“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.




“Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people” -Thor Heyerdhal-

To be honest I wanted to write about something else today, but then I came across a short video produced by a young Czech woman whom I met in Germany a couple of years ago and her international friends. The video documents one of her 3-day hikes along the lines of a former and current “green border” between the Czech Republic and Germany. On their way, Veronika and her friend come across almost forgotten remnants of the past; gravestones with German names on them, fallen-in houses, ruins of something unrecognizable, towns with names that are written both in German and Czech. But it also shows the young people struggling with their backpacks, joking, laughing, resting under trees tending to their blisters…a regular hiking adventure across the meadows and forests of the Erzgebirge – Krusne hory. So, why do the images bring me close to tears every time I see them?

My grandmother (Oma) was a young German woman of 23 or 24 living in a small German border town. Her and her husband had just bought a home for themselves and their two small children (5 and 3) very close to a creek and a large meadow in front of the house. They had a couple of brown goats and fruit trees, a garden, and family nearby.

It would have been idyllic if it wasn’t 1945 in Europe. My grandfather was still a prisoner of war, my grandmother waiting for his return any day now, because WWII was just declared over. The German government and army was defeated. It could have been a time of celebration. And I am sure the media portrait it as such, especially in the victorious countries.

But here is what really happened in the months and years after the capitulation. Soldiers from different countries swept the rural areas. First the Polish, taking jewelry and livestock from the German villagers, raping the women. After all, they had been the women of the enemy. Later came the Czech and the Russians stealing, burning, raping again. Meanwhile, borders had been re-drawn. Germany, once a vast area, spreading all the way into Czech, Polish and Russian territory, now became small again. But what to do with all the Germans who still lived on that land? Of course, they had to leave. Leave their homes, their animals, on foot with two suitcases and one doll. Yes, my mother, being the five-year-old in this scenario, had to choose one of her two dolls. A decision she still vividly and emotionally recalls 71 years later.

They walked through snow, a long trek of defeated women with children, until they reached the new German territory. Once they crossed the new border they had to find a place to stay. But as you can guess, nobody wanted to welcome the refugees. So they kept walking, hoping their husbands would find them, hoping the the grandparents or children would not die along the way….sound familiar?

My grandmother eventually settled in Freiberg, the town I was born in as well. They had a small apartment for a while, later bought an old house.  But they remained “the refugees”. Integration for those Germans that were catapulted out of their former German homes were shunned by the Germans living in the areas of the “old Germany”- same culture, same language, same customs…Who can understand this?

My grandmother died when she was 93 years old. Until the day before she passed on she hated the Czech for what they had done to her, her family, and her beautiful life, her dreams. Over the years she visited the areas of her former home. And every year she became more depressed. In the early years she saw Czech families living in “her” town and home. Later, the border areas were abandoned, because the Czech people did not trust the new order. They were afraid that, one day, Germany would build an army again and take revenge on all the new settlers for the atrocities committed by the soldiers after the war.

Many people had moved on. Not everybody suffered like my grandmother did. But you could always feel the rift and unease in and around the border areas. The trauma lived on into the next generations, the trauma of the Czech being occupied by an aggressive and expansive German army, and the trauma of the German women and children being yanked out of their homes. After all, they were civilians, had not even voted for Hitler nor his policies.

This is why the hike along the border by Czech Veronica and her international friend was an act of healing. They produced this video, documenting their cross-cultural friendship, and the wounds of the past, still visible as the shattered artifacts along the border towns  six years after my grandmother had died. I am in awe with the Millennials all over the world. They inherited a mess,  but they so open-heartedly  set out to quietly mend fences, make amends that would be the job of the generation before them, and generally don’t care about the hatred still being sewn by the old-timers. I really wish my grandmother could have watched the video, could have felt the love from those young people unaffected by the feelings of war or separation.

Borders have been drawn and re-drawn over the course of history through expansion, war and vengeance too many times to count.

Signs in two languages can be understood as a sign of ambivalence or a sign of hope.

Let’s not build walls. History has shown that they are usually build over night, but take decades, sometimes centuries to come down, separating families, neighbors, towns, and hearts. These wounds don’t heal overnight.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/151396892″>Waldgang I</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user45183283″>Veronik@</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>