When the world gets smaller

When I came in, her eyes did not light up as usual.

She tried to fake it, a little, but her smile was all wrong.

I wasn’t in good form either. I was cranky from spending too much time indoors wedding-planning, while the sun shone tauntingly outside.

As so often happens, small frustrations had given birth to a greater sadness.

Earlier that week, Frau B’s telephone had stopped working. The man who came to fix it asked her to dial a number she knew by heart. The only one that came to mind was that of an acquaintance she’d lost touch with. She got through to the answering machine and didn’t know what to say.

It was humiliating.

She couldn’t call me. My mobile number is too long for her to remember, let alone to dial.

We’ve tried before.

Frau B keys in the digits too slowly and gets cut off mid-way through by a dial tone.

We’ve resigned ourselves to this fact, and she knows she can rely on me to get in touch instead.

But there aren’t many others she can call.

“Everyone I knew is dead,” Frau B said, as if she had to justify it.  “If I didn’t have you….”

She trailed off.

We both needed escapism, I decided, and reached to the shelf for a book.

It’s another one full of stories about early twentieth century Berlin.

Usually, the descriptions of the streets, cafes and institutions that defined the era prompt delighted interruptions from Frau B.

“My father would take me to that funfair!” she will say. Or, “Oh yes, that café! Full of artists! We’d only ever pass by and look through the window.”

Today though, I got through several pages uninterrupted.

A bad sign.

She was listening though, so I continued.

Finally, I got to a passage about death masks.

Totenmasken!” she said suddenly.  “I remember seeing some in Vienna!”

“You did?” I asked, a little startled. “When were you there?”

A long time ago. But she remembers everything. The city’s main museum is home to the death masks of Beethoven, Mahler and Klimt.

Frau B can still see them all. And as she began to speak, a cloud began to lift.

She has a cartographic mind, with a remarkable ability to mentally navigate the places she used to know.

One of the best presents I ever got her was a laminated map of the world.

She looks at it through her magnifying glass, while I hover over her.

“That’s Ireland,” I’ll say. “It’s shaped like a teddy bear.” Then, drawing my finger all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, I’ll land somewhere in America and say: “And that’s where my sister lives.”

Frau B’s  life now takes place within a room of 20 square meters. Day-to-day, her greatest sojourn is down the corridor to the dining hall. Sometimes, if she is feeling energised, she will wheel herself all the way to the terrace.

She is meticulous in her use of space. Order, for her, has become synonymous with control.

In the last year or two, she has begun hiding things.

She squeezes bars of chocolate into the bottom of her sock drawer and tucks brooches into a box that slides behind the books lining her shelf. She slips banknotes beneath the insoles of her shoes.

She says she is scared of things being stolen.

They never are. Sometimes I think her fear is more about losing herself.

Institutionalised and immobile, the world is ever closing in.

But deep inside her, preserved with care: a rich tapestry woven from the people she once knew and loved, the places she explored, the personal tragedies she endured and the triumphs she savours.

A wealth of memories a death mask can bring back to life.

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Merry Christmas, Frau Bienkowski

“They’ve outdone themselves with the decorations,” said Frau B.

Word had it that some of the carers in Wohnbereich 4 had been up since 4 o’clock in the morning. The dining hall had been transformed into a winter wonderland, with baubles, fir tree branches and paper stars adorning the tables and walls. Someone even had the genius idea of hanging cotton buds from the ceiling to resemble a snow scene.

Most of the residents had dressed for the occasion. Frau B had on a navy jacket she’d sewn for herself at the age of 85. On it, she’d pinned a sparkling turquoise brooch. She’d had her hair done too.niko

I complimented her style.

“Katechen,” she whispered. “Have a proper look around. Later, I want you to tell me who you think is the most attractive person here. You’d better be honest though.”

The hired entertainer, an earnest man in a questionable cloud-patterned shirt, led the Christmas carol-sing-along. I heard Frau B join in to Stille Nacht. The lady next to me, who had been whimpering in distress only moments before, began clapping her hands on the table in delight as she hummed along pitch-perfect to the music.

“She has lost her Verstand [has dementia]” Frau Bienkowski whispered. “But occasionally, she has remarkable moments of recall.”

After we had polished off our Stollen (Frau B thought it was sub-par) and the entertainer concluded his festive repertoire, it was time for the exchange of presents. A carer in a Santa costume appeared on a sleigh carting presents for the residents.

“Ho, ho, ho Frohe Weihnachten, liebe Einwohner,” he said, enlisting the help of his colleague, whom he referred to as “mein Engel,” to distribute the gifts.

From observing those around us, we figured out fairly fast that Frau B was likely to get either a large animal-shaped heat cushion or a desk calendar.

It was the latter.envylopy

We had arranged earlier that we would exchange our gifts privately. This was after all, only the nursing home party, not our own.

Later on, back in Frau B’s room, she handed me an envelope. On it was written, in a scrawl I have come to know well, “Katechen.”

“I can’t see what I write,” she said. “So, I was quite impressed that I got any letters down at all.”

She made me promise I wouldn’t open it until I’m back in Ireland on Christmas Eve.

I handed Frau P a bag containing an assortment of perishable gifts. The hamper included a slice of mackerel, two bottles of Berliner Kindl beer,  a box of Lindt chocolates and some organic (it is Christmas, after all) apples.

She told me to hide the beer at the back of the cupboard.

“I’m not going to drink it alone,” she said. I took that as an invitation for a beer date in the new year.

Back in the quietness of the room, I asked Frau B how she had been feeling this week.

“Terrible,” she said. “I really thought my time had come. I was convinced I was going to close my eyes one final time.”

We looked at each other for a long time.

And then it passed and she asked me who I honestly thought was the most attractive resident in Wohnbereich 4.