Chapter six of Christobel. Chris and Frieda visit her grandfather, whose life is almost all behind him and present is bleak. All he has left are reminiscences.
If you would like to begin reading Christobel from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive.
A few days later they visited Dieter, Andreas’s father and Frieda’s grandfather. Chris had a good idea from Frieda of what to expect as they walked up the distinctly neglected, weedy front garden path bisecting a less-than-immaculate lawn, to the house. He’d lived there all his married life with now-deceased Sofia, so Frieda said. It was sad, Chris thought; the old man would have been less and less able to maintain his garden over recent years as it gradually became a greater and greater burden as his disease progressed, until finally he couldn’t handle it at all. Presumably he got paid-for help with it now, unless Andreas or Birgid helped out when they could, although it was rather sporadic help by the look of things.
The carer-on-duty opened the front door to them. It was a young man, blond, freckled, rather plump, smiling warmly at them. Speaking German of course, as he said a friendly ‘hallo’ and ushered them inside. Frieda knew where to find her grandfather: in the now all-purpose room on the left of the hall. He was in bed though, not in his wheelchair like the last time she’d visited; her mother had forewarned her of that. He was finding even the effort of sitting in his chair holding his head erect a struggle now; such was the wasting of his muscles, the progression of the motor neuron disease. And there was an oxygen cylinder by the bed; that was something new. Although she was used to seeing him, Frieda suppressed a gasp. She’d been observing his decline in sad snapshots of time trickling away, because her visits were not as frequent as they really should have been. So each time she saw him, the decay of her once-vigorous grandfather was markedly more advanced. Five years ago he had been a tall, sprightly, ramrod-straight seventy-six year old who with his thick silver hair, piercingly blue eyes behind his rimless glasses, still-trim waistline and graceful bearing looked a decade younger than that.
But now it was a husk of a man lying there in his bed, his sparsely white-haired, liver-spotted head listlessly askew on the hill of pillows propping him up. His face had lost its sharp, forensic intelligence; the gleam in his once-bright eyes was now dulled. Soon, Frieda reflected, he would lose the power of speech: his conduit to the world. That would be particularly cruel for such an articulate man. And with it, probably, the ability to swallow, so feeding would have to be direct into his stomach; it would no longer be a residual pleasure in a desert of increasing joylessness, simply a medical intervention to extend survival. And then his breathing control would go too, and there would be a tracheotomy tube and ventilator to keep him hanging on, just about, to life.
Frieda knew he had lost the will to live eight months ago though, before his health had reached its current low ebb, when the love of his life, his dear Sofia, had died, victim to a sudden cruel stroke. Frieda remembered him at the funeral, in his wheelchair, a forlorn, slumped figure, red-eyed, trying to appear brave and strong and dignified. Poor man, she had thought.
Of course she and brother Curt (although he, typical young male, had been at a loss as to how to react to the situation really) and Mutter and Vater, had tried to support him; give him some of their strength. And holding his hand and murmuring kindnesses was fine as far as it went, but really, she knew, he was fighting a lonely, personal battle, both with bereavement and the prospect of his own demise. There was only so much they could do.
Yes; poor Opa.
They approached the bed, where there were chairs already drawn up on either side, doubtless from previous visits. Frieda bent to kiss his forehead and took one of his limp hands. ‘Hallo, Opa.’
She sat down, keeping hold of his hand, and Chris took the other chair. Dieter smiled weakly. ‘Hallo liebling.’
His eyes shifted tiredly to take in Chris. He continued in German, his voice thin and reedy. ‘So this is your young man then?’
‘Yes, Opa. This is Chris.’
‘How do you do, Chris,’ Dieter said, now in impeccably polite English. ‘I am very pleased to meet you.’
‘And I’m pleased to meet you too, Herr Ernst. Erm, we can Deutsch sprechen if you wish . . .’
Dieter lifted his free hand slightly in dismissal. It was probably the only movement he could manage. ‘No, that is all right. You are my guest. We will forego the “when in Rome” rule.’
Chris smiled to himself. Gran’s expression. He was also secretly relieved. The old man’s voice was difficult to decipher. It would probably be more so in German.
The carer hovered uncertainly. ‘Shall I make tea or coffee for your guests, Dieter?’
‘Oh, yes please, Hans. That would be nice.’ Hans too, it seemed, spoke English fluently. It was quite embarrassing, Chris reflected. The insular English didn’t have this easy facility with foreign languages. They told him their preferences and he bustled away, leaving them to their conversation. How to begin one though? Host and guests gazed at each other in a silence that threatened to become strained. Chris waited for Frieda to initiate something. It was really up to her, not him. And not really up to Dieter either, poor old bloke.
