Claudia’s parents always wanted me to visit in summer, when the cherry tree in front of their house in the Black Forest blossoms and then is heavy with fruit. But airfares from Australia to Europe are hard to afford then, so I never visited them when it was warm. Until last year.
Last summer, Claudia and I came to give her brother and wife a chance to take a holiday. They live around the corner from Claudia’s parents, who depended on them for help with shopping and driving to medical appointments.
We came here again this summer, called on late notice, because we were told that Claudia’s mother was dying. She nearly died a few times during her hospital admission, even according to the formulaic hospital discharge summary. Her Papa had a fall (another one) when he was home without her, looking for her. When we arrived he was in short term care. One of those very calm (sporadically wild) wards where the way to the door is disguised and there is good coffee and cake every afternoon.
We went to see him there. He had found the balcony and worn a track to it with his careful, slow steps in his specially issued non-slip shoes. He would make his way from his room or the living space to the balcony so he could see the sky and the birds. You could look down through the Perspex on people working in their yards — cutting away the dying roses to make way for more, harvesting beans and tomatoes, turning the compost. I sat beside him as we watched a busy mum park her van and transport her three little ones, and the shopping, turn by patient turn, into the house.
Back in my in-laws’ home without either of them, I cut the grass around the cherry tree with their electric mower, enjoying the smell of the cut grass, wondering what would become of us. There was a late frost in southern Europe this year, which killed the cherries in the bud. The tree was lavishly leaved, but sterile. Local people were buying cherries in small punnets from Spain and Turkey. Most years Claudia would complain that her parents were giving away too many of the cherries. This year, the tree had nothing to give.
We visited Claudia’s mum in the hospital every day. She was newly immobile and sometimes her hands, arms and neck didn’t work well either. The doctor, under pressure from the hierarchy, was quietly astonished when we agreed to take her home and try to care for her there.
With the two of us we could get her out of bed to her wheelchair. While we were waiting for equipment to help us move her more easily, helping to lift her in and out of places many times a day made me stronger quickly. But tired, so very tired. Three days after she came home, Claudia’s dad came home. Their reunion was heartwarming, heart wrenching. But a part of me was thinking, “At least he can stand and lift a foot to help put his trousers on”.
“I still can’t believe that there are four of us in the house and that you and I are the only ones who are really mobile,” I said to Claudia at sunrise on the third day. We were so used to coming home to the house they built, the house they ruled. We came home to be bossed around. Claudia’s mum, grappling with her limitations, still bossed us around at times, telling Claudia how to do every little thing. Her mama was coming to terms with the skill-set of the disabled – how to tell a person where to find a thing, how to direct them to find a piece of paper in your wallet. And one of her daughters-in-law (me) doesn’t speak the language. It could be very frustrating and Claudia bore the brunt of it – sometimes stoically, other times in tears.
Mama also worked hard to push the wheelchair and could make it move on some days, with what seemed almost psychokinetic energy. Sometimes I’d come back to the living room to find that she had, all alone, pushed herself to the other side. But her physical energy would evaporate rapidly in spite of her determination and then she needed help to get a cup to her lips.
Papa could not really talk anymore but used his determination to have a good time in each moment. He persevered to do his favourite things — eat fruits and sweets; look out the windows beyond the cherry tree to the houses on the other side of the valley or up to the sunset; get out into the garden. This often meant a slow, step-by-step push-and-drag mission for us when his energy was gone and it was time to get him back into the house.
Sometimes he took on an aspect of inestimable nobility. “The Centurion is here,” I’d say, as he surveyed the living room, ignoring his wife’s requests (having become unable to fulfil them). Mama called him ‘Cavalier’ and that was a good description, too. He became austere and calm, above it all. It was beautiful and a little amusing to see.
The days passed in hard work. Calls at night meant the days were bleary. Every day we negotiated physical, emotional and spiritual constraints. Often hours of confronting limitations resulted only in untold weariness and grief. How poignant to watch Mama working the phone, her selection of digits too slow for the technology, a robot telling her repeatedly that she reached a wrong number. She is dogged though. She has things to do. I see the depth of her comfort with Claudia in their arguments about what she can and can’t do. “Well, if I really can’t walk, what’s the point of it all?” she demands. They fight a lot. Despite many years of living far away (or perhaps because of it), they are still so close these two, that they can periodically blame each other for everything.
Amidst it all, I was delighted to see a green cherry on the tree. ‘And I see another one,’ Claudia said, pointing it out to me. ‘And there is one turning red’.
Three weeks or so after coming home, after his survey of sunsets and walks to the garden, Claudia’s dad took to his bed. He came out to the living room with lots of help, once, and feasted on tiny pieces of steak his granddaughter fed him as he gazed into her eyes with pleasure. He was able to talk that evening and sounded like himself. It was astonishing. His grandchildren knew they were loved. We all did.
A day later, he was only conscious enough to swallow a few exquisite molecules of mango from Claudia. He listened to her commentate a football game, eyes closed, propped up, smiling a little. The next day Claudia had to go out. It was as if he waited for that. He was sitting in bed, his wife holding his hand. I came upstairs from the laundry singing Que sera, sera. He was not breathing. I had no stethoscope, so I felt for pulses, only too aware that you can feel your own pulse in your thumb when you search for another’s. I saw the colour drain from Papa’s face and knew then he was gone. I was crying as I put my ear on his chest. Nothing.
Claudia’s mum and I cried, hugged and wailed for a while before I called her brother. He and his wife came from work in crisp white shirts. “But isn’t he breathing?” said her brother. As the spirit leaves a body it can seem that way. It’s a kind of hallucination. Claudia came home soon after, devastated.
The family chose a photo for the funeral which showed Papa’s knowing eyes. His wisdom and depth are there. He had volumes of village history in him and was a grand storyteller. He worked as an electrician. We think of him whenever we turn on a light switch. I hear him telling me what to do when I turn the compost heap or cut roses for his wife. And they will both be here, somehow, when the cherry tree fruits, as it will, next summer.
Thumbnail of blossoms by Clem Onojeghuo