Samer could not remember its name. “Google ‘deadliest brain cancer’,” he said, as the other half of the table debated how many pavlovas to order. “Read me the first description that comes up.”

“Glioblastoma,” I read, “or GBM, is one of the most complex, deadly and treatment-resistant . . .” It felt incursive to continue, a trample on the polite hedges of dinner party talk. Oh, is it the one with the specialty bar? The one where Rachel tells Ross? The one that leaves you with about a year to live?

“Go on,” Samer said, with a strange half-smile I would come to identify as relief edged with regret, the sweet recollection of a word, grating against the bitter aftertaste of its meaning.

Samer’s cancer is like all cancers in that it pitches the self into a battle against the non-self, atavistic alien cells invading their host from within. But it is unlike most cancers in how directly this cellular plunder correlates to the personal one. Memory, language, attention and cognition all erode to ultimately leave you somewhere east of your prior self and west of someone new. It is like all cancers in that its lexical field is that of topography, malignancies spreading, diffusing and gaining ground. It is unlike them in that these movements are finally technical, gears cramped within the clock of a terminal diagnosis.

Of all glioblastoma patients, 75 per cent die within the first year; 95 per cent within five; and an anecdotal, ill-documented 1 per cent appear to live more than a decade. About the members of this miraculous 1 per cent, Samer — a former banker, Financial Times reporter, finance professor and, above all, a disciple of abductive reasoning — has two hypotheses. The pessimistic one is that an intern forgot to log their deaths; the optimistic one, that they died on vacation overseas.

My mother had been chopping onions when she broke the news of Samer’s diagnosis. In retrospect, my lag in grasping the realness of her tears augured my difficulty fitting the man I knew almost as an uncle, wise and witty in radiant colour, to that gauzy white world of scans and gloves. As a child, our relationship developed mostly around family meals, where I skulked by the grown-ups’ table with his baby daughter in my arms under the delusion that what the adults saw was a fellow member of their special cohort, rather than a child carrying a slightly smaller child. But as I grew older, Samer had become someone who told me which novels to read (Cormac McCarthy’s); someone who explained compound interest to me during tearful post-exam phone calls (I should have deducted the principal sum); someone I hounded for details about the extreme childhood he’d shared with my mother and her siblings in war-torn Beirut. (They did not realise, at the time, that it was war-torn; it was just childhood.)

Over time, Samer’s illness had somehow “elevated” him for me. Looking at his grey, moon eyes set on the absurd chasm of his fate, I felt like he must now know things the rest of us not only didn’t, but which existed in a plane of conception we could not access. I approached him shyly at family gatherings, with the sensation that he’d moved out of our understanding and on to some distant plane of profundity. I resisted the urge to begin a sentence “life is . . .” and wait for him to finish. I hung on to every word he said; I hung on to his food order.

Presumably, this was why Samer noticed my scribbling that night as he ordered the tiramisu we’d decided to share. “I’ll write it a hundred times on a piece of paper,” he’d said. “Glioblastoma, glioblastoma, glioblastoma. But as soon as I’m done, poof, it just disappears again.” There was something about that image I wanted to capture, perhaps its echoes of academic punishment, so cruelly on the nose. Or perhaps it was Samer’s manner when he spoke, eyes blinking rhythmically like an invisible waltz was playing in his mind and he was finding it hard to focus on both ballrooms at once. Before I could figure it out, Samer cut in. “Still taking your notes?”

I flung my notebook shut, half-expecting to be told off for stealing. Instead, Samer proposed a collaboration. He’d been trying to write about what he was living, he said, but words had been resisting him.

“Together, maybe we could write an . . . a . . .” he said. “Not a message.”

“A log?” I ventured.

“No, the thing strangers read, that’s shorter than a book.”

“A story.”

Samer made a face.

“An article?”

“Yes, super. We’ll write an article. An article, super.”

Our tiramisu arrived, and we tuned back into the others’ discussion about cyclists. But it felt like something real had been agreed between us. Samer had a tender, two-handed way of passing me the plate, as though he sensed I would not dare reach out across the table and still the quiver of the cream with my spoon.

