Last night we went to bed numb with shock. Not because of a human catastrophe with loss of life, but because of the loss of a monument, the heart of Paris, our Paris where we started our life together. Human tragedies draw on sympathy with the victims and their families. Grief is a sharp, stabbing pain because we are all human (whatever some people may tell us) and violent, untimely death is something we can all empathise with. Perhaps because it’s human, and we know death is waiting for all of us, the pain fades. We get compassion fatigue, there being only so much we can give to people who are after all complete strangers.
The loss of such a symbol, a jewel of Gothic architecture, the heart of Paris is different. It can never be replaced. We are all touched in the same way. There are no families who will take their grieving with them for decades to come, long after the rest of us have forgotten their personal tragedy. We, who have ever been parisiens or parisiennes, feel the loss of Notre Dame as the loss of a little part of ourselves.
For me, Notre Dame is fourteen years of my young adulthood, the place where I had my first job, where I was married. Four of my children were born at the Hôtel-Dieu whose rooms look across the river to the cathedral. I walked across the parvis twice a day, on my way to and from work, and when I was pregnant, a pew at the end of the nave by the main doors was a handy mid-point where I could have a sit down to get my breath back and watch the light falling in red and blue from those tiny pieces of heaven. One piece of good news is that, contrary to what was believed last night, the rose windows have survived, though the fear is for the fragility of the stonework holding them in place.
You don’t have to be a believer to be awed by the splendour of Gothic cathedrals, just an ordinary human being. Empty the building of the chattering hordes of tourists trooping around behind their guides and trooping out again, and we are left with jewel glass and soaring stone, vaulting too high to work out any detail, but we know it’s there, lovingly carved by some stonemason dead maybe eight hundred years since. Now, we are just left.
I cried last night. Time passes for flesh and blood, but stone and genius and beauty are supposed to last forever.