She picked up but the conversation lasted only a few seconds.
“Kätchen, can you call me back? I’m putting on my stockings.”
I gave her ten minutes.
“Okay, they’re up,” she said after just one ring. “But I’m in a right state. Wait till I tell you.”
Frau B’s niece, Krista, had sent her a package for Christmas. Unfortunately, there’d been no one at reception to receive it, so it ended up being sent back to Hamburg. In the meantime, Krista developed thrombosis in her leg and had to be hospitalised. The package landed with a neighbour, who had no choice but to pop it right back in the post in the hope that this time, it might reach its destination.
The plight of this package had been plaguing Frau B for weeks. Now, with the first week of January drawing to a close, it had finally arrived.
But Frau B did not see a cause for celebration.
“I’m ready to cry,” she said. “It’s this wretched plastic wrapping. I’ve been trying to remove it for hours.”
“Besides,” she continued. “I don’t know what Krista was thinking. There are 12 bars of Ritter Sport in here and countless packets of biscuits. Where does she expect me to put them? I’m hardly going to eat them all!”
“Well,” I said, taken aback at her agitation. “I know I can help you with the chocolate. And, as for the wrapping, I’d just leave it until I come on Sunday and then we can sort it out together.”
“I know she meant well,” said Frau B. “But it’s ridiculous. I can’t even get to the cupboard to put anything away.”
On the surface, Frau B might be accused of lacking in graciousness. But that would be to neglect the reality of what life it like for a 96-year-old.
Unlike many of her peers, Frau B has managed to maintain the strength of spirit required to express indignation. If that were to disappear, I would know the end is near.
The tirade against her well-meaning niece managed, briefly, to deflect attention away from one or all of the following:
Her swollen, knobbly hands and the arthritis that cripples them – preventing her from carrying out the simplest of tasks, like tearing open a sheet of cellophane wrapping.
The real prospect that her last remaining blood relative might die before her.
The difficulty of mustering up the energy to get from her armchair to the shelf.
The indignity of dependence.
Bearing all this in mind, I too, chose to deflect.
“Guess what LSB suggested,” I said.
“That we spend next New Year’s Eve with you.”
Frau B had rung in 2016 sitting alone in her room, dismayed that the nursing home hadn’t made an effort to mark the occasion. The disappointment was all the more real because last year, she’d had such a good time celebrating that she had to be escorted back to her room. The half bottle of wine she’d downed had left her giddy and unsteady on her Zimmerframe.
“I hope to goodness I’m not alive by then,” she said.
“Well if you are,” I said, “we’ll be sure to bring some champagne.”
“I don’t really like champagne. But I suppose you can bring me beer.”