Things aren’t permanent but memories of them can be

(Sammantha Swanson DeJesus photo) A view of the Notre Dame Church in Paris from above. A portion of the church was destroyed by fire this week.

Nothing is permanent, but that doesn’t mean it ever really goes away

Growing up, there were a number of things I never thought I would live my life without. Maybe it was the fact that I was young and unaware that most aspects of existence have a shelf life, but nevertheless, I fervently ignored the concept of impermanence.

When I was 7, my cat, Tigger, was hit by a car. I can remember the afternoon perfectly. I was sitting in our living room, sun shining through the windows, playing with my mom’s Madame Alexander dolls, and as I held one up to the other to hold a make-believe conversation, my mom came in from the kitchen, and said she needed to tell me something. She told me that sometimes things die before they’re supposed to, and sometimes bad things happen for no reason.

Tigger was in a box in the back of my dad’s pickup. He had found him on his way home. I can remember seeing him, and thinking he just looked like he was sleeping, and yet at the same time, he looked heavier than he usually did, like his skin and fur were suddenly too heavy for his bones and everything was just kind of in a heap. We buried him behind my playhouse, and it was my first real experience with death.

In that same year, my Grandma Swanson died. To this day, I can still see the church and people. I can see myself stretching up onto my tiptoes to put a stuffed cow next to her so she would never be without her favorite animal. I can see myself holding my dad’s hand as we walked out after the service, and looking up at his tall frame through the dust specks floating in the sunlight, and watching him cry for the first time.

While I was impervious to the idea that certain things were not meant for forever, I wasn’t unaware of death. I had become very familiar with it in a short period of time, and in no way did I deny its existence, but in my adolescent state of not fully understanding it, I didn’t really think it applied to all things.

For some odd reason, I never thought I would outgrow certain clothes that were my favorite. I had a maroon Pocahontas shirt that I wore so much the characters on the front faded within weeks. I also had a nightgown that was Pocahontas, with fringe at the bottom that danced when I spun, and I had had it since I was 5 and even at 8 I refused to not wear it.

I believed my Samantha American Girl Doll to be indispensable, even when after years of play her cheeks had rubbed raw and her hair was so frayed it looked like I’d taken a curling iron to it and burned it. I never thought the look of my home would change — I believed that our dining room would forever stay pink and the black couch in the family room would never be replaced. I was under the impression that the rock garden in the center of our driveway would never be overgrown by earth and moss, and my wooden playset, complete with bright blue awnings and cloth swings, would never rot.

In my youth, when I realized all of these collected notions were wrong, a part of my innocence was lost. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I truly discovered that nothing in life is permanent, but when I did, it changed viewpoints moving forward. With some things, I became more appreciative of what I had because I knew that I wouldn’t always have it. With others, I was slightly more pessimistic because I didn’t want to put in the time and effort for what would inevitably no longer exist.

There are 422 steps to the top of Notre Dame. In 2013, when I’d climbed them, after my legs had finished burning and I was able to catch my breath enough to breathe without panting, I saw Paris the way it was meant to be seen. The gargoyles, while not singing and dancing as Disney had suggested, were strong and resolute in their protective stature. Though it looked smaller than a toothpick from such a distance, the Eiffel Tower still soared above the rest of the city. The blue roofs of the buildings looked gray from such a height, and for miles the bridges that connected the banks of the Seine could be seen along the winding river.

Six years doesn’t seem like long, but for me, it’s like a lifetime. In the six years since I looked at the world from the top of France’s most famous church, I have graduated with a bachelor’s degree, lived in three states, taught at three different schools, gotten married, bought a house, opened my own business, and traveled, but only within the U.S. In those six years, I have talked about my days backpacking Europe as if they were yesterday. I’ve told anyone who would listen, and anyone who wanted to hear the stories. I have yearned to go back and to show my husband my favorite haunts. I’ve wanted to sit at Café de Panis and sip coffee while eating tiramisu, staring at the glory of Notre Dame. I have wanted to go back to Shakespeare and Co. bookstore and actually play the piano that is open to the public. I’ve wanted to walk past Bofinger and laugh in reminisce of it being my grandpa’s favorite place to eat and how we’d gone three times.

I’ve wanted to go back to Ireland and show him the Claddagh in Galway and the pub with the best fish and chips anyone has ever eaten. I wanted to show him the Piccadilly line in London because I’d ridden it so religiously and retrace the steps I’d taken when I walked from our quaint motel to get to King’s Cross Station and, once there, show him Platform 9 3/4’s. There is so much that I wanted to show the people I loved.

When I saw the photos of Notre Dame burning, and watched the video of the iconic steeple falling to the ground, I felt such resounding grief that it almost didn’t make sense to me. It was just a building, wasn’t it? But it was history. It was culture. It was everything we’re lacking in this world and everything we’re forgetting to bring with us into the future. It had survived World Wars, plagues and revolutions.

People have often asked me what country was my favorite of my time in Europe, and I could never answer them because I loved each for very different reasons, but I was always able to say that Notre Dame was my favorite place. The days I spent snuggled in a café while it rained, writing through inspiration that I’d gained from walking its halls, are some of my fondest memories.

My mother climbing steps to take the perfect photo of me standing in front of the famous towers brings a smile to my face. The purple-stained glass awed me as I gazed upon it with my grandmother, and the relics from thousands of years ago demanded reverence as we lit candles and prayed. We ate at a restaurant around the corner and the bread was so completely French that while my grandpa bit into it, I had to hold onto the end and pull so that it would break. “That is real bread,” he said, but even after my family had left and I spent a few days alone in the city of lights, I found myself wandering back to the cathedral. On a day that poured rain, and fog ruled the skies, I climbed to the top.

I know death. I know transience, but even as an adult, I thought certain things would surely outlive me. I never thought my children wouldn’t see the same church that I did. I never thought that the only way they would see the intricacies of the steeple would be through the photos I could show them. I never thought that my stories could narrate an artifact that was no longer the way I’d seen it. Through the flames and ash, of the countless treasures that were lost forever in the heat, the Cross at the altar and the Crown of Thorns survived, due to the brave firefighters who made themselves into a human chain.

The world’s most iconic cathedral burned just days before Easter, but God remained.

I doubt that while Victor Hugo penned his most famous work he ever thought that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” wouldn’t have a home, but the power that the cathedral held was one that he immortalized. Life is fleeting. Every action has its equal opposite reaction, and even constants change course at some point.

We are the storytellers of what we’ve seen. Words, experience, history — we are the authors of what has been lost, and what will be lost. It didn’t die — it will thrive again — but it will be different.

I cried for Notre Dame, but I smiled because I can keep it alive. What in your life can you keep alive long after it’s gone? Don’t forget. Tell your story. Share your knowledge. Knowledge is power, and no matter how much life takes from us, we are still in control of the narrative we put forth and contribute to. Fill your life with adventures. Have stories to tell, not just stuff to show. Never stop wondering. Never stop wandering.

*To the brave men and women who fight every day, through fire and ice, we thank you, because while we can keep memories alive through words, you strive to keep them alive in actuality.

COMMENTS