Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

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The Hamilton soundtrack has been in heavy rotation in our house for several months now, partly in preparation for a planned Broadway adventure on Lili’s upcoming birthday – but mostly because it’s awesome.  Lili digs the varied genres of music incorporated into the score, I enjoy the history and creative wordplay.  Two songs have felt particularly poignant to me this week, their theme and lyrics aligning with some unsettling news I’ve just received.

“Let me tell you what I learned, when I was young and dreamed of glory: you have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

Two days ago, I learned that my first love, Stéphane, died in early August.  Before delving into all that was stirred up with his passing, I would like to clarify something: I am married the love of my life, and would not trade him, our life, and our kids for anything or anyone in the world.  Some people never get to experience the soaring highs of love, so I am immeasurably grateful to have been lucky enough to fall deeply in love twice.  With all great love of course comes the potential for loss, which I am discovering is acutely painful even decades after believing a door was securely, if reluctantly, closed.

Stéphane and I first crossed paths soon after I arrived in France.  We had overlapping social circles, mine consisting predominantly of academic expats, his an eclectic group of native Parisians, primarily artists and musicians.  Although not completely proficient in each other’s first languages, we had people and music in common, and it was there that the foundation for our friendship was created.  We were both in relationships when we met, which put us at ease, neither needing to prove anything or attempt to impress the other.  So for many months, we just talked.  And talked.  And walked, and talked.  And double-dated.  And debated.  And developed our own glorious form of Franglais to bridge the language gap…

…which one day I realized had disappeared, as had our respective boy- and girlfriends.  And so it was that we became us.  For the next three years we forged an intense but respectful and beautiful partnership.  Our backgrounds could not have been more different, but rather than creating a great divide, our life experiences provided each of us with things to teach the other, a new lens through which to see everything from produce to architecture.  On vacation in Aix-en-Provence, I once marveled at the structural brilliance of a cathedral, proclaiming it magnificent.  Steph squinted up at the 1st-century Roman and Neo-Gothic elements and commented that he saw nothing lovely about it.  I was incredulous until he explained: he saw a massive building constructed entirely by hand using impossibly heavy stones which had been rolled and carried uphill by poor laborers.  The naive white-bread American girl saw only what she’d learned to identify from one semester of Paris Through its Architecture vs the self-made French student of life, whose lens had not been as rose-tinted as mine.  These differing perspectives never caused tension between us, though – quite the opposite.  

We were far from finished learning from each other when I graduated from college, but with my diploma came the issue of legal residency and employment.  In order for me to remain in France, I either had to find a company to sponsor me, or marry a French citizen.  Being bilingual or a native English speaker was not a rare commodity in France, tens of thousands of U.S. expatriates lived in Paris the year I received my diploma.  Further dimming my professional prospects was the fact that France could easily source English-speakers from Britain, which was part of the European Union (and therefore free of the paperwork, fees, and general hassle of hiring an American).  Stéphane generously told me he’d support anything I wanted anywhere that I wanted it, but I could tell he was wavering.  Six years my senior, marriage meant something bigger and more concrete to him than 22-year-old me was able to wrap my head around.  We both acknowledged that a lifelong commitment was a pretty big leap to take.  For the entirety of our relationship, we had not needed to depend on each other for housing or income, let alone citizenship.

With my heart in my throat, I returned to the US and a pattern began.  Steph would come to visit, we’d decide it was crazy to be separated, I would move back to France.  He would waver, I would feel guilty and leave.  Rinse, repeat.  Eventually I accepted a job in Philadelphia, applied to nursing schools, and committed myself to moving on.  We closed the chapter we’d co-written, reclaiming individual authorship. After a brief period of silence, a warm correspondence began.  Sometimes light, sometimes funny, at times devastatingly raw, we shared our lives with each other, first via handwritten letters, then emails, and eventually social media messages – about which he teased me mercilessly.  Did I meet my husband on “le Facebook?” etc, etc.  Over the last several years, communication on both ends tapered off a bit.  Not for lack of affection, but we were busy living our lives.  I was juggling a new baby, new house, multiple jobs.  Though unsure why I heard from him less often than I once had, I took for granted that, like me, he was simply immersed in day-to-day activities.  It never occurred to me that our last exchange was just that: our last.  It was standard fare, I asked him the address of our favorite off-the-grid restaurant for a friend visiting Paris.  I have never entertained the idea of a reunion with Steph, instead I happily pictured him thriving as someone wonderful’s kickass husband, becoming the fantastic father he hadn’t known.  Even if I’d long accepted that we would write our own life stories, I am finding myself grossly unprepared to shift all thoughts of him into past tense.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote: “Death doesn’t discriminate, it takes and it takes and it takes and we keep loving anyway, we laugh and we cry and we break.”  Death took Stéphane, and we will cry, and we will break, and we will keep loving him anyway.  Although I can’t control the circumstances – that I live and he died, I am able to tell a bit of his story.

Stéphane Faidy was born 22 November, 1969.  A sweet, sensitive and impy child, he was the class clown who somehow managed to be fresh and insolent without disrespecting his teachers.  He was left-handed, had enormous, dark eyes, and a heart as big as the sky.  He was patient, kind, and gentle. His friends called him Grand Steph (because there was also a Petit Steph), or Fanou.  A creative soul, he could pick up a pencil and effortlessly draw people, places, cartoons.  If armed with a camera, he’d capture a moment from the perfect angle and at the right time.  Steph had wide-ranging and eclectic taste in music, and was a virtual encyclopedia of sports, history, and music trivia.  He was honest, and he was fair.  Fanou believed in the inherent goodness of people, but could smell bullshit a mile away.  He was released from (at the time, mandatory) military service for appendicitis that he didn’t have, without repercussions but also without his appendix.  He was keenly aware of the haves and the have-nots, but did not waste time complaining about circumstances, rather he tried to improve them both for himself and for others.  Stéphane loved football (what Americans call soccer), cycling, Coca-Cola and his Maman – though not necessarily in that order.  He found a way to infuse humor into every tough situation.  Paternal but never patronizing, he mastered the role of everyone’s big brother.  Steph was the most devoted of friends, he never forgot a birthday, or a story he’d been told – no matter how casually.  He could always be counted on to answer his phone regardless of the hour.  He smiled at babies and stopped to pat dogs in the street.  He was the first to give up a seat on the Métro for an elderly or pregnant woman, or a child.  He held the door.  Always.

From Fanou, I learned to get out of my head, plant my feet on the ground and live in the moment.  To trust my judgment of character.  To trust in general!  He taught me to use the subjunctive tense, appreciate a good stinky cheese, and be an active listener.  He showed me the importance of identifying and embracing new perspectives, looking through different lenses.  To give back, because no matter how little I might have on a given day, someone has less.  He was – he is – my best example of genuine kindness and a generous spirit.  His most important lesson: what matters most, what endures, is not what one person has to offer another, but what two people create together.

I struggle with what transpires after the death of the physical body, but feel strongly that it can’t simply be over.  Stéphane’s light shone too bright to be extinguished in an instant, his life and lessons too substantial to be reduced to a canister of ashes.  Although he doubted the existence of heaven, I hold tight to my belief that it exists, because I plan to see him again one day.


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