She was beautiful and wisplike. I passed her often in the hallway of the nursing home. She would sit in her wheelchair beside the rabbit cage. When she didn’t know you could see her, she wore an expression full of sadness and longing.
But whenever she saw me pass, her eyes lit up and she smiled. Her hearing was very poor. But that didn’t stop us communicating. I would motion to the rabbit or gesture to the window to deliver my verdict on the weather. She would always nod warmly in agreement. We were gentle with one another – a source of mutual appreciation. She carried her melancholia with grace.
Her name was Frau Bennett. If we had been contemporaries, I think we would have been friends.
The same couldn’t be said of Frau Bienkowsi though, who was quick to dismiss her.
“Her mind’s gone,” she declared a few times. “She never says a word.”
I knew the first part wasn’t true. Frau Bennett was frail but I knew her mind to be in tact. The second observation was more plausible though. The two sat at the same table at dinner and I found it easy to believe Frau Bennett had a hard time getting a word in. She didn’t seem like the type to want to battle for floor time.
Frau Bennett had a son and grandson who lived locally. They didn’t visit much but she once confided in me that she sat in the hallway in case they came by.
I met them both at the nursing home’s Christmas party last year. They arrived late. My heart was already beginning to ache as I watched Frau Bennett sit quietly with her eyes fixed on the door.
Her son, a tall and rather strapping man, probably in his 60s, discovered I was Irish by chance and struck up a conversation. He told me his father had been part of the British government that ruled West Berlin after the war. It confirmed my suspicion about how Frau Bennett had got her name. Many British soldiers stationed in the country ended up staying to marry German women.
Frau Bennett’s son was keen to speak English to me. It was the language of his childhood before German began to dominate. I got the impression he missed it. He seemed to have inherited some of his mother’s wistfulness.
Frau Bennett would have known my face but not my name. She was aware I was a friend of Frau Bienkowski. To my astonishment, she once asked me if I liked her. I said I did and asked her back. Gently and politely, Frau Bennett indicated they weren’t the best of friends.
I could understand that stance though it sparked some cognitive dissonance. Frau Bienkowski and I get on because we are different. I appreciate her warmth, her openness – even her outrageousness. But she is dominant and headstrong too. She is a talker, not a listener. She is enormously kind. But she is not especially tactful.
I can imagine that quiet and perceptive Frau Bennett disliked her dinner companion’s forthright and – at times- perhaps abrasive style.
A week or two ago, as I was pushing Frau Bienkowski into the dining hall for dinner, I noticed an empty seat next to her. I didn’t think too much of it.
But during my last visit, I asked her how Frau Bennett was doing.
“She’s dead,” Frau Bienkowski said. “She went into her room and didn’t come out again.”
The rabbit has gone too. The cage disappeared around the same time Frau Bennett did.