Later that night, a spell of claustrophobia briefly came over me. I had never written a story whose shape I already knew I hated. A bulky cone, squeezed too early into its end point, the opening sentence a death sentence. How might Samer and I open out the time he had left, move from the narrow meaning-making channel of the patient’s case history to that more nebulous material, the beautiful shapeless expanse of a life? It felt impossible, glassed in the ugly glossary of . . . glioblastoma, glioblastoma, glioblastoma.

But “super”, I thought, turning Samer’s word around and around in my mind like the first measure of a song.

© Molly Fairhurst

And so our strange work together began. If we talked about Samer’s prognosis, it was only ever at an angle, from the position where his sense of humour and my embarrassment intersected. Samer’s natural instincts against solemnity were probably the reason why our deathbed get-togethers never got solemn. But it also helped that we did not get together at a deathbed. We got together at restaurants, down odd quays of the Seine until we resurfaced on the other end of the city, and at one particular café that seemed to share our unspoken belief that main courses are simply desserts’ appetisers. Whenever we got too close to numbers talk, or used the term “per cent,” we ordered chocolat liégeois, and the feeling of sugar coming closer returned us to ourselves.

Sometimes I was vaguely aware that Samer and I did not look related in the slightest and felt an urge to explain our situation. But what would I say? On a bad day: “I am taking notes on a man dear to me, with no clear goal beyond recording the final months of his life.” On a good one: “Do you think if the details are all assembled, a real pulse and sense of person will come through?”

Our case was not helped by the fact that, whatever archetypal image one had of the cancer patient, withered or stoical, spent or weary, Samer did not accord with it. Even foggy from the chemo and dampened by the memory wells, he had the sharp features of a philosophy professor, Persian and timeless, the reason students hopped on desperate bikes to make it to class mid-snowstorm or, more likely, mid-Metro strike. Even the purple cast of his under-eyes made him look like he’d been discharged less from a medical establishment than from a French royal portrait hundreds of years ago.

And yet Samer had been discharged from a medical establishment. After growing memory lapses, most conspicuous during his finance lectures at the ESCP Business School, things came to a head one evening in early 2022 when his wife Isabelle asked for his thoughts on an email. Samer could not discern any words, only idle black forms silhouetted against the white glare of her phone. By the time two paramedics arrived in their blue costumes, Samer was asking Isabelle which duo would be playing the cowboys and which the Indians.

In the months that followed, Samer learnt that his tumour, that day, had swelled so much that it was pounding his brain against his skull. He learnt that he had about one or two years left to live. And he learnt the misleadingly pretty word “astrocytes”, which referred to the star-shaped cells behind his cancer’s tentacular form. He underwent a craniotomy that carved five centimetres off his brain, along with weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, knowing all the same that the cancer would eventually recur.

In parallel to that anatomical drama, a spiritual one unfolded, the innermost threads of his selfhood beginning slowly to fray. For two days following his operation, Samer could remember neither Isabelle’s nor his daughter’s name, a nightmarish blur of a time during which he locked himself away to hide like a fairytale monster retreating into the forest. “It was the worst period of my life,” Samer told me. “I thought they’d be better off mourning me quickly. How could I raise my daughter if I couldn’t even remember her name?”

Even later, once the worst of the surgery’s aftermath abated, there were smaller, symbolic defeats. One afternoon, Samer took his daughter to the bakery for an after-school pain au chocolat. The prices were laid out side by side behind the glass pane: €1.10 for a croissant, €1.20 for a pain au chocolat, €1.30 for a pain aux raisins. But when Samer tried to add up his euros and cents, the numbers were only the wet smell of metal in his palm. Eventually, he splayed all the chips out on to the counter and let the cashier sort through them.

“Thank God no one talks to strangers here,” Samer said, imagining the exchange he might have been made to endure had this little scene occurred someplace like Beirut.

“Oh, you’re a professor? And what do you teach?”

A beat.


Words were even more precious to Samer than numbers. And these, too, were being cut. That was Samer’s term for it, “cut”, and its rustle of evocation of the mother tongue was apt. One scenario the doctors often warned him about was that his French and English might erode over time until only Arabic remained, a possibility he and Isabelle, who does not speak Arabic, tried not to dwell on beyond the occasional riff about which of Samer’s childhood friends they would pick last to be a live-in interpreter.

