“I look like I’ve been on a sun holiday,” Frau B said from her hospital bed on a Sunday evening in early January.
“You sure do!” I said, laughing. “Mallorca was it?”
She nodded conspiratorially.
Her skin had a yellowish glow, but it was difficult to know how much that had to do with the room’s artificial lighting.
There were two other women in the ward. Both attached to tubes and staring glumly at the wall in front of them, they seemed in far worse condition than Frau B.
“What do you need from the home?” I asked quietly.
“A pair of shoes for sure. The navy ones. My pink cardigan. The pocket mirror. A comb. Some hair slides. And I’m pretty sure there are still some grapes in the fruit bowl?”
“Got it,” I said. “I’ll bring everything over tomorrow.”
“Oh Katechen!” she said happily.
“She was in good form,” I texted to Frieda. “In fact, I think the change of scene has been good for her! They’re doing tests tomorrow.”
Frieda is Frau B’s next-of-kin. She’s in her seventies and lives in Hamburg. Until recently, she worked in the bicycle business, selling helmets to clients all over the world.
Their grandmothers were sisters but to keep things simple, they tell people that Frau B is Frieda’s aunt.
Frieda and I have met a few times and keep in sporadic contact. It was she who’d informed me that Frau B had been hospitalised.
“What a relief!” she texted back. “So glad you’re there.”
A few days later, Frau B was discharged.
When we spoke on the phone, her voice was wispy and her speech slurred.
She said something about cancer. I didn’t catch what exactly.
I asked her what she needed from the shops. The question stressed her.
“The usual, Katechen. You know yourself.”
I hung up and said to LSH: “It’s the beginning of the end.”
He looked up from his laptop, surprised.
I bought yellow tulips (her favourite), some grapes and a couple of pears. All safe bets.
I began visiting Frau B once a week nearly exactly five years ago. There have been occasional gaps, when I’ve been abroad, but even then we’ve spoken by phone. Her number is the only one I know off-by-heart.
We arrange the visits days ahead.
Each time, I’ve knocked, listened out for her two-syllable “Ja-a” and opened the door to find her sitting, waiting.
In the early years she’d been in her green armchair. Later, her wheelchair. Almost always in her Sunday best, she would watch me come in and take off my coat, then demand I come closer so she could take a look at the pattern on my dress.
“Nice,” she would say, tracing her fingers along the material. Or once, before Christmas about my woollen boyfriend cardigan, “it’s a good material but a little oversized don’t you think?”
This time, there was no reply when I knocked.
A bag full of red fluid hung from the side of the bed. Somewhere under her nightie she was attached to a tube.
She was making terrible rasping sounds as she slept.
I put the tulips in a vase and the pears in the bowl she’d inherited from her mother-in-law.
Then I sat there, watching her.
I’m not next-of-kin, and the information I was getting through Frieda was being drip-fed.
I took my phone out and went onto some forums. The yellow colour and the extreme rasping pointed to the final stages of liver cancer.
People who’d watched their loved ones die this way had thought to write about their experience and I was grateful for it.
I left the room to look for the care staff. They were in the dining hall serving lunch.
Temps from an agency, none of them looked familiar to me.
Like everywhere else, here too they’re understaffed. The pay is terrible; the job is tough and thankless.
“I’m a friend of Frau B,” I said, awkwardly addressing them as a collective. “She, erm, doesn’t seem well at all. I was wondering if anyone could give me some information?”
The faces looked at me, kindly and blankly.
They didn’t know her.
“Hanna should be able to tell you more,” one said.
Hanna is the head of the section. I know her.
“Thanks,” I said.
I couldn’t find her.
I continued, helplessly, to listen to her rasping.
I did some Googling to try and find out what the red stuff in the bag was. I wondered if it could be doxorubicin, a cancer drug otherwise known as the “red devil.”
(It turned out it wasn’t. It was actually a catheter containing her waste).
The rasps and gasps continued. I was terrified that Frau B would simply stop breathing.
Then, like a miracle, she woke up, just before they brought the food in.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“Katechen,” I said.
“You were asleep,” I said gently.
“No I wasn’t!” she said. “I just had my eyes closed.”
She’d been asleep.
The carer handed me a bowl of hot mush. Mashed potato, friend vegetables and bits of chicken.
“Hanna says you can come see her in her office if you have questions.”
“Thanks” I said.
I decided I’d feed Frau B first.
She was lying flat and didn’t have the energy to sit up.
I was a little worried about her choking, so I started with the mashed potatoes.
She ate them hungrily.
I moved on to the softened vegetables.
She ate them too.
She’s still got an appetite, I thought to myself. This is really good.
“Is there no meat?” she asked.
Never before has a vegetarian been so glad to hear the question.
“Of course there is!” I said.
I cut the chicken up as best I could with the spoon.
She wolfed it down.
I couldn’t find Hanna on the way out.
I began an all-consuming course at work, learning to operate a professional camera. We had class all day Monday to Friday. In our spare time we had to organise shoots. The weekends were for filming.
I went to see Frau B as many evenings as I could.
The tone of my conversations with Frieda began to change.
“Don’t worry about anything,” she’d said one evening on the phone as I was leaving work and making my way to the home.
I’ve taken care of everything. The undertakers. The room. It’s all sorted. You don’t need to do anything.”
“Thanks,” I’d said.
The last story I read to her was by our beloved Erich Kästner. It’s about a vicious snowball fight between pupils from rival schools.
