Here is chapter ten of Christobel. Frieda’s granddad is getting worse as his body succumbs to his disease and Frieda and Chris do their best to make the twilight of his life as comfortable as they can, but his will to live has evaporated.
Thank you for reading my novel. I hope you are enjoying it, or it’s touching you a little. If you are new here and would like to start at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each successive post on from there.
They visited Dieter again the following weekend. He looked even worse now, lying listless in his bed, wearing the oxygen mask when they entered the room, although, ever-polite, he feebly motioned Frieda to remove it. It was as though the sand in the hourglass of his life was running away ever-faster, accelerating towards his end.
Frieda knew her question sounded absurd, but she had to ask it, had to show concern. ‘How are you, Opa?’
Even a faint smile seemed beyond him now. His eyes were empty. He spoke in German. ‘Hallo Liebling. Thank you for coming. You are a good girl. How am I? I am ready to go. That is how I am. Yes, I am ready.’
He hadn’t really answered the question. Well, he’d answered the question he wanted to. Frieda bit her lip, blinked her smarting eyes. ‘No, don’t say that, Opa. You must not say that.’
‘Well yes I can, if I want to,’ Dieter said quietly, in puny defiance, but there was no belligerence in the words.
Frieda sat down, taking his hand in both of hers. Chris sat too. Dieter’s eyes shifted to him. He switched to English. ‘Hello Chris. How are you?’
‘Hello Dieter. I’m fine, thank you.’
‘Good. That is good.’
‘Are you comfortable? Is there anything I can do for you?’
‘No, not very. And no, there’s nothing really, thank you. I wish I could have more morphine. But the doctor won’t increase my dose.’
‘It’s better not to have any more than you really need,’ Chris said gently. ‘Or you’ll become too dependent and it’ll be less effective. Best to manage it carefully.’
‘Nonsense.’ Dieter said, but without the energy to be vehement. ‘Only I know how much I need, as you put it. It is not for anyone else to say.’
‘No; right. Are you having it orally or injected?’
‘Injected, now. It’s quicker acting that way, and it’s getting too difficult to swallow the liquid. I wish I could just have a beaker-full and a straw, or something, so that I could take as much as I wanted, as often as I wanted.’
‘Well, I’m sure the doctor has the dose about right,’ Chris said, although without a great deal of conviction. After all, Dieter was probably right. Only he knew, really, the extent of his discomfort. And his tolerance of pain. No, it wasn’t for anyone else to judge.
‘Whereabouts does it hurt, Opa?’ Frieda asked.
‘Where does it not?’ Dieter said miserably. ‘Arms, legs, shoulders, back, neck. Nearly everywhere.’
‘Yes, it is perhaps musculoskeletal pain due to lack of mobility.’
‘I know that!’ Dieter replied petulantly. ‘I would exercise them if I could. But they do not work anymore.’
‘No, Opa. I know. I am sorry. Do the carers give you any massage?’
‘Sometimes, although they have to do so much else for me now; they do not really have the time. I am as helpless as a baby. Hans does it now and then, if I get really uncomfortable.’
‘Would you like us to get you onto your stomach so that I can massage your back? Would that help?’
‘Yes, all right, Liebling. It might,’ Dieter said wearily. ‘Thank you; you are a good girl.’
Chris and Frieda stood. He removed the mound of pillows, dropping them onto the floor, she pulled back the bedcovers and unbuttoned his pyjamas, and together they got Dieter’s poor thin wasted body onto its front. It wasn’t difficult; he was feather-light. Frieda sat on the edge of the bed and, leaving it on in case he got cold and to preserve his dignity, put her hands inside the loose pyjama top, and began to gently massage. Chris put a pillow back for his head and in an impulsive desire to show affection, stroked the scrawny neck.
After a few minutes Dieter sighed languidly. His eyes were closed. ‘How does this feel, Opa?’ Frieda asked.
‘That is a little better, Liebling. It is so nice to feel . . .’ The sentence petered out.
‘Nice to feel what?’
‘. . . nice to feel loving female hands on me once more. It is wonderfully comforting. Since your Oma went . . . You have no idea.’
‘Well that is good then,’ Frieda said softly, not pursuing Dieter’s train of thought, glancing at Chris, her eyes glazed. I must do this for you more often.’
She continued. His body felt a little warmer at least. He had fallen silent. Chris said, ‘Dieter?’
There was no reply. He bent closer, peered; said softly, ‘I think he’s asleep, Frie’.
Frieda said, ‘Opa?’
There was no answer. Suddenly alarmed, Frieda said, ‘Are you sure? He’s not . . . ?’