That Samer, a life-long reader and writer, could lose the languages he read and wrote in was unthinkable. He still quoted Cormac McCarthy to me extempore, and I began to get the sense that this was as much to promote my literary education as to protect that layer of his brain against thieves by keeping it active at all times.

“Essentially, my memory is like an onion,” Samer explained. It was one of numerous similes conjured by medical professionals in recent months to help him comprehend the incomprehensible. Samer’s memory was like an onion, his neurologist said, whose outer, newest layers were being peeled away. The oldest would go last. His marriage was like a daisy, his therapist said, whose bright yellow centre was the raising of his daughter, holding together the various petals of his romantic life, even as the cancer picked at them. Occasionally these images helped. More often, they simply reminded Samer of his eviction from the blessedly prosaic world where onions tasted great sautéed in butter, and daisies were just the common lawn’s uprising against the mower.

“Only one exercise has really helped,” Samer told me one time late last September. It was the first sunny Saturday in Paris in weeks, and we sat on one of those peeling green park benches. Minutes before, Samer had painted for me the scene of his departure from Beirut in 1983, eight years into the war. The yellow school-bus, nearing the bend of his building; his mother on the balcony, tracking its approach; between them a large tank where a militiaman stood guard. A hooded figure leaping on the tank, throwing in a grenade and closing the hatch. The militiaman aflame, thrashing and screaming, before finally going still. Samer’s mother looking from the cadaver to Samer, from Samer back to the cadaver.

Those three figures — the mother, the boy, the burning corpse, locked on the moment that sent Samer’s mother packing him into a new life — were still suspended in my mind, overlaid only thinly by the colourful playground actually before us. “This is the exercise,” Samer interrupted. He took a sip from his ayran. “First you take a dark image. Then, you slowly, very slowly try to make your way to a brighter one. For example, my dark image is of my family grieving. I imagine my daughter confused and small before a coffin, my wife hiding her puffy eyes with sunglasses, like she did the day after we received my prognosis.”

Samer pulled out his phone. “And then, here’s my happy image.”

It was a real picture, in fact a video: Samer’s daughter swimming among sharks on a trip they’d recently taken to the Maldives, one of many memory isles Isabelle had arranged since his diagnosis.

The key to the exercise, Samer went on, was precision. It was not any conviction in the second image’s higher truth, or any protective reflex against the first image’s darkness, that would succeed in displacing the mind from one frame to the other. Rather, it was the sheer push of one’s focus, the pressure and pull towards detail required to make the image come to life.

“I love that video,” Samer said, “because at first you only see the sharks, almost menacing with their cutting fins. But then my daughter floats down into the frame, and suddenly they look completely different, almost like angels guarding her.”

He pressed pause. “And all the while I know Isabelle is right there, behind the camera, holding it steady.”

© Molly Fairhurst

October. Seeing the word materialise suddenly on phones, menu slates and bank statements felt like an aggression. Time had taken on a scant quality since Samer and I started working together, and “October” was thick and undue, like the midpoint of a certain kind of film when a ticking time bomb is introduced to keep the audience awake.

It was, in any case, in October that Samer began doing offhand maths on his time left. Perhaps it was fitting, having spent a career in finance, that he should venture into this new puzzle using the language of prediction, speculation, brokering. Now Samer would occasionally set his fork down mid-meal and begin finger-counting. “Maybe I will make it to five years,” he’d say. After all, he was on the younger side and had gotten a craniotomy as well as chemo-radio-therapy, where many patients only got a biopsy and were sent home. He was surrounded and loved. When he’d managed to go skiing last year, his neurosurgeon had christened him a “career first”.

“Actually, four years,” Samer rectified a few days later over ashta and pistachio ice-cream. He reckoned that the surgery had removed 3.5 more centimetres from his brain than the typical 1.5. “That’s perfect minus one, so let’s say four.”

Another time, recounting the doctors’ advice on what words he and Isabelle might use to tell their daughter about his illness, Samer said: “It was a very long discussion.” The medical team eventually landed on the technical blanket term “glioma” to protect Samer’s daughter, by then only nine years old, from cancer’s universally morbid overtones and glioblastoma’s terrifying Google search results.

