The note made the pit of my stomach churn. Suddenly, it wasn’t something that happened “over there.” “Over there” was now “over here.” I re-read the email note trying to mentally absorb the details.
I am Thérèse friend. She was badly hurt in the metro attack. She's just back from hospital, she will be at home during many months because she's partially blind. She can't read or write at all, she can only see shapes. It shall take many months to recover vision. Thérèse is really sorry not to be able to
communicate with you for the moment. We are full of hope, everybody is so kind with her. ~Pierrot,
I first met Therese five years ago on a health website where people wrote in their health questions and other people responded to them. As a nurse, I responded to inquiries when I could offer some help, advice or information. One of the responses I gave was to one of her health questions. She was struggling with a devastating autoimmune disease and arthritis. Once she complained of pain in her hands from typing all day. You probably have a carpel tunnel syndrome, I suggested to her. It turned out to be true. “If angels exist,” she wrote back, “they are American: you are my angel, always reliable and helpful.”
I soon discovered she lived in Brussels, Belgium. Having visited there a few times while researching my book, I was curious to keep in contact with her. After a while she offered to help me with some of the research details I needed while writing the book.
“How far is the street Edith Cavell lived on to the Tir National prison?” “What church bells would Cavell be hearing from her home?”
“I don’t understand the physical layout of the Senate building. Could you please explain it to me?”
Over the last five years, we developed a wonderful correspondence. I learned that she worked as a legal secretary for an American legal firm. She was fluent in four languages. In her spare time, she loved creating art. Her drawings were unique, whimsical and fanciful – a mouse balancing itself on a branch, a lizard with a tail that curled all over the page. They were wonderful!
We learned from each other. She tried to teach me some French phrases (I wasn’t very good at it) and I taught her American slang. We compared types of food, customs, and even politics between the two countries. She amazed me with how insightful she was with American politics but sometimes my explanations left her baffled.
“Sometimes, your country looks like Alice in Wonderland to me- not very real.”
I learned that she came from a family that inherited an estate that included a stately manor house set on a beautiful setting that included a pond. During holidays, she would send over pictures of the formal dinner table shared by her family. There were crystal glasses, gold eating utensils and gold-rimmed plates under exquisite crystal chandlers. It looked like a scene from Downton Abbey.
But Therese moved away from all of this to become independent. Over the years she sent me pictures of her tiny apartment saying “my feet hang off the end of my small bed.” I remember how excited she was to find a new larger apartment. She loved it because it had “trees on the street and a small balcony on which I can grow plants.” But now all of the sharing of each other’s lives has been shattered by a terrorist’s bomb. He didn’t know Therese. Nor did he care that he blinded an artist and crippled a legal secretary who struggled for control over her own life while overcoming health issues that would put most of us in a nursing home. She had nothing to do with the politics of her country. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The thoughts of her injuries are wrenching to me. She is frail, thin and delicate. I am frustrated that after all we have shared, I cannot now help her. I feel as though, I too, am a victim of this terrorism.
“Très amicalement,” she often signed off.
“Be well and be safe,” I often wrote back.