I was a high achiever in the Grief Olympics, which all of the bereaved are subjected to. The endless stream of advice from people who didn't have a clue. Who had no possible way of understanding how alone I was. Going for a walk every day was not going to make it all better. Nothing was going to make it all better. I regret to inform you that you cannot fix grief.
I had lost everything. My husband, Olivier, and our dog, who used to keep me safe in the world.
Leo. Our German Shepherd rescue, who came to us at ten months old, wild, neglected, twenty-five pounds underweight, ready for his next adventure. Nine months ago, he was one hundred pounds of pure muscle, eight years old, intense, high-strung, always on the job. Leo had been with Olivier in France that afternoon when the Cessna 172 had gone down—slamming into a crevasse over Mont Blanc, bursting into flame upon impact. It's not the crash that kills you. It's the fire that comes from the faulty carburetor.
Mont Blanc is not the highest mountain in the world, and is by no means the most difficult to climb. It is simply the deadliest. It takes an average of one hundred hikers a year. Eight thousand people have lost their lives on Mont Blanc, and the number keeps rising.
Mont Blanc has everything that scares me. Extreme heights, freezing temperatures, heavy snow, narrow footpaths over steep drops, falling rocks along the Goûter Route—death avalanches that take out anything in their path, human or animal. Skiers, climbers, chamois, roe deer, ibex. And deep endless crevasses that lay in wait.
Olivier loved it. He loved snow, cross-country skiing, mountain biking. And me.
He had been there doing a safety assessment of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, his skill set a unique and high-demand combination of manufacturing background, steel mill processes, degrees in metallurgy and mechanical engineering, and ASO Black Belt Quality certification, which used to be all the rage. He spoke French, German and, pretty much, English. He could walk into a manufacturing plant, figure out the problems in the process that were causing quality issues and come up with a short-term plan that would correct the issue and a long-term plan for a permanent fix. He would bring the factory up to specs—train the workers in the new processes, repair, replace or just deep-clean the machinery, look for efficiency issues and scrap salvage that would save time and huge sums of money, and, most of all, do all of this while not shutting down the lines. Shutting down the lines could cost a manufacturing plant millions. For the smaller ones in the supply chain, where profit margins were razor-thin, it could take them under. Olivier was much in demand.
He also pissed people off. And he had grown weary of manufacturing plants. He would not compromise on quality or safety, or fudge inspections. He greeted the cagey, good ole boys of American manufacturing with a stony face and a small shrug, and was prompt in initiating safety recalls for products that posed a risk. This got him fired regularly until he set up his own consulting firm. Most of his work in the last eight years was for European-owned companies—the French, the Germans. He was highly in demand with the Japanese.
And now he was on to something new. Tunnel safety. Hired by Prometheus—an international consulting firm, out of Glasgow. Hired for his skill set in evaluating the stuff that burns in a fire, he was moving into new territory. Fire suppression in tunnels had always been about chemicals and foam, the fear being that a mist of water from a sprinkler system would heat up and cause scalding and steam and be as dangerous as the fire it was supposed to suppress. But that was not how it worked. Because the mist of water reduced the temperatures drastically. Sprinkler systems in tunnels would save lives and a great deal of money, and Olivier was a genius at cost-benefit analysis. He had become an evangelist for using water for fire suppression.
Olivier had delayed his flight home from Geneva to get on the four-seater Cessna 172, taking a short one-hour flight out of Chambéry to fly over the Mont Blanc massif and its glaciers. The job had kept him there longer than we'd planned. He had told me the night before that there was something he wanted to look into. I knew that, overall, the tunnel assessment had gone well, and he was impressed with the Mont Blanc safety set-up. Since the terrible 1999 Mont Blanc Tunnel fire, safety was state of the art and impressive, and Olivier was thrilled to have the chance to do the assessment. His specialty was the quality of the concrete and steel and how it stood up to extreme temperatures.
Because it was never about if there would be a tunnel fire. It was always about when.
Olivier had been tired. I thought there was something on his mind, but I knew he would not discuss it with me until he was home. Sitting beside me on the battered leather couch, sharing a glass of cognac.
My husband was a master of compartmentalization. Work and family were two separate categories for Olivier. I rarely knew about work problems unless they blew up.