As for Samer and me, I began to suspect we had also developed our particular kind of medical euphemism. “Maybe that’s the note we should end the article on,” Samer would tell me, nodding towards my notebook. “That, ultimately, this is a terminal illness, and I’ve probably got about a year left.”

“For our deadline,” he would propose, “how about February of 2024?”

Another time he paused by a lime tree and said, “And really, I think that’s the final paragraph of the article: that there is that 1 per cent. There are those miracles. And why not me?”

We kept on walking, eventually finding ourselves in the warm alleyways of the Marais with their medieval stones, charred safe by the passage of time. Suddenly, Samer stopped on the sidewalk, gasped and video-called my mother. I looked behind us and saw a small speakeasy-like joint whose frontage read, in coy cursive letters, Chochotte. On the glass door, carmine-painted portières teased the grey sculpted sketch of a naked woman.

“The first strip club your mom ever went to,” Samer offered by way of explanation as the phone rang.

My mother covered her mouth when she appeared on-screen. “No! It still exists?”

As soon as she’d landed in Paris, she told me, to keep the shock of having definitively left Beirut at bay, she’d called up Samer and said: “Well, what’s something we never got to do during the war?”

When I bid Samer goodbye that day it occurred to me that what had started as an unusual sort of autopathography had turned into friendship. I suppose a good word would be “anamnesis” from the Greek meaning “remembrance”: both a patient’s account of his medical history and a recollection, a bringing up of memories. It was Samer who’d taught me that word, before his words had begun to fade.

But this was an atypical sort of anamnesis. “Try asking your mom,” Samer sometimes said in response to questions about his childhood he could not recall the answer to. Or asking his cousin Ziad; or my mother’s twin, Biba, or her husband Erik. Over time, the instructions started coming from Samer directly: remind Biba to send you the letters we wrote to each other after the war — there are hundreds of them. Isabelle will tell you about my Paris-to-Beirut motorcycle trip and how she joined me in Venice and Istanbul; Isabelle will tell you about my parents, about my career, about our daughter’s school friends. And in this manner, writing Samer became a group project of sorts which, if it blunted no one to the harshness of the exercise, at least coalesced over time the isolated fragments of his life on top of an immovable bedrock of tenderness.

“Maybe we could write many articles,” I said to Samer one morning. There was too much I wanted to record: his torrid adolescence between war and exile; the dreamy tales of his cross-continental biker adventures, safeguarded by Isabelle to transmit — the tales, not the motorcycle — to their daughter; his time reporting on the nascent eurozone from Paris, London or Brussels, glittering years at the fold of European economic history that he described as the happiest of his career. And then there were the small things, too. I’d recently noticed that Samer always looked skywards whenever he was about to say “no” to something, as if checking up to an invisible mezzanine for a “yes” someone might have forgotten there.

Samer said our problem was built into our endeavour itself, no matter how many articles we wrote. “It’s the price you pay for writing,” he said. “The accursed word count . . .”

“So how did you manage, at the FT?”

“Well, I always wrote a little more than I knew I’d get to keep,” Samer said with a smile. “An extra paragraph or two at the end, to throw to the — well, dogs, but in the wintertime . . .”

“To the wolves?”

“Yes. An extra bit at the end, to throw to the wolves.”

After we finished our coffee, Samer set out towards the Metro while I stayed back, fleshing out my notes. Watching him grow smaller into the distance, I had the strangest sense that my eyes were adjusting in a way normally reserved to old movies and rundown cameras. The red of Samer’s shirt and the red of the Metro sign seemed more saturated than the rest of the decor somehow, like bursts of generous colour inside a photographic negative.

In November, winter began to pare the city’s russets and golds down to their inky outlines. It was around this time that Samer’s repetitions began accruing — “did I tell you?” he started his sentences — and that his vocabulary really began to shrink. To not be able to name his losses exacerbated them, and in that particular ordeal I could at least be of some use. “I’ve lost . . . ‘plaster’,” Samer would say, and after some time we would trace our way back to “Band-Aid”. And so it was, too, from “snail” to “spiral” in mid-November, or from “branch” to “leaf” a few days after that.