Chris found the external jugular vein; placed two fingers. ‘No, it’s all right, he’s still with us. He’s just fallen asleep. Your massaging must have been soothing, Frie.’
‘Oh, thank God for that.’
‘I suppose we ought to wake him; get him comfortable.’
‘No,’ Frieda said. ‘We’ll let him sleep. When he wakes we can deal with him.’
Frieda put the bedcovers over her grandfather and they left him sleeping, walking into the kitchen to make themselves drinks. Hans was in there, making himself scarce from the family scene again, sitting at the table reading a magazine.
‘He is asleep,’ Frieda answered Hans’ silent query. ‘I was giving him a massage and he – what is that English expression, Chris?’
‘Er, “nodded off”?’
‘Yes. Thank you. Nodded off.’
‘Good,’ Hans said approvingly. ‘I wish he would sleep more. Then at least he would not be lying there doing nothing, looking miserable.’
‘Well I think you would be feeling miserable in his situation!’ Frieda retorted angrily, her eyes blazing.
Hans raised both hands. ‘I am sorry. Wrong word. I meant “looking unhappy”. Forgive me.’
‘Mm, all right. Sorry I snapped.’
Hans waved a hand in a that’s-okay gesture.
‘You spend a lot of time with him every day. Is he really sad?’
‘Well, yes. Understandably, I suppose. I agree with you. I think I would be too. Poor Dieter.’
Frieda filled the kettle and set it to boil for instant coffee and tea making. Chris joined Hans at the table. He was probably about the same age as the blond-haired, plump young man, he estimated. It was rare to see a male care assistant – probably even rarer than a male nurse – in Britain. But then back home, the pay for carers was pretty rubbish. Few men would want to do it. Doubtless, here in affluent Germany with its well-funded health and social care system, pay was much more attractive.
‘How long have you been a carer then, Hans?’ Chris asked.
Hans grinned. ‘Six years, nearly.’
‘And do you really enjoy the work?’
‘Yes, mostly. It is quite physically hard sometimes, and not always pleasant of course, although you get used to that. And sometimes a little depressing when you’re dealing with end-of-life clients.’ He glanced anxiously at Frieda, as if uncertain whether to continue after her outburst, but she was smiling. ‘But it is often very rewarding, to be making a difference if only in a small way.’
‘More than a small way, Hans,’ Chris said. ‘You’re too modest. I’d say you make a big difference; you usually make people’s lives a lot more bearable and comfortable, even if they haven’t got a lot of it left.’
‘Well, that is what I think about nursing, too. Except of course, with it you’re usually either helping people get well or . . . you know. It is usually shorter-term.’
‘True,’ Chris agreed. ‘Whereas with you, you could be looking after someone for years, couldn’t you.’
‘Yes, that is true. But the other difference is that your job is much cleverer than mine. You do more medical care.’
‘You do some basic nursing though, don’t you? Give medicines and injections for pain control, things like that?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Well your training sounds better than a carer’s in Britain then, if you are allowed to do that.’
‘Mm, perhaps so.’
Chris was impressed. The role of care assistant in Germany sounded much more comprehensive than back home in Cornwall; no frazzled carers here, rushing from house to house giving patients precious half-hours or even less of their strictly rationed time. But then, it sounded as if being a carer carried a higher status here, and presumably with a salary to match.
Frieda poured the drinks and the three of them talked shop some more, then the conversation switched to Chris’s background, which Hans found equally interesting. Particularly when Chris mentioned his rock-star brother. His expression moved to open-mouthed-impressed then. ‘Really? “Vagabond”?’
‘Yeah, do you know them then?’
‘Oh yes! Willem and I went to see them two years ago in Berlin. They are a great band! Which one of them is your brother?’
‘The tall dark one. With long hair. The bass guitar player. He’s the rich, good-looking, talented one in the family.’
‘Oh, don’t start that again, Chris!’ Frieda laughed in mock-exasperation. ‘As I keep saying, what you do is just as important!’
Chris laughed. ‘Okay, Frie. I suppose you’re right.’
‘Well I would not refuse a few more thousand Euros a year in my bank account,’ Hans said ruefully. ‘Willem and I do not have very much money to spare. We cannot live on job satisfaction alone.’
‘What does he do as a job?’ Frieda asked. ‘If you do not mind my asking.’
Hans frowned, looked embarrassed. ‘No, that is all right. He works in a bar. The pay is not very high. The rent of the apartment takes over half of our combined income.’
‘Yes, it must be difficult,’ Chris felt a little abashed. So perhaps carers weren’t quite so well-rewarded here after all, for all the apparent affluence.
As if reading his thoughts, Frieda said, ‘Germany has still not really got over the banking crisis, Chris. We are not so boundlessly rich that we can keep baling out the poorer countries of Europe. We have had severe austerity measures in place here too; it is not just countries like Britain or France.’