But it was he who broke the silence. ‘So, Chris; I hear you are a nurse, then?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
Silence. ‘Er . . .’
Dieter studied him, waiting, clearly expecting elaboration. But it was so difficult to know what to say. He searched his brain for intelligent words of follow up, but they were all hiding. What the hell did you say in a visiting-the-sick situation like this that didn’t sound crass?
Dieter came to the rescue again. ‘And what made you choose that as a career? May I ask?’
Chris leaned forward, straining to catch what the old man was saying. ‘Er, well, I just wanted to do something socially useful, I think. And I like medicine – medical things.’
‘That is very commendable. Did you not want to become a doctor then?’
Chris laughed ruefully. ‘Yes, I considered it, but I didn’t do well enough at school. I didn’t get enough A-levels – good grades – to get onto a medical degree course. So I had to settle for a nursing degree. That was difficult enough!’
‘Yes, but worth the effort, I presume?’
‘Oh yes; it was. Definitely! I love the work.’
‘Good! That is good to hear.’
They were interrupted by Hans returning with a tray of drinks and nibbles. He set it on a side table and handed the drinks and plates around, then offered the biscuits before, like a diligent waiter, disappearing again.
Frieda resumed the conversation. Chris sensed she was relieved at not having to discuss her grandfather’s troubles. ‘What you do is certainly a far cry from your brother’s occupation, Chris, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, and what does he do?’ Dieter wondered.
Chris deferred to Frieda to answer. ‘He is famous; a rock star, Opa. He has got a beautiful mansion near London.’ She chuckled. ‘He is as different from Chris as chalk from cheese, as the British say.’
‘Yes and a lot wealthier!’ Chris added.
Dieter smiled politely, although with little enthusiasm.
‘Ah, you always say that, Chris,’ Frieda scolded. ‘Don’t be jealous! I bet he is no happier than you though. That is what matters.’
‘Yes, that is true, Liebling,’ Dieter said. His tired eyes came back to Chris. ‘Well it is good to see you doing your kind work here in Germany, and our two countries friends after all that animosity in the past.’
Chris smiled. ‘Yes, that’s the good thing about the European Union, isn’t it? We can share our skills around, country to country. And form relationships with whoever we want, wherever they come from.’ He smiled meaningfully at Frieda, who grinned back.
‘Indeed,’ Dieter murmured. He seemed to be tiring, as if keeping up the social intercourse was too much of a strain. ‘Yes, the war was a terrible thing. As too have been all the ones that followed it. What happened about the “war to end all wars” idea after the first one?’
‘I think it was forgotten about, Opa,’ Frieda said soberly.
Chris glanced at her again. She was still holding her grandfather’s hand, gently massaging the blue vein-roped flesh. Then returned his gaze to the frail old man. ‘I suppose you can remember those dreadful times, Herr Ernst?’
‘Yes, although I was only a boy, of course. I was born in nineteen thirty-three, the year that Hitler monster came to power. What a terrible catastrophe he led us Germans into. I suppose my parents swallowed his vile nonsense though, along with most other people. Except the poor Jews, of course. Although, by nineteen forty-four, when it was obvious that we couldn’t win, I think they were having second thoughts. I can remember my mother saying she hoped the Allies would soon arrive and put a stop to the terrible business, especially the bombing, which was terrifying.’
‘Was Osnabrück bombed very much then?’ Chris asked, caught up in ghastly fascination.
‘Oh yes. A great deal. The city was all but completely destroyed. Well, it was on the flight path to Berlin, so any bombs not dropped there were dumped onto Osnabrück on the return journey. What you see today is mostly rebuilding. Eighty-five per cent of the old part of the town was flattened or incinerated. It was bombed from September nineteen thirty-nine right up until March nineteen forty-five. It was dreadful living here, although we children, my sisters and I, were sent to live in the country where it was relatively safe. Otherwise I might not have been here today. And your girlfriend would not exist.’
‘That’s a sobering thought,’ Chris murmured. ‘Yes, it must have been dreadful. In Britain we’re taught about the bombing we had, of course, but I think that was mainly in nineteen forty and forty-one. We didn’t have it all through the war, I don’t think. Not until the V-ones and twos came towards the end. Apart from the bombing of places like Hamburg and Dresden, we aren’t so aware of the bombing Germany suffered.’
‘Yes, well, each country teaches its own history, and not always completely objectively. But then we did start it, after all,’ Dieter said dryly.
‘Well, that is all in the past now, and a very long time ago,’ Frieda interjected, anxious to deflect the conversation from a possible awkward turn. ‘We have had peace for many years. And people of our generation have never experienced it, thank God.’