I doubted that I accompanied him quite as well on these transits as he did me during our travels in the opposite direction. For Samer’s new ways towards words ranged from the efficient (“where we put the dead people” for cemeteries), to the funny (“where we put the dead people we don’t know” for catacombs), to the beautiful — those sudden arresting phrases of his that I thought would put even the most dutiful of poets to shame. Samer’s lakes were “dark liquid mirrors”, his baptisms “wet beginnings” and — the one I loved most, as I often told him — Montmartre, with its tall swirling domes, “the tower of bubbles”.

Samer’s torment during his renewed struggle against language was due partly to the fact that detail had been, these past few months, the needle he’d plied to weave his memories back together — his errant childhood summers through the salty tang of chlorine on clean bedsheets, his worldly grandfather through the red pins obscuring all of the house’s maps. But there was more to the loss than either communication or memory alone could capture. Long before Samer’s illness, a writerly, almost devout love of words had attended his life, suffusing it with beauty and meaning. Again and again, Samer returned to Cormac McCarthy — the long, haunting scene in Stella Maris where Alicia describes suicide by drowning in Lake Tahoe, or Billy’s hundred-page hunting expeditions in The Crossing for a pregnant wolf whom he will eventually choose to set free. There was one particular horse in All the Pretty Horses, whose journey through a field Samer could not shake.

“It’s beautiful because at no point do you ask how, or why, he spent so much time describing an animal,” Samer said. “You simply see the horse. You see its . . . the lines on its head.” The mane. “The way the mane flows in the . . . the sky that moves.” The wind. You see the hooves, the grass and wildflowers, the horse’s freedom and the powdered gold of the sun.

We stayed some time at that empty bus stop, trying to recover the animal’s unbroken advance through the plain, image by image, word by word.

One late winter morning, Samer and I walked together from his apartment in the sixth arrondissement to his hospital in the 13th. He sensed that it would not be long before the cancer recurred and wanted to reacquaint himself with the route. The quays were nearly empty, mantled only by soft mists and that distinct after-smell of rain on pavement. I was struck by the sad beauty of the city, how it seemed to imbue the few strangers we passed with a story: the boxing coach and his student with a hum of victory in the eleventh hour; the man walking alone in a trilby hat, absorbed in thought, with a hush of departure.

Samer showed me various landmarks as we walked, a second world war memorial to victims of the deportation shaped like a ship’s prow; a square sculpture of lovers whose braided limbs formed a window into the opposite bank; a balcony where he’d once tried a catholic amount of wines with friends who had since moved away. It was strange to see Paris’s Haussmannian facades so frontally, flat and continuous behind the river, as in a child’s drawing. At one point, Samer pointed to the glass railing of a rooftop where he remembered one particularly joyful summer party. But when I tried to rim the clear panels with imaginary partygoers, the picture mis-assembled itself as a kind of collective suicide with a dress code.

“And have you given any thought to the balance?” Samer asked me.

At some point in the turning of the leaves, Samer had stopped doing maths on the end of our article. Now he spoke to me about balance: how it was important that I balance sad images with happy ones, heaviness with lightness, sincerity with humour, in our final telling. I told him I had, yes. But what should I do if I stumbled upon material I really could not find any beauty, or humour, or lightness in?

Samer said I had many options. “For example, you could keep a scene going until it gets to a lighter bit. Or else, you could make a connection. Through a smell, a place, a memory, an object.”

We passed a teenage couple kissing under a weeping willow. The tree’s arched canopy formed something like a mother umbrella to the small yellow one planted between their entwined hands.

Connections, Samer said, were an elegant way to look someplace brighter.

“You mean to look away?” I said.

“No, to look . . .” He took a moment to find his word. “To look better.”

Samer and I eventually fetched up inside a café, stopping short of the hospital. Droplets streaked the windows, and the jukebox played Latin music as if to remind everyone of life. On the table beside us, a young woman sat alone, one hand warming itself on a paper cup, the other googling medical terms in silence.

