(scroll below for links to other childhood stories)
I love my second Oma. But I don’t love my second Oma’s husband. He isn’t my real grandfather. Oma divorced her first husband. He never plays with me, and never tells me stories. Mama tells me, he used to be the kindest and most loving man, but that’s hard to believe. He smokes a lot, and he doesn’t speak much and coughs a lot. And he’s always grumpy. And he gets thinner and thinner. One day, he stopped speaking all together and now he just grunts, wails or snorts. When he eats, food slithers down his chin like worms. He never smiles, and by now I am almost scared of him. I don’t know yet that he’s ill, and the adults in the family don’t know yet that he probably has an illness called Creutzfeld Jacobs disease, and that many years in the future, scientists will find out that you can get this illness from eating crazy cows.
One morning it is very early and I am up and about already. I think I am seven years old. As I skip down the stairs from the upper floor area of the house (it has a separate entry and there is no inside connection to downstairs), I see him in the garden by the water hose. He stands there, washing his face, and he is still wearing his striped pyjamas. I freeze, because I have seen this somewhere else. In Papa’s history book, there are black and white photos of very skinny, ill looking men, behind spiky wire, caged like sheep. They all look into the camera with eyes that are too large for their faces. My step-grandfather looks just like one of them. He is very tall, two metres, and oh so thin. The pyjamas are hanging on him like a coat on a coat stand. My stomach gets all tickly and there is a heat rising up in my head pushing tears into my eyes. I want to walk up to him and hug him, I want to help him wash his face, or hand him the towel, but I cannot move. He’s not seen me, and I sneak back up the stairs, where I sit on the first step and cry for him. I think, this is my grandfather and he is dying, but he doesn’t want to, and I wish I’d known him better.
One day we go to see him in the hospital in Berlin Buch, which is like a large hospital town. He has been here for weeks. They have put him in a single room to die, and the large, old trees outside the window drown the room in shadows. I think it is spring, or summer and his face is barely visible in the huge white pillow. He can’t make human sounds anymore. Mama didn’t want me to come along, but I wanted to. I don’t think he knows I’m here, but I say “Goodbye Opa” before we leave.
published 29 December 2011