing. It was only when a colleague brought him an oxygen tank that he stopped. He decided it would be disrespectful to continue the habit if the kind colleague believed it was harmful. In any case it seemed unwise to light up next to flowing oxygen. So he quit that day. Out of sympathy, my aunt unobtrusively weaned herself off too.
“Was it hard to stop?” I asked later. They both shrugged.
“You just set your mind to it. There are much harder things.”
It took me many years to piece their lives together. At first, I had heard only his stories, not hers. Some fifteen years after the end of World War II, I became his audience, and my young mind reeled. He was a leader in the resistance movement, captured in a “Nacht und Nebel” round-up of political opponents. He spent time in solitary confinement, withstood interrogation and torture (he taught me how, just in case). Even under torture, he managed not to confess that the man his captors were after was none other than himself, under a false name. He described the senseless brutality of the guards at the camp. He recalled how, in a drunken spree, they commanded him to perform thyroid surgery on a subordinate in their own ranks, with kitchen utensils and one scalpel. They had gambled with the patient’s life for fun, and intended to shoot the surgeon if he botched it. There are many delicate blood vessels and nerves near that thyroid gland, he said. I was still reeling with these descriptions, when he explained the mechanics of what happens to the skull, when hit from behind by a bullet.
As I was growing up, he was the one who talked, she listened. He was the surgeon, she his office manager. He spoke six languages fluently; she only admitted to French. She smiled, a gracious hostess to the animated international conversations around her table. But she commented knowledgeably after they left. Every morning, they watched the sun rise, and the two of them discussed things.
If they disagreed, she made her point, but she never argued. She allowed him to save face, even if she held enough facts to show his mistake. Occasionally, if she couldn’t get through, frustration led to a three-day migraine. In the darkened silent apartment, he would realize that reparations were in order. Their private code didn’t require that he admit to errors, only that he adjust his course.
In my early teens, I was fascinated by their radiant relationship. I took in every move, the private signals, the electricity between them. He told me once how pretty she had been. My imagination filled in the rest. “We were camping in Provence.” he recalled. “She stood there on a hill. The wind blew, and the sun shone right through her little white dress.” He grinned. She smiled in mock embarrassment.
Later he took me along on an errand. “Relationships are like a typewriter,” he said. “You have to work out together what each key stands for.” I puzzled, so he elucidated. “Different language, different keyboard.” Oh. Right. Then he added soberly: “I regret the years it took, learning to treat her with enough respect. In a marriage, you have to listen. You have to talk things out. Always.” He looked at me sternly: “Remember that.” How could I forget?
In her final years, she sits lost in memories. I listen, and she too begins to share stories. She deeply resents surviving him for 35 years. She is lonely. She smiles bravely, but her smile seldom lights up the room now. Her quiet moods are less attentive, more withdrawn.
She muses. War time. Brussels is occupied by Nazi forces. She is nineteen, she joins the resistance movement, carries messages to others in the underground. She is to be at a certain place at a certain time. Her contact will speak a code word, and she will reply with a scripted message. They use false names. If they chance to meet in the course of daily life, they make no sign of recognition. They take huge risks, hoping to sabotage the occupation. They hide someone who is hunted, though it is best not to know why. They help a Jewish family on their way out of the country. They disseminate information about persecutions and about camps.
One day, she sets out to meet her contact, wearing a flamboyant, broad-brimmed sunhat and a flowery blue summer dress. As she approaches the rendezvous, she senses something odd. Later, she will not be able to say what triggers her unease: the black car idling nearby, a facial expression, a posture? But something tells her to keep walking. She tilts the hat to hide her face, continues past the meeting place. When she has gone well beyond, she turns into a side street and looks back. The woman she was to meet is being escorted to that dark car at the curb. She will never see her again. She never hears what happened. One does not ask. For her next assignment, she has a new contact.
Soon after, her fiancé disappears. Other comrades are arrested. Executions take place, the shots of the firing squad can be heard in the early morning from behind the prison walls. But families cannot get information; it is risky to inquire. Many months later she finds Roger on a list: “Executed for treason.” Now, at least she can grieve. She tells his mother they can stop hoping and waiting.
When the war ends, she and her remaining friends try not to expect the return of their comrades. Some, they know, were deported to camps. A few came back. News spreads. “Did you hear? Someone saw my brother, on a transport from a labor camp.” There are reports of deaths. Mostly, there are unanswered questions. Then one day, at her office in the newspaper, the concierge calls: “Somebody is at the door looking for you, mademoiselle.” An apparition stands waiting, a man so thin it seems impossible that he can stand at all. Could this really be the man she dated before Roger?
“René?” she hesitates. She learns he escaped from a prison camp. The allied airplanes were circling overhead. It had seemed the area might be bombed, that the prisoners could as easily perish here, as be safely rescued. The guards became distracted and anxious with rumors of Nazi losses. So he dug a trench under the barbed wire, under cover of night, patiently over many days, with a small piece of stone he had found. And then he walked, hitch-hiked, rode on trucks and hopped on trains, all the way from Auschwitz to Brussels. He was careful to eat little of the food he was offered on his journey. He knew his starved body would not digest so much at once, that people died giving in to hunger too fast.
She has a far-off look as she remembers. “I hadn’t expected ever to see him again.” They were never apart after that. She adds: “How could I possibly be interested in anybody else, after him?”
She has a funny little smile then: “He wasn’t always easy though, you know.”
“Oh?” This is unusual.
“Well. I had to draw a line, just once. He had the odd fling when we were younger. We both did. We believed in freedom.”
She laughs at my dismay. “You young people are such prudes! But you see, there was one, his nurse. It went on too long. So I told him: It’ll be her, or it’ll be me. I won’t share. And if I leave, I won’t look back.”
“And then –?”
“That was all.”
“But after –?” I hold my breath.
She quizzically raises an eyebrow. “It stopped, naturally. He knew.”
Quietly, just like that. And she still looks pleased, remembering, all those many years later.