They fell silent, sipped their drinks, each lost in their own thoughts. To be jolted out of individual reverie a few minutes later by noises from the living room. Frieda was on her feet and back to Dieter’s bedside in an instant. He was moaning quietly. ‘Ah, Opa, you are back with us. You fell asleep,’ she said gently in German. ‘It must have been the massage.’
He looked at her bleary-eyed, wincing, saying nothing. He probably had a stiff neck from lying awkwardly. Chris and Hans joined Frieda at his side.
‘Let us get you turned over and more comfortable, shall we?’
Dieter managed a languid nod.
‘Do you want to lie down or be propped up?’
‘Lie down.’ The reply was an apathetic mumble.
The two men gently turned him onto his back as Frieda arranged pillows for his head. ‘Would you like a drink before you settle down, Dieter? Hans asked, rather pointedly reasserting his authority. Dieter rotated his head fractionally in a miniscule shake. ‘No, I am fine, thank you.’
Frieda sat and took his hand again, caressing. Dieter half-smiled. ‘What a state to be reduced to, Liebling,’ he whispered hoarsely.
‘It is all right, Opa, it is all right,’ Frieda soothed, but the words of comfort sounded hollow in her ears.
‘No, it is not.’ There was a faint spark of indignation. ‘It is pointless, carrying on like this. If I were our old Strolch, you would call the vet in to give me an injection, send me to sleep. Do the kind thing.’
‘Oh, do not talk like that. Strolch was a dog; you are a person; it is different. Much as we love our pets, human life is ultimately more precious. And we love you!’
‘Yes, I know. But why can I not be allowed, be helped, to slip away?’
‘Because we just cannot do that, Opa. Apart from anything else, it is against the law. It is a human rights issue. And you know what a sensitive subject that is, especially here in Germany.’
‘And what about my human right to choose the time and manner and place of my passing?’ Dieter murmured querulously. ‘My free will is being denied me. It is like being a child again: Everything has to be done for me in practical terms. I no longer have control of my body. Or of my right to free will, to decide for myself. I have no dignity. And with your Oma gone, what is the point in carrying on?’ Dieter paused, gasping after the effort of such a sustained monologue.
‘Do you want your oxygen?’ Frieda said, fighting tears, desperately clinging to control, wishing he would leave the subject.
He nodded slightly and she put the mask on. He closed his eyes, briefly relieved. She searched her brain, looking for words of comfort, but there were none to be found. What could she say after all to her dignified intelligent grandfather that wouldn’t sound trite, ridiculous, un-empathetic? Part of her conceded that he perhaps had a point. Should he be allowed to go, to end his miserable existence, if he so chose? And if he was no longer physically able to do the deed himself, did he have the right to ask help in doing so?
She stroked his forehead, running her hand back through his thin white hair. Spoke, forcing the words past the lump in her throat. ‘Yes, I know, dear Opa. I know. It’s really intolerable for you, isn’t it? I do wish I could make it better.’
Dieter made his slight sign for her to lift the mask. ‘I know you do Liebling. But no; I suppose there is nothing you can do.’
Chris drove the car back to apartment, as Frieda was in no fit state to. She could not hold back her tears of pity and helplessness now. And he knew that there was nothing he could sensibly say to comfort her, either. Poor Frie; she must be feeling wretched. Probably guilty too, after she’d finally worked up the courage to tell Dieter that they must be going; that they’d be back to visit in a few days, perhaps to give him another massage. Or sooner than that, if he wanted. Any time. She had written her phone number down for Hans to contact if Dieter wanted her.
Chris tried to imagine how he’d feel if he were in the same situation; if Gran were terminally ill with no meaningful quality of life left and no wish to carry on. Or worse, asking him, pleading with him – perish the thought –to help her die. She was the sort of independent-minded, free-spirited lady who, like Dieter, would have no truck with conventional or religious mores around the sinfulness of suicide, or assistance in it. The scenario didn’t bear thinking about.
They desultorily ate dinner and decided to have an early night, as Frieda felt emotionally spent. Just as they were about to rise from the sofa and get ready, the phone rang. Frieda picked up. ‘Hallo? Ah; hallo Vater.’
‘Ja. Einen Moment.’
She handed the receiver to Chris. ‘My father. He wants a word.’
Puzzled, he took it.‘Hello, Andreas. How are you?’
. . .
‘Yes, good, thanks.’
. . .
‘Er . . . Go on . . .’
Another pause, swelling to a protracted silence. Finally Chris found words. ‘Er, no. No,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t do that, Andreas. I’m sorry.’