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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Why I’m a tree hugger and you should be too

When Frau B looks out of her fourth-floor bedroom window, she sees two tall trees. On the left is a spruce. Its mass of deep-green needles presents a burst of colour all-year-round.treehuga

But she’s more interested in the maple tree beside it. Each September, she watches its leaves turn from vibrant green to grimy brown and yellow. A few weeks later, the wind snatches them away, leaving a stark tangle of branches for Frau B to observe during the winter months.

At the age of 97, even she is a whipper-snapper compared to a tree.

When I told her the other day that scientists in Norway had discovered a 9,500-year-old spruce, she sighed.

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a tree community in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Mich nimmt der liebe Gott auch nicht,” she said, meaning ‘God won’t take me either.’

It’s something she says quite often, usually with a smile. This time, it conjured up an image of a long line at the gates of heaven. When Frau B eventually gets to the top, she is rejected alongside a Norwegian spruce. Together, they lament the curse of their longevity.

In the past few weeks, my relationship to trees has morphed from passive appreciation to zealous awe. Peter Wohlleben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees is mostly responsible.

The book was an impulse-buy, having met my three criteria for spontaneous literary purchases: an inviting title, a pretty cover and the promise that I would be a slightly different person after reading it.

My transformation has become especially apparent to LSB, who now finds himself at the receiving end of a barrage of excited outbursts:

“Do you know that trees use fungal networks to communicate?”

“Woah! You will NOT believe this! Trees can detect the saliva of insects and use THAT knowledge to send out chemicals to attract their predators!”

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tree bark in Volkspark Humboldthain

“Okay, I promise this is the last one: did you know that parent trees deprive their children of LIGHT in order to keep their growth rate steady?”

“…I know, I know: I’m sorry but I just have to tell you this: trees of the same species INFORM each other about impending environmental threats!”

At first, he listened politely, nodding occasionally as he scrolled through his phone. But as the days turned to weeks and my enthusiasm failed to wane, he advised me gently that I was putting the “bore”into arboreal.

It hasn’t stopped me though.

What I find so extraordinary about trees is in fact quite unremarkable: they’re just like us.

They have memories, which they can pass on. Communication happens via a sophisticated electric network forged over millions of years. The sick are nursed and the tendency is to protect one’s own.

Eventually though, like you, me and Frau B, they breathe their last and descend into the ground. There they turn to humus and enable new life, once again, to begin.

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a sick tree is propped up by its neighbour in Volkspark Humboldthain

Goodbye Frau Bennett

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.

On life and death and the sanitary towels in between

“I thought that at my age I could no longer cry,” said Frau Bienkowski. “But this morning, the tears came.”

Frau B had spent the whole day trying to get hold of a packet of sanitary towels because ever since her hip operation, she has been unable to retain water.

But the person in charge of making the fortnightly order was on holiday and nobody had thought to take over his duties.

In the end, one of the volunteers popped over to the chemist’s to pick some up. They weren’t the right kind, but they would do for now.

“I’d be lost without Frau Lintz,” said Frau P of the lady in question.

The nursing home is short-staffed because there have been an unusually high number of deaths over a short space of time, leaving several rooms empty.

Frau B's egg timer. Source: www.amazon.com

Frau B’s egg timer. Source: http://www.amazon.com

Money is tight and management won’t increase the staff-patient ratio. So when a certain number of residents die without being replaced, the carers lose their jobs too.

Death at the nursing home is a small table placed outside a bedroom door. On it is a candle and a framed photograph of the deceased.

A few months ago there was a table outside the room opposite Frau B’s.

“The lady across the way died,” Frau B said, matter-of-fact.

And another time she said: “Every night when I go to sleep I pray that I won’t wake up.”

In other circumstances, the sentences might sound tragic.

But if I have learnt anything from my weekly visits, it is that welcoming death is not the same as abandoning life.

Frau B and I are seventy years apart but we talk like sisters – about boys and clothes and death and what’s in the news.

image source: centralavenuepub.wordpress.com

image source: centralavenuepub.wordpress.com

We laugh out loud at the absurd hen-shaped egg-timer she’s been given instead of an alarm clock and I bring her several packets of the sweets her doctor has told her not to eat.

We continue reading the book about the cantankerous Irish nuns, even though we get through about ten pages each week and I’ve been paying library fines for months.

Recently, we found out that we both get dressed up for my visits.

“Sure who else notices what I’m wearing?” Frau P asked with a smile and I told her I felt the same way.

So if death is a small table, life is the perm Frau B insists on getting touched up every week.

And the moments we spend laughing at silly hen-shaped egg-timers and the humiliated tears we shed about elusive sanitary towels are the beautiful and tragic bits that happen in between.

The Graveyard

My parents brought me running shoes when they visited me at Easter. Yesterday I tried them out. The day was mild and dewy.

I was looking for a park, but instead I ran into a graveyard.

Inside it was still; the birds were singing. Daffodils peeked out from under little heaps of earth. Leaves rustled. A red squirrel skirted past me.

Plastic pots and watering cans lay in a pile of withered flowers.

I passed some buried children; tiny mounds, close together. Words and prayers and a teddy bear.

A woman pushed her bicycle past the graves. The wheels crunched against the gravel.

Further on, I found enormous iron casts from the 1900’s. Whole families were resting there: soldier sons, an 18-year-old girl ripped away from her widowed mother. A family’s heartbreak documented into thick stone slabs. Always the same word: Unvergessen; “unforgotten.”

Then from the trees, slowly a withered old man pushed his Zimmerframe and got down on his knees to tend to a grave.

I watched his tiny frame crouched over a tombstone and his wrinkled hands shovelling the earth in little scoops.

My tears fell like unexpected rain. I was ashamed.

I turned and ran away, past the graveyard shop where they were selling over-priced potted plants, past the red-brick church on the roadside, past the cinema and grotty record store, past the kebab stand.

In the park, dogs bounded through the woodland, toddlers dipped their hands into the water fountain and families played catch. And the birds sang.

Can you remember the last time you got lost?