by Helga Schierloh
The phone rang – tearing me from a deep sleep – then my kid sister’s brittle voice squeaked through the overseas noise crackling in the wire, “You must come, quickly. They just rushed ‘Vati’ to the hospital.”
My heart racing, I didn’t understand. I had just spent the summer months with my parents in Europe. My father had seemed fine then, pruning and styling his beloved roses into miracles of new shapes and colors.
As it turned out, my dad – a lifelong chain-smoker – had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the esophagus the week before my visit and my family conspired to keep the bad news from me to avoid ruining my vacation.
Only now was I learning about the details as I listened to my sister’s breaking voice – and suddenly I felt angry.
Why did they leave me out? Didn’t they realize that shielding me from the truth they shielded me from the family? Trying to protect me, they turned me into an outsider.
“He might not make it through the night,” my sister said. “Are you coming?”
Letting go of my self-pity, reality hit me. I groped for the wall. “Yes, of course. I just hope I’ll get there in time.”
Vati didn’t wait for me.
After sneaking one more cigarette he was not supposed to have, he died – over there – while I was scrambling to make airline reservations – over here.
As the plane continued its steady climb, I stared down at the flatness of the landscape – trees and buildings pressed against the earth – before it all disappeared into the horizon. A lump settling in my throat, I sank back to recall the sadness in my father’s voice when I had phoned home on my wedding day – after marrying so far, far away – someone no one in my family knew.
The distance had created other difficulties.
I struggled every year with “Father’s Day.” Since the Americans observe it in June and the Germans celebrate it in May, I often remembered it too late.
Vati was never upset.
Whenever I apologized – emphasizing that a card was in the mail to arrive at the American date – he would tease me with a jovial, “I know, you are very Americanized.”
Now squeezed into the tightly packed cabin, my stomach muscles tightened with the sudden awareness that I had forgotten Father’s Day once again. My father had died without any
well-wishes or customary promises from me.
“I haven’t had a chance to say goodbye,” I moaned.
When the flight attendant inquired if I needed anything, I ordered a double Manhattan. Then, peering through the clouds at the ice-patches floating on the gray water below, I gulped my drink and asked for another.
“Drink up,” I told myself. “It’ll do you good.”
But even the warm rush of the whisky couldn’t halt the dark desolation of the Atlantic spreading through my soul.
Numb with grief, I supported my mother down the walk from the parking lot to the bulky cement portal of the park-like cemetery amidst the factories and high-rises of the city.
Probing each step, we walked arm in arm past marble tombstones and colorful flower arrangements, when the blinking of a light destroyed our reverence. Annoyed, I stared at the malfunctioning fluorescent tube atop a nearby restaurant.
“Mutti” patted my arm. “Relax, that old inn is a much needed gathering place for mourners to gossip about the good old days and about the person just buried.”
Then she began to waver. It was 30 degrees Celsius outside – a bit much for the 75-year-old. Tightening my grip at her elbow, I wiped the perspiration off my forehead and suddenly felt unable to move.
It was not the heat that paralyzed me, but the sight of the fresh grave straight ahead of us.
Seeing the worried look on my mother’s lined face, I nodded reassuringly and forced myself to walk on. Hesitating, measuring every inch of the remaining distance, we finally arrived at the crumbling pile of parched soil with no gravestone, and a disheveled mass of decaying wreaths.
Coming home is not the same anymore, it’s different now, I concluded, as I bent down to run my hands through the dried-up flower arrangements.
Stunned, I realized that this was all that was left of my wonderful father.
Very fitting, wilted decorations for a wilted life, I thought wistfully, as I conjured up his image:
A slight man with a weathered face and hard, callused hands, a shy smile on his lips contrasted by a bravery in his eyes that a lot of boisterous, outgoing, macho men never have, my father always seemed a bit afraid of people, but never fearful of life.
I once asked him how he felt about being an English prisoner-of-war during World War II. Smirking, he chuckled. “Those Brits catching me was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said. “I didn’t really fancy shooting anyone and neither did I like to get shot at.”
Taking a sip of his beer, he turned back to his dinner. The question answered, the subject closed, he quietly finished his meal.
He never talked much. Still, I felt safe with him, in spite of his obvious disdain for supernatural things. His impatience with anything unexplainable in rational terms stood in stark contrast to my mother’s somewhat childlike approach to religion. She easily supplemented her trust in an omnipotent being with believing in lucky numbers and the fortunate appearance of chimney sweeps.
So, even before the computer age, Mutti made sure she had some backup – just in case. She must have placed the right bets. Here she was – touching me, reassuring me – while all that seemed to be left of my dad was the smell of fresh earth, crumbling wreaths and dried tears.
I sank against my mother. Carried by her grief, I cried for the first time since hearing the news of my father’s death.
“I’ve come a long way to say goodbye, Vati,” I sobbed.
My mother stroked my arm. “Yes, and you’ll have to go back again.”
As my tears washed away the remorse I had harbored for not seeing my father alive “just one more time,” I recalled that he had expected it to be all over “once they put you into that box.”
Growing up Catholic, I clung firmly to the belief that my “atheist” dad would goto heaven, somehow, his way. I worried much more about his lack of interest in my own religious rites of passage.
I will never forget my First Communion.
Standing before the altar, dressed as a virgin bride in lace-trimmed white satin, I didn’t expect my father to show up, until I saw him in a pew near the exit – the last one in, the first one out, fleeing incense and myrrh to puff on a self-rolled cigarette. But he was there, for me.
And now he was down there in the cold ground, a speck of humble humanity decked out in his best black suit – motionless forever.