The exhaustion of the day flickering between us like a candle, Samer and I got to talking about pianos, then the difference between a caliph and a sultan, then the Maldives. Something about tectonic plates, something about dancing with sharks.

Suddenly, a pall of urgency clouded his eyes. “Wait,” he said. “I didn’t show you?”

He pulled up the video he had shown me a few weeks earlier, pivoting his chair to watch it along with me. Like last time, the sharks sliced into the frame first, drawing smooth, celestial arcs around one another for some time before Samer’s daughter fell softly from the surface. “Here,” Samer said, breaking into a smile and pressing pause. He lingered on the image, Isabelle holding the camera steady, their daughter’s legs mid-kick in the ocean, that strange blue within blue of seawater.

Samer’s boyish smile arranged the lines on his face. His professor’s glasses caught a stray ray from the window. The rain’s ghostly reflections formed sea-foam crystals on the table, washing one world into the other, rippling the frame.

I wanted to go on describing them, those strange tricks of the light, as they flashed and dissolved. I wanted to go on, stretching out the scene, trying to find more words for it, more words, more time. But already Samer’s smile was condensing into an after-image in my mind.

Last November, Samer’s cancer recurred. MRIs showed an L-shaped patch of glare in the middle of his brain, like an amateur cartoonist’s rendition of someone thinking intently about a sock. Sticking out behind the scans as he showed them to me were his daughter’s biology notes, careful childlike drawings of cells bricked into an impenetrable wall.

I accompanied Samer to the Hôpital de la Pitié Salpêtrière, where he had completed his first round of chemo and would soon begin his second. I had never been inside the hospital, but I remembered it from the final scene of Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, when Cléo, having spent the entire film anxiously anticipating a potential cancer diagnosis, finally goes to get her results. “It doesn’t look like a hospital,” says Antoine, a reluctant soldier on leave from Algeria whom Cléo has just met. “It looks like a former castle, a park to throw parties in.” Cléo and Antoine pause before a cedar tree, where they dream up notions of Lebanon and change their minds on how much time they have left.

Samer, too, paused by that cedar tree. “This place . . .” he said as we looked at the violets and lilies hedging the pavilion, an ancient castle indeed, whimsical with its stalwart palette of yellow blinds — “This place is printed in my mind.” Nursing students flocked towards the benches for lunch, while around them lone birds studied the grass. The distant hum of chatter, the blossoms and shrubs faithfully pruned around the park, Samer’s steady breathing by my side, were beginning to concentrate for me that sparse but recurring thought, endemic to hospitals and certain late hours of the night, that life is always happening in the space between itself and death.

As we ambled along the cobblestone path, Samer introduced me to the copper sculptures punctuating the grounds, a bee sanctuary the colour of driftwood and the chapel where he sometimes went to collect his thoughts. Its construction, he explained, had been ordered by Louis XIV for the prostitutes and adulteresses once sent to the Salpêtrière to seek absolution.

Samer lingered on every detail, like a character in a folktale who has been trapped in the enchanted forest longer than you have, and guides you eagerly through the secret wonders you could never have imagined when the briars and brambles closed in behind you. Yes, his eyes seemed to reassure, even in such a place you will be happy. When we neared the grey metal post-op buildings, their windows and balconies all pinched into odd triangles to obviate suicide attempts, Samer redirected us wordlessly towards the garden. When a harsh rain began to fall, he walked us into the chapel for shelter, where we removed sodden beanies to find a sudden immensity of space.

“Did I tell you the story of the king who built this church?” Samer whispered.

I asked him to tell me again.

The church bells tolled above us as he spoke, like at the end of Cléo’s journey, when the doctor confirms her cancer and the camera rests one last time, in merciful close-up, on Cléo’s and Antoine’s togetherness. “It seems to me that I am no longer afraid,” Cléo tells Antoine after the bells strike six-thirty. We are a half-hour away from the film title’s promised seven, but there it is, the end. Cléo says, “It seems to me that I am happy.”

She and Antoine continue walking together towards a place we cannot know, a space beyond the black, beyond the point, where no one but those lucky wolves can see.

Youmna Melhem Chamieh is a writer living in Paris. Samer Iskandar was an FT reporter and correspondent from 1996 to 2000

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