It was eight years ago when we met Nicole. We had just moved into our newly acquired property à la “Little House on the Prairie” in Provence when she appeared in full gardening gear: a hat, a pair of gloves and a muddy pair of boots.
She introduced herself as our neighbor down the road, and she was raving about the miraculous efficiency of that electric mosquito killer in a bottle. We have never lived in a mosquito-infested area of France and certainly have never heard of mosquito terminators powered by electricity!
A few days later, we were at her house for an apero (short for aperitif where light alcoholic drinks and snacks are served), just the four of us: our husbands, myself and Nicole. Inviting newcomers for an apero is the French traditional way of welcoming new friends and neighbors. We were, in fact, already invited by all the neighbors.
She was the first French person I have ever met to express such avid interest in a country that she had never heard of: the Philippines. Reaching for her rarely opened World Atlas, she asked me to show her where this strange-sounding country is located while my husband recited his usual lines: “… composed of 7,100-plus islands, has some of the best dive sites in the world, boasts some of the best beaches on the planet and so on and so forth.”
She had the sweet power of persuasion who, when my husband and I tried pushing our caravan to the far corner of our property, not only came to our rescue, but also managed to summon all the men in the neighborhood to give us a hand, well, in fact, several pairs of hands!
Later on, she would drop by our house to give me cuttings of her plants as she knew my passion for gardening and how my excitement level would shoot up every time I visited her garden and would go wild whenever I saw her colorful blooms whatever season of the year it was. In return, I regularly gave her flowers from my garden, neatly arranged in a vase, before going away on one of my husband’s work assignments.
Two years passed and we did not see her anymore. Then one day, we stumbled upon her husband who told us the shocking news. Nicole had cancer and had undergone major surgery to remove 90 percent of her intestines.
Pale and weak but still a fighter, she went on with her life, even enrolling in a watercolor painting class in town. She invited us again to her house where she proudly showed us her paintings. For the first time, she ushered me to her bedroom where around twenty or more of her works were kept; few of them hung on the wall and the rest, stacked against it. With her widest smile, she flipped through the canvases so I could scrutinize them one by one. Her style was definitely abstract as I had to struggle to make sense out of each artwork, although I was particularly impressed by her use of colors; rich hues of blue juxtaposed with specks of chaotic colors! Lovely!
Then, a couple of months later, her cancer turned for the worse. An ambulance would pick her up each day to travel the four-hour return trip to Marseille for her chemotherapy sessions. She tried to put up with the treatment and put on a brave face. She even squeezed in plane trips to Brittany in the north of France for a change of climate. She never really complained and was always very positive about life.
We went home to the Philippines that Christmas, promising to show her some photographs of our trip on our return in February. Her husband told us that she was looking forward to seeing them in her hospital bed.
Alas, she will never see any of these photographs. That Sunday, she passed away peacefully in the arms of her husband. Although we expected it to happen, it was nevertheless a terrible shock for us!
As I try to put together all the stories Nicole told me about herself, I realize that she had lived a meaningful life despite all the odds. Looking back at that time when I was in her bedroom, the rich colors of her paintings probably conveyed her feelings. Despite the certainty of imminent death, she was at peace and enjoyed the last few moments that she had left on this earth.
She had definitely made a deep impression in my heart. I always take things for granted, getting up each day with no clear agenda in mind, moaning at every insignificant discomfort, still subscribing to the old Filipino syndrome, the mañana habit, where I tend to postpone doing things indefinitely instead of finishing the task today and be done with it. We only live once and we are not sure for how long so we must treat each day as precious and stop wasting time.
Nicole, such a very strong woman, loving life till the end.
May her soul rest in peace.
(In remembrance of the 2nd death anniversary of Nicole)
(Note: This story was published on Philstar.com on 19 January 2010)