Inspired by a desire to sleep indoors rather than on a park bench, I called her. By some twist of luck, she had a brother who was out of town, who happened to have an empty apartment near the Bastille. I could have the apartment for three months if I wanted. At once I viewed this as both a miracle and a warning: it was the end of the list that had, in my mind, kept me alive – and perhaps the end of me.


I set off at sunrise the next morning, fed by a warm baguette and the subtle light of the city, grey turning to lemon yellow to gold. With light rain as my only company, I walked through Paris until I reached the famous pyramid, splashed with water nymphs in the form of diamond-coloured drops, surrounded by Japanese tourists holding candy-coloured umbrellas. Rain mixed with tears as I sobbed, finally allowing myself to cry for the first time since I’d forced myself off my living room floor all those years ago.

There was no need for a tour, plan or guide. Unlike the rushed tourists who had to chase down the usual suspects in between flights, I had the extravagance of time. That first day I spent with the first sculpture I saw, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Gazing at this human figure with wings, perched on the edge of a boat, I imagined her taking flight each night after the Louvre closed. And as I sat on the stairwell looking up at her, I realized that this was not the end of me, but rather the beginning of me.


The month went by slowly, like a painting as it takes shape under the hand of a painter with only one canvas and 1,000 ideas, each day layered with new colours and textures.

For 30 days, each morning I would walk through the city, stopping to buy my baguette and coffee, pretending to be offended when the waiter laughed as my grim attempt at French was replaced by sign language. Further on I’d dodge the rubbish trucks and the early morning graffiti artists to get a place in line at a bakery hidden in an alley, where I’d buy a warm croissant from a baker who smelled like cherry pie. When I’d finally arrive at the square of the Louvre, the pickpockets would smile at me in greeting, while the flower seller pushed a nosegay of bruised violets or tiny pink roses into my hands. At the entrance to the Louvre, the staff would wave me in as they squabbled in furious French with the illegal ticket-sellers just outside the doors.

After a few weeks, I could walk into the museum with my eyes closed. I knew the feel of the handrails, slightly worn yet smooth and cool. I heard the sound of the security guards shifting their feet, the hum of vented air, the sigh of shoes walking on marble. Each painting and sculpture seemed to have waited for my arrival, dressed in their finest draperies and gilded frames, like flags in an endless procession of gladness.

The women of the Louvre invited me to walk past the crowds into their private chambers. Teasing. Whispering. Welcoming. The Mona Lisa, small and stained green, her plucked eyebrows raised quizzically at the crowds who came to admire her. Gabrielle d’Estrées caught forever fondling one of her sisters, no doubt wishing she hadn’t. The Marquise de Pompadour, impossibly coiffed and powdered, permanently poised in pastels. La Grande Odalisque, her body stretched before the world, waiting for gossip and visitors. Here were women unapologetic about being women: whole, incomplete, messy, divided, fertile, plump, merchant, slave, prostitute, servant, old, nubile, lost, found, owned, free. I sat before them, held their gaze evenly, without blinking. Our stories were not the same, yet I found myself in each one of them.


On my last day at the museum, I said goodbye to these painted women, who at first had seemed two dimensional and flat but had come to life and become friends. Then I took a different route back to the apartment, and found myself on the banks of the Seine. I walked along the river, my thoughts on that woman who, many years ago, sat in a field and wrote out a list to save her life. I’d carried her list with me around the world, and as I took it out of my bag, my hands shook so badly it seemed as though the paper would take flight.

One last gesture, one last goodbye, one last promise made to that woman who was me so long ago. Her list was finished, and somehow I felt her end had come as well. I held the journal tightly and tore out that final page of my past. I folded it into a small paper boat, and set it on the Seine. It floated, small and white, like a dove, a peace offering to my old self. My eyes followed the little white boat as it moved down the river, past the barges, until it was gone. She was gone, too.

She finally got what she had wanted the whole time: to be free and not defined by cancer.

And I, too, was free. I still am.

Henry Sapiecha

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