The Paris Review

Killing Time

Heinrich Böll. Photo: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo (CC0).

In 1998, I came home to find my mother, at that time very ill, turning around from a white cardboard shoebox—the box she stuffed our family photos into—with a felt pen in her hand. The sun was behind her, and her turban looked jaunty, terrifying. She had written her initials on the box, and below them:

1941 — ?

It does not matter how close we get to that question mark; it is still unthinkable. The question mark remains a question mark until we have passed that date and gone into the zone of unthinkability ourselves. We cannot imagine the date of our demise. Our minds balk. On the one hand, it’s too grim. And on the other,

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