“49 does not equal 49”, or “Why now?


I still have not left for Malawi yet. My phone app tells me I still have 42 days 14 hours 48 minutes…until departure. I started not sleeping well, reflecting more. At times it feels like I am sitting on a ledge, ready to fly, but the safety harness is still attached to the block.

I am thinking back 27 years. I see myself as a young adult, little younger than most of my future Peace Corps companions, ready for my life to begin. But I am not at the airport, luggage at hand, ready to depart for a life changing adventure. Instead I am sitting by a bedside. The room is light. There are four or six beds in it, I don’t recall exactly, but everybody in there is sick. It’s a hospital room and my father’s bed is the first one on the right. It is a Sunday, visiting hours and I hear bells ringing, like they do in Germany, from nearby church towers. I love the sound and connect it with peace.

My family is there. It is my father’s first Sunday in the new hospital since his brain surgery. He lost his ability to speak and his right side is paralyzed. My hair is very short, thin, and dull in color, just barely growing back from when I lost it as a side effect of chemotherapy and radiation.

My father motions me to help him up to a seated position and I awkwardly support his lopsided body. We are not physically close. We are battle companions, wounded in the year long fight against cancer. We each had our own way of dealing with the disease. And our ways were not compatible. But here we were, I am in my first week of remission, he in his last day on earth. He must have known, because he was cheerful for the first time in a year, content, and somewhat mischievous as he could be at times. Then he suddenly pulled me close with his working arm and kissed me on my very surprised mouth, a gesture of endearment that was out of the ordinary, had never happened before; a sure sign of bidding me farewell combined with his blessing and encouragement to go on and keep living my life. At least this is how I see it in hindsight. I have always wondered about this kiss.

That evening he had an embolism that traveled to his lungs. He never regained consciousness after that. He was 49.

During our year of battling cancer together my dad kept telling me about his plans to open a car repair shop after he would be well again. This was a big, hopeful, and ambitious dream, because he worked as an engineer in a coat factory to support his family. It was almost impossible to start your own business in East Germany, the land behind the “Iron Curtain” where we used to live. But only 10 months before, in November of 1989, the wall separating the two parts of Germany divided after the WWII, fell bringing all kinds of changes to Germany. One of the new opportunities was to be able to be an entrepreneur. It was my dad’s dream for as long as I remember. He used to have this routine of coming home from work in the factory, eat the already prepared dinner, change his clothes and go off helping the entire town, as it seemed sometimes, to fix their cars.

How tragic that as soon as his dream came close enough to be reached he got sick and died. This is, of course, as I see it now. At that time I thought he was crazy to even think it. He had an in-operable brain tumor, a fact he kept forgetting, and he was 49, way to old to start a new business or new life for that matter.

Not surprising the number 49 has always been somewhat significant in my own life. Of course my perspective has changed over time. The higher I go up in years the more I realize that we don’t age. Yes, our bodies do, but our spirit does not change one bit. And I see now how young 49 really is. I owe my dad a huge apology. Yes, he could have had another shot at a new career, a fulfillment of a dream, but he didn’t. For the longest time I felt something like survivor’s guilt that I made it and he didn’t. And looking back at our last day together in the hospital I like to think that he wanted to prevent exactly this, me feeling like I don’t deserve a shot because he died and I survived. He did what every good and loving father would do, he gave me permission and encouraged me to go on and live my life the way I want it. No restrictions, no guilt.

Of course it didn’t work like that for the longest time. Grief is unpredictable, it travels in spirals, comes and goes, never moves linear. It takes hard work, patience, and self love to come out the other side. But it is worth it.

I turned 49 last March. In many ways I feel free now. 49 is just a number once again. It’s like a weight has lifted. And I can see what my dad tried to tell me. I ought to live my life, not his.

These days I am taking his permission and running with it. I am not too old to start a new life or chase a dream. My soul is as young as ever and has wings as I am finding out.

Thanks, dad. Danke, Vati.