Editor’s Note: Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg, Florida. She writes a weekly newsletter called “My Sweet Dumb Brain.” The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Notre Dame was on fire, and I was desperately looking for a photo that I took in 2008.
In it, my husband, Jamie, is standing front of the cathedral and smiling amid a sea of tourists. He’s 23 years old, freshly shaved, and wearing a shiny wedding ring. We’re in Paris on our honeymoon, and can barely believe the good fortune of it all – being married, being in such a beautiful place, being together.
The honeymoon was wonderful, just as you’d hope any romantic trip to Paris would be. On our last night in France, we made a vow to return every five years. “No matter what life throws our way, let’s make it happen,” I urged. We sealed the deal with a toast of our wine glasses.
Our promise to return was tested in 2013. Jamie and I bought a house, and didn’t have enough money saved up to warrant an overseas vacation. Thanks to careful budgeting, we returned to Paris the following year, a victorious trip that included a dinner on Île Saint-Louis, followed by a nighttime walk past Notre Dame. I documented the evening on Instagram with a simple caption: “Tonight was magic.”
In 2018, I returned to Paris on my own. I carried Jamie’s ashes with me.
Jamie died on February 4, 2017. He was running a half marathon and collapsed less than a mile from the finish line, where I was waiting for him. Paramedics arrived on the scene quickly, but were unable to revive him. I later learned that Jamie died from fibromuscular dysplasia, a rare condition that causes narrowing and twisting of the arteries.
He was 32 years old.
Notre Dame was on fire, and I desperately want it to survive.
My 2018 trip to Paris involved a lot of walking and reflecting, trying to make sense of how my life turned out. I didn’t visit Notre Dame – a fact I’m kicking myself for now – but I spent plenty of time at Sacré-Cœur, another of the landmark churches of Paris. It’s equally stunning and similarly packed with history, meaning, and tourists.
I’m not especially religious, but I do believe in sacred spaces. And Sacré-Cœur provided the space that I needed during that trip. I found a spot in an empty pew, sat in silence, and cried. I walked through the church, lit a candle in remembrance of Jamie and other people I missed, and eventually headed outside. The famed view from the cathedral was covered in a dense fog, but I headed down the stairs anyway to take it in. I looked out on the lawn – the place where Jamie and I once sat as a newlywed couple on our honeymoon, where I would soon spread his ashes.
As I stood there, a young man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me in French, then English, if I could take a photo of him and his girlfriend. I said of course, and he whispered to me as he handed over his phone, “You shoot a video. It’s a secret. I’m going to propose.” I kept the phone as still as I could as he pulled out the ring. His partner said yes and started to cry, and soon the man and I were crying too. I handed his phone back and hugged them both, tears on all of our faces. Jamie would have loved that moment. Life, like love, goes on.
There must be countless people who carry stories with similar personal meaning and importance about Notre Dame. They probably felt sick watching footage of the cathedral in flames. They are likely reeling from the experience, trying to figure out what to do with all of the fear that they felt.
Notre Dame was on fire, and I desperately want to talk to Jamie about it.
Instead, I’m reminded once more that we can’t control things – no matter how hard we try or how much we believe. We can and should plan for the best, but we can never fully protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our loved places from the worst. At some point, we have to let go.
Jamie’s death gave me plenty of reasons not to revisit Paris. But I did anyway. Our promise to return continued on – albeit in a very different way than we hoped – and served to remind me how resilient I am. And just like they have many times before, Parisians will once again prove their resilience in the weeks and months of rebuilding to come.
I hope to visit Paris and its magnificent cathedrals again in 2023 (though I know by now not to trust that anything will happen with certainty). If and when I do return, it will be a bittersweet visit.
Everything is ephemeral, including the people and places we love. And that is the hardest thing to accept – at least it’s the toughest lesson of my life so far. Even our memories fade over time, though some of the saddest images, like Notre Dame in flames, tend to stick with us for a long time.
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But there’s hope in sadness and meaning in impermanence. There always is. As I helplessly watched Notre Dame burn, I recalled T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” a poem that’s fittingly about fire and religion:
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”
Notre Dame will rebuild. And so will I. I’ll keep rebuilding my life, too.