Frau Bienkowski turned 97 last month. LSB and I were among the five guests at her birthday party. There were ham sandwiches for the others and a vegetarian omelet for LSB and me. Frau B even treated herself to a glass of red wine. After taking just one sip, she announced it had gone to her head. She simply can’t drink the way she used to. Join the club, I thought.
Shopping for a 97 year-old isn’t easy. In the end I hit gold with a book about Charlottenburg. It features black and white photographs of the area as it once was. Frau B was delighted to encounter the streetscapes from decades past. Many of the places have since changed beyond recognition.
A few days later, I got a call from Frau B’s niece. We’d met for the first time at the party and had exchanged phone numbers. The news wasn’t good. Frau B had had another fall. Her leg was broken and she was in hospital.
I arrived with a bunch of tulips and a bag full of clothes. At the hospital reception, they asked me for Frau B’s date of birth.
“March 18th, 1919,*” I answered immediately.
She was lying in bed next to the window – her eyes shut.
I tiptoed towards her to check she was really asleep.
“Wer ist es denn?” she asked, barely opening her eyes.
“Das Katechen,” I answered. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”
Her eyes opened wide.
“I wasn’t asleep,” she said. “I was just resting my eyes.”
“How are you?”
“Oh, fine, considering. Oh my, would you look at those tulips! I was only thinking earlier how I hadn’t got any tulips for my birthday. And yellow too – my favorite.”
Over the next while, visiting the hospital became a bi-weekly routine. Frau B was very particular about her requirements. She wanted her own underwear, a couple of skirts, her dressing gown and some hairspray. The fact she was spending her entire days in a nightie and unable to leave bed was irrelevant.
During her time in hospital, Frau B shared her room with two ladies. The first was Polish and according to Frau B, didn’t speak a word of German. (I’m not so sure of this as Frau B is a talker and even at the best of times, it can be hard to get a word in.) The other woman came from Saxony and was taken into hospital on her 80th birthday with heart trouble. They both managed to maneuver to the side of their beds to eat meals facing each other.
Frau B’s appetite increased dramatically in hospital. She was most partial to the pork chops on offer. The nurses caught on and served her enormous portions. All this was heartening.
Meanwhile though, there was worrying talk of operating on the leg. At first Frau B said she’d prefer not to undergo surgery. But after a few days wearing a heavy boot she got restless and said she might consider it after all. This was despite the fact that the doctor had said: “If you were my granny, I’d advise you not to.”
When I voiced my concern about the risks of getting an operation at her age, Frau B said: “Well, Katechen, there are worse ways to go than during surgery..”
In the end though, she decided against it. In her own words, the prospect of “losing her reason” was worse.
Frau B was stoic, if frustrated, in hospital. She dealt well with the indignity of having to ring a bell every time she wanted to go to the toilet. (And having to ring again for a nurse to clean up once she’d done her business.)
But that wasn’t the end of it. One day when I came to visit, I found a sign on the door, asking all visitors to report to the nurses before entering the room.
The winter vomiting bug had broken out and both Frau B and the lady from Saxony had caught it.
I had to wear scrubs, gloves and a face mask to enter.
Frau B had been vomiting but today, her woes had been reduced to diarrhoea.
“Pity I can’t see your dress beneath the scrubs Katechen,” she said. “What are you wearing?”
I told her and she seemed to approve. “I was thinking actually,” she said. “I have a necklace I was going to throw out. But it would go well with your brown jumper. You can have it, if you like.”
Frau B returned to the nursing home a week ago. She’s now in a wheelchair and she can’t go anywhere without help. She’s still wearing her huge boot cast.
“Katechen,” she said from her new position by the window.
“I think I’m invincible. Nothing seems to kill me. Maybe God has decided He just doesn’t want me. Maybe all the other dead people asked Him not to let me in!”
I said I thought that was unlikely.
*the year is right but I changed the date to protect Frau B from potential unwanted attention from her… massive online following.