Again I hoped – just in case my father was wrong and there was life after death, after all – that he would be able to cultivate his beloved roses and do his crossword puzzles in that realm beyond earthly comprehension.
To honor Vati and recapture my fondest memories of him, I drove out to the village of my childhood.
It was there that I had first met my father:
Since the end of the war, my mother and I had been living in the country, trying our best to survive. Although I was carefree and happy, I greatly envied many of the local children for having a father.
To ease my pain, my mother reassured me steadfastly that my Vati would return — eventually.
So, with the unshakable faith of a child, I trotted almost daily to the highway at the end of the town and sat down on a large rock, waiting… for “HIM.”
Weeks passed – until, one day, I saw a small man come up the hill, dragging along a tattered cardboard box. He was all dressed in black and I had never seen him before.
“Vati?” I asked.
The stranger responded with a bewildered, yet slightly amused look in his sunken eyes. Then he asked for my name – and seconds later, he scooped me up in his arms.
My tiny hand firmly packaged into his rough fist, I pulled him along.
Seeing us coming, my mother raced toward us, first hugging the man, then lifting me up high and shouting, “You actually did it.”
“But Mutti,” I said. “You told me he would come back.”
I yawned and looked across the horizon. The sun was going down. Rubbing my eyes, I pushed myself off “the rock” to walk along the sandy path towards the trees.
As I entered the forest, my steps grew heavy and my heart began to pound.
The adult I had become was suddenly afraid to come once again face to facewith the pure devotion I had so wholeheartedly embraced during the innocence of my younger years.
Soon I spotted the semi-circle of plaques and candles in the small clearing amidst majestic old pine-trees. A moment later, the image of the grieving Holy Mary holding her slain son, surrounded by glittering decorations dancing ominously in the candle light, put me under a spell.
Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I thought, as I sank into a prayer bench to absorb the peace that permeated me with a feeling of an existence beyond reality.
For a few minutes, I felt soothingly at one with the hurts of my past, the struggles of my presence, and the vast possibilities of my future.
Rubbing my forehead across the rough surface of the aged oak-wood of the bench, I finally gave myself completely over to grieving my father’s death.
Tears crept from my closed eyes, tingling one by one across the tip of my nose, before bouncing soundlessly onto the weatherworn bench and seeping into its crevices.
Although I had convinced myself over the years that it was not in my nature to yield readily to anything mystical, I felt cleansed – healed.
The wind grew stronger and colder, chilling the magic that had held me captive.
Shivering, I forced myself upright and walked over to the table where candles of all colors and sizes were for sale.
Slipping a handful of coins into the offertory box, I selected a waxy yellow stub.
Plain, sturdy and reliable, I thought, just like Vati. This one is perfect.
I shuffled across the pebble-embedded sand crunching under my feet to the rusty wire structure decorated with a vast assortment of candles.
As I stuck my offering onto one of the many skinny spokes resembling discolored pine needles, I noticed that most of the skewered stumps of wax clinging to a multitude of metallic branches were no longer burning. Only a persistent few still flickered in the evening breeze, pouring a warm tinge across the shrine.
I used the liveliest of the tiny fires to ignite the wick of my candle. Then, staring at the newborn flame, I felt my skull growing thick with emotions as I listened to the shrill piping of the wind.
Thinking of my father, I jiggled my candle to make sure it would stay fastened to the tree of lights.
It won’t last, I thought somberly, but for just a little while longer, it will warm to his memory.
Glancing at my watch, I suddenly realized that it was time to face my mother’s admonishing question, “Where have you been all day?”
Leaving the clearing, I drove up the winding highway to the hilltop castle.
After parking my car on the muddy patch near the local duke’s riding stables, I walked across the street to take in the view I came to see:
The valley below bathed in the soft glow of the departing sun wrapping the tiny village of my childhood into a last golden embrace. About twenty houses stood huddled together as if taking comfort in the fact that, although few, they were strong in number.
Craning my neck, I could see the outer corner of the steep gable of the tiny stucco house where my family had moved after my dad had returned from the war.
A few years before, I had brought my teenaged son here.
“Look, honey, this is where I grew up,” I had exclaimed. “Isn’t it just beautiful?”
Putting down the novel he was reading, he had leaned out of the car. “Boy, Mom, you sure must have held your breath a lot while growing up.”
I had promptly closed the car windows to lock out the stench of cow manure and grumbled, “Couldn’t you at least reflect on the beauty first and comment on the stink later?”
Now, thinking of my children, I bid goodbye to a world that was so much a part of the memories of my father.
“Live and let die,” I whispered.
It was time to release the past and embrace the present.
I hugged my mother at the flight gate, her tears mingling with mine, as I kissed her wet cheek. Trying to force brave smiles, we both knew that it might be a while before we would see each other again.
“You must come and visit, soon,” I said, fully aware that this was not going to happen. My mom didn’t like flying that much, she didn’t speak English, and at her age, traveling was quite exhausting.
Then it was suddenly time to board.
My eyes still fogged over, I glanced back one more time to see my mother covering her face with both hands.
I felt devastated, disloyal and helpless, all at the same time. Nevertheless, I knew I had to go…
Numb, disoriented, I sank into my seat and listened to the engines accelerating for take-off. When I finally felt the familiar lift, I leaned back and closed my eyes to drift between a restless sleep and a painful reality.
Before too long we were over the ocean. I ordered a double Manhattan and peered through the clouds at the ice-patches floating on gray water.
It was the same view, the same routine – and yet – something was quite different.
Promising myself that I would never again take the love of my family for granted, I lifted my glass.
“Mutti, Vati,” I whispered. “It has been a pleasure.”
Gazing at the vastness of the Atlantic, I suddenly felt extremely lonely, but very much at peace.