I made an effort to read it dramatically. Commanding Frau B’s full attention was a challenge that when met, felt like a triumph.
This time, I succeeded.
“He writes so well,” she said as I closed the book for the last time.
I was pleased to have spotted Im Schnee, a collection of his winter-related writing, in the bookshop just before Christmas. Having read our way through the Lyrische Hausapotheke and Sonderbares vom Kufürstendamm, this was the perfect title to get us through a long Berlin winter.
After we read, Frau B requested I feed her some grapes.
“Be careful with the fruit bowl” she said as I approached it, adding significantly, “It’s in your interest.”
Over the years, whenever I brought fruit, I’d ask Frau B to hold the bowl as I placed the pears, apricots, grapes, or whatever else inside.
It had become part of a ritual, which I hoped reminded Frau B that this was a relationship – a friendship – of equals and not of one-sided reliance as she occasionally implied.
I’d often compliment the bowl, knowing that it would trigger an anecdote about her mother-in-law. “If only she knew we were still using her bowl!” she’d say.
“She’d be delighted!” I’d reply.
Perhaps, from where Frau B was sitting, it sounded like I was coveting it.
She wasn’t strong enough to hold the bowl now but she was certainly still interested in the grapes.
I popped them near her mouth and she caught them neatly like a fish.
“Just one more,” she said a few times.
Before I left that night she said, “Katechen, you’re going to laugh at me, but I have a question.”
“When I’m gone, will you visit someone else?”
One of the managers had asked me that the week before, and I didn’t appreciate it.
Now, coming from Frau B it broke my heart.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “This has turned into a friendship. It wouldn’t be the same.”
When Frau B and I first met, I was a new arrival in Berlin, scrambling for work and unsure how long I’d be staying. LSB was abroad and I didn’t know many people in the city. As a result, I had plenty of time on my hands.
Five years on, LSB is LSH; together we have a coffee machine from Woolworths, a solid group of friends and far less free time than we’d like.
After he moved to Berlin, LSH, always impeccably behaved (unrecognisable at times), accompanied me on many of my visits to Frau B.
At first he sat mutely in the corner, reluctantly eating the creamy cakes Frau B insisted on saving for him. Then, as his German improved he was given a modest role calculating how much Frau B owed us for the shopping.
We called him “Der Rechner” (or “the calculator”).
His promotion was largely attributable to Frau B’s suspicion that I was undercharging her.
Much to her dismay, LSH’s bills didn’t come to any more than mine had.
“I’m sorry, but Rosmann own-brand Hairspray really does only cost 79 cent,” we’d protest. “We can’t help being thrifty!”
“You’re not to be trusted,” she’d say, shaking her head as she handed over the money.
(We did occasionally undercharge her but only because she sometimes insisted, ridiculously, on tipping us).
If I could go back in time and re-capture a single moment with Frau B as she lay dying, it would be this one.
It was, I think, the last time I saw her when she was still awake.
She was very weak, and no longer wanted to eat.
A bunch of grapes lay untouched in her mother-in-law’s fruit bowl.
On the window sill was a little pot I’d brought a few days before. It contained a hyacinth bulb. After days of doing nothing, it had finally blossomed.
I’d bought it in a rush and hadn’t known what colour it would be.
As it turned out, it was a deep, dark pink.
I picked it up, delighted and brought it over to her.
“Look what blossomed!” I said, holding the pot over her bedside.
She was so weak I expected her, perhaps, to muster a wobbly smile.
Instead, she grabbed the pot and pulled it to her nose.
I had no idea she still had that kind of strength left inside her.
“It smells lovely!” she said.
“I wish we had captured that on camera,” I whispered to LSH.
“Remember it instead,” he whispered back.
The last time I saw Frau B, she was already making her way to another place.
They’d removed the catheter to make the journey more comfortable.
LSH and I sat by her bedside.
She seemed smaller. Her glasses were off, making her features appear even more delicate. Her false teeth, too, had been removed. The bile was still colouring her yellow.
She looked unbearably beautiful, like a tropical fish.
There was no rasping now.
In fact, Frau B looked like she was swimming.
She was thrashing her arms about the way you see babies do in amniotic fluid.
Sometimes, like when I’d reach out to take her hand, she would lift her arm up and away, as if to say – this this – is my point in time.
I got the call the next morning. I was in the middle of filming a report with LSH.
“She’s gone,” said Frieda. “She’s at peace now.”
LSH’s friends were coming around that evening to complete the shoot. Cancelling wasn’t an option.
They left in high spirits at 1am; I filmed the entire thing.
When the door closed, I broke down in a way I’ve never done before.
The next day LSH and I met Frieda for lunch.
“It all happened so fast,” she said.
“You’re to get the fruit bowl,” she said. “I’ll make sure that happens.”
“It’s nothing.” She dabbed at her eyes with a piece of tissue. “She was the last remaining member of my family,” she said. “Now it’s just me.”
“She asked to be cremated,” she continued. “And for her ashes to be placed in an unmarked grave.”
I willed myself not to cry again.
At home, I’d shed more tears than I knew I had. My eyes looked like those almond flakes you buy for baking.
“I think it’s time for a toast,” I said.
We raised our wine glasses.
“To Dora,” Frieda said.
“To Dora,” we replied.
To Frau B, I thought: I’ll remember the spot. I might even mark it with a hyacinth bulb.