“Brother Antoine made a presence felt with three times nothing”

I will remember this drive for a long time, from the retirement home in Roquebrune-sur-Argens to our little house in Dieulefit. It was dark, we were at the very beginning of November 2020. In the trunk of the car, two small bags with books and clothes. For Brother Antoine, each move was an opportunity to lighten up.

I did not know that it was possible to leave an Ehpad at 97 years old. When he asked me if we could welcome him into our home, I said yes without thinking. In this completely improbable car journey, there was a wind of freedom. A risk-taking too. The management of the nursing home had been very clear: in the midst of the Covid epidemic, if Brother Antoine went through the gate, he could not come back. My old friend didn’t seem to care. After three hours on the road, we arrived at Dieulefit. He discovered his room for the first time, on the ground floor of our village house facing the street. He put down a cup, an alarm clock, a presence. Brother Antoine made a presence felt with three times nothing. He made the thickness of duration tangible, and gave the impression of looking at time as others look at a landscape.

→ READ ALSO. Brother Antoine and all the scoundrels of God

For a year, with my wife Julie and our two children, our life was organized around the presence of Brother Antoine. The preparation of meals, the daily reading of the Gospel, and our little rituals: close the curtains of his room in the evening and make him a hot water bottle, have a coffee with him after having put the children down at school. The days passed with astonishing simplicity.

When he started to lose motor skills, we asked for support from a team of private nurses, then a palliative care team. We sometimes wondered if we would be able to accompany him “to heaven”, as he liked to say. We had moments of doubt, but each time we kept this crazy and impregnable confidence. His place was there, in this room facing the street and open to random encounters.

Volunteer buried

A few weeks before his death, his condition had deteriorated sharply. Bedridden all day and all night, he could hardly drink a soup or a coffee. But his mind was still sharp and bright. He always had a phrase, a gesture, a smile, to sweep away sad thoughts. And if he couldn’t, I would call the children who came to play with his walker, sing songs and put a smile on his face. Until the end, he paid close attention to the relationship. But perhaps most impressive was its complete lack of distraction and entertainment. No TV, no radio, no music, and quite quickly no reading. Brother Antoine found his joy in what was within everyone’s reach: the daily and continuous thread of a poor and stripped presence.

→ READ ALSO. Sister Catherine, hermit: “Loneliness is a path of truth”

The last three days before his death, I slept very little. His breathing was difficult while he slept, and he couldn’t lift the cup to take a sip of water. The agony began in the morning. Julie went to pick up our children at the end of school to bring them to my parents. The house was silent. I went to rest for a few moments in my room, located just above his, separated by a few floorboards. I strained my ears. His breathing was getting weaker and weaker. I went down to him. He was calm. No more pain, no more moaning, just a thin breath like a candle flame. He began to take breathing pauses, short, and longer and longer. In these pauses, it looked like he was breathing somewhere else, in another room invisible to the naked eye. Her face changed, her eyes widened. I was reciting the Our Father, a song to Notre Dame. A tear, only one, rolled down her cheek. Her breathing stopped again. She wouldn’t do it again.

Death is incredibly simple. A breath that begins. A breath that stops. And the life that does not stop.


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