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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‘I think I’m invincible,’said Frau B

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.