Dieter looked fondly at his granddaughter. ‘Yes, apart from the Balkans, we have. Yes, praise be. There are foolish, dangerous hotheads in Germany – and in Britain too, I think – who still bang the strident patriotic drum, who still offer seductive words about reviving “greatness” and encourage xenophobia and racism, but thankfully they are a small minority. I hope they always will be. We must learn from history.’
‘Yes, we must, I quite agree,’ Chris said.
The conversation moved to happier topics, such as Frieda’s job and family matters. Dieter’s interest was clearly flagging though. He was probably finding it an effort to keep speaking, Chris thought, and began to feel guilty that they were putting him through it. And he was obviously tired. Frieda seemed to recognise it too, and after another twenty minutes, when the small talk seemed spent, she rose, signalling the end of the visit. Their host looked visibly relieved.
Later, relaxing after dinner, Dieter was still on Chris’s mind.
‘Your granddad sounds quite academic, Frie. What did he do for a living?’
‘Well, he was academic. He was a lecturer in migration research and intercultural studies at the university.’
‘Jeeze, that sounds very impressive! I haven’t a clue what it means; something to do with people, is it?’
Frieda nodded. ‘Yes, something like that. Anthropology.’
‘Right. Well I suppose it explains his liberal attitude about things – like reconciliation between former enemies, and Europe, and so on.’
‘He certainly is liberal-minded. He must have really hated fascism – although he would have been only a boy during the war – and I know he felt really embarrassed about our dreadful past. He used to tell me that, certainly.’
‘And did your gran have a job?’
‘Yes, she was an educator too. A schoolteacher. Teaching English, actually. That explains why our family is so Anglophile, and so pro-European!’
‘Ah; I see. Yes, that does explain it. Anyway, I really like him. He’s a nice old man. Well, I like your parents too, don’t get me wrong. But especially Dieter.’
Frieda smiled. ‘Yes, he is lovely. Oma was too. It is funny how we almost relate better to our grandparents than our parents, isn’t it?’
‘Mm, I suppose so. Although I can’t really compare, of course. I don’t have a normal family, like you. No mother, now, a dad I rarely see and only one grandparent: gran. But yes, I think the world of her, certainly.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, liebling. I was forgetting. That was tactless.’
‘That’s all right. I bet your grandparents were a lovely old couple.’
‘They were. And absolutely devoted to each other. Opa is bereft without her, I think.’
‘Yeah; poor old chap. It must be really hard for him, on top of everything else.’
‘It is, I think. Mutter and Varter are very good; they do all they can to stop him from feeling lonely, one or the other spending time with him every day, and they pay extra on top of normal insurance to ensure he has constant nursing care, so he is fine in that respect, but nothing can really compensate for the loss of a loving spouse, can it? Especially when you have been together for so many years.’
‘No, I’m sure it can’t. How long was it, do you know?’
‘I think they were married in nineteen fifty-eight. So that makes it, er,’ – Frieda paused, frowning, to do the mental arithmetic – ‘over fifty-six years.’
‘Really? Yes, that’s certainly a long time.’
‘Mm. He was really heartbroken when she went, and of course his illness would probably have made it even worse, losing the one person who would most give you love and support. I suppose it left him feeling a bit insecure, in spite of having the rest of us to look after him. Although I really ought to do more of that, I think.’
‘Yeah, I imagine so. Poor man.’
‘He has certainly been very depressed since she died, especially in the last few months, since his condition has got worse. He has said to me more than once that he just wants to die. He does not see any point in carrying on with his quality of life getting poorer and poorer.’
‘Has he? Ah, that’s awful. Poor Dieter.’
‘In fact, he’s asked me recently if I would help him die.’
‘Oh no! What did you say?’
‘It was really difficult. I did not want to seem unwilling to help him, but I could not possibly do that. Apart from my feelings in the matter, it is illegal. It would be murder. There has been a lot of talk recently about the Bundestag making assisted suicide legal, but only for clear humanitarian reasons. But at the moment it just cannot be done.’
‘Yes, there’s been the same debate in Britain. I think a lot of the general public are in favour of it, but it does put us health professionals in a difficult situation, doesn’t it?’
‘Mm, I think it does. What are your feelings about it?’
Chris sighed. ‘I really don’t know, Frie. I suppose I can see the arguments on both sides. But I’ve never been in the situation of being asked to help someone, so no; I just don’t know.’
‘And my parents would not go along with it, I am sure, and it could not easily happen anyway, as he has constant care from his care team. None of them could do it if he asked them, even if they were prepared to. They would certainly be prosecuted.’
‘Well, I’m sure his end will be as comfortable as possible, if he’s getting good palliative care. Which I’m sure he is.’
‘Yes, I am sure it will,’ Frieda agreed, sighing sadly too.