Three Hours at the Hospital

My tailor says: “Muli bwanji”, How are you? And I answer accordingly “Ndili bwino kaya inu?, I am well, how about you? We do our business and then he says: “You want an Xray, but no medication?” I am floored. He cannot possibly refer to my consultation with the hospital doctor that I barely left? Or can he?

20171008_133657.jpg

But let’s back up a little. A week ago I started to get sick, but was trying to ignore it since I had too many things to do. However, as these things go one usually does not have a choice in the matter. And so I became sicker and sicker. On Tuesday I was sent home by my principal so I could rest. At that point my voice was gone and I coughed all the time. Laryngitis and bronchitis are actually quite common in teachers and I had my fair share of them over the years. So I greeted the situation as an old, familiar friend. But now I am in Africa. Even familiar things don’t have to work out in familiar ways. Our Peace Corps (PC) medical team had given us an extensive medical kit for our field work knowing that not all of us can reach medical treatment once we are sick. The idea is that we call the Peace Corp doctor in the capital, he tells us what to take out of our box and keeps monitoring the situation in order to possibly change treatment or adjust the situation. And this is how it worked at this time as well. Except I couldn’t find any cough medicine. And the writing on some of the packages was so small that, even with my strongest glasses, I could not read what is in it.

Anyway, my cough (besides the general very sick feeling) became so bad that when I tried to return to work later this week I was sent home again. Without cough medicine there was no sleep. I begged he doctor to tell me what kind of medicine I could possibly hunt for in my village. He did. And I went to the local hospital, a privately run, Anglican hospital which I had visited before to introduce myself in case of an emergency.

20171007_072825.jpg

I knew exactly where to go, found the pharmacy and was instantly recognized by the two staff working the counter. They sent me to the reception. I handed over my note with the name of the possible drugs and the technician was on his way to find them.

He came back after a long time telling me that the hospital was out of this particular medication, but I could see a doctor so he could prescribe me something suitable. I texted my PC doctor and he says “yes, sounds good, just don’t let them give you antibiotics”. So I waited until I was called to enter the small consultation room with a doctor and an assistant. Of course, the doctor doesn’t know I just want cough medicine. He wants to do his own diagnostics. When I told him about the PC physician he also got a bit offended. I should have known. However, obviously in Africa doctors screen for a series of diseases that we are not normally come in contact with like Tb or HIV/AIDS. “Do you experience night sweats?” “Yes, of course, but this is most likely related to the currently very high temperatures. And have I ever been HIV tested before? Me: “Yes, of course.” The doctor: “And, what was the result?” In hindsight these are all very logical questions, but highly unusual for my ears. But in a country that still has a high percentage of it’s population infected with HIV, this is not unusual at all. I realize, he even gave me the VIP treatment since he just took my word for it. No Tb, no HIV. Simple. Now I only have to purchase a patient book where all consultations and treatments are registered.

20171006_170843.jpg

The doctor insisted on at least listening to my lungs as any good doctor would and in the end found some noise in the left lobe of my lung. Bingo. Here comes the prescription for antibiotics. I text my PC doctor telling him that now there is a suspicion of pneumonia, which he has to take seriously by law once the suspicion is voiced by an on-the-ground doctor. This changes everything. My PC doctor asks for me to get a chest X-ray to confirm the diagnosis. The hospital doctor is still annoyed and says that here they treat first and do the X-ray later in case the first treatment does not work…PC doctor: “What do you mean?” I am ready to just pay for everything and only take the cough syrup since nobody is supervising me on what I take and what I don’t. However, now it’s a legal issue and I have to take the antibiotics until I get the chest X-ray, and not just any antibiotics, but the ones issued by PC.

20171006_102755.jpg

The doctor wants me to take a taxi to the capital Lilongwe where I could get an X-ray at the PC office. We are talking about a 12-hour round trip. Then I remember that I have a phone number from a Dutch doctor working at the hospital. I text him and ask if he could work a miracle and arrange for me to get an X-ray. “Yes, of course. No problem”. However, the power had been out for 12 hours already and the generator is broken…

I promise to take my antibiotics and try the X-ray the next day. But if the power is not back on by 9am on Saturday I still will have to go to Lilongwe…

That is when I leave the hospital and stop at my tailor’s booth at the market.

My tailor says: “Muli bwanji”, How are you? And I answer accordingly “Ndili bwino kaya inu?, I am well, how about you? We do our business and then he says: “You want an X-ray, but no medication?” I am floored. He cannot possibly refer to my consultation with the hospital doctor that I barely left? Or can he?

News in the village travels fast.

The story ends with me getting an X-ray at the local hospital the next morning and a passing PC vehicle dropping off the precious cough medicine at my house since Malawi does not have cough suppressants, period. After looking at every possible angle I even understand why the doctor didn’t want to give me an X-ray. It is indeed very difficult to get one in a country where the power is only on for about 30% of the time.

20171007_072915.jpg

Advertisements

Funerals, a part of life

 

Today I was sick. Nothing special, just a cold that I knew was coming. But it made me think about what would happen if I would get really sick here in Africa, what if I would die?

Somehow it was a comforting thought because funerals here in the villages of Malawi are a beautiful affair. Two weeks ago I attended one in a nearby village. I briefly new the woman who died because my counterpart took me to visit the sick and old from her parish a while back. She was a woman in her forties I think. She had five children, among them a set of twins around 12 and an older daughter who already was pregnant. When we visited her she was unable to get up from her mattress on the floor in the adobe brick house. She was so thin that her muscles would not carry her anymore. Her mother told us she had stopped taking her medicine about a year ago. Nobody had to explain what kind of medicine she was talking about, because the way it was said indicated antivirals used to suppress AIDS.

And two weeks later she had died.

Chimwemwe picked me up from my house around ten in the morning. We were in village attire, colored blouses and a colorful wrap as a skirt, called chintenje. We walked alongside the hot and dusty road for about 3km until we turned into the village path that climbed towards the mountains. We walked with many people in festive clothes, all going to the same place. When we arrived there were many people already there. We could hear singing. Chimwemwe ushered me inside taking her shoes off and said to do as she did. We entered a room with the closed coffin displayed and decorated in the middle. The grandmother was sitting close supported by other women. More women lined the sides of the room singing. We knelt down and held the grandmothers hand repeating: “pepani, pepani, pepani…” (Sorry, sorry, sorry…) The grandmother cried and fell back to be cradled by one of her support women. We joined the women singing on the sidelines for a while, then got up and walked through the backdoor. Outside were more women sitting on the ground by the side of the house. Others were busy cooking food for everybody coming to mourn. Large buckets were on the three stone fires that were stirred with two large wooden spoons by two women. Nsima for everyone. Other pots held beans, cabbage and goat meat. We sat down, trying to find some shade and a woman set down plates in front of us but not before asking if I would eat nsima as well. The atmosphere was calmly busy and I only noticed once in a while that the women were wondering what the white person was doing there. But after I shared the traditional local food with the women, knowing how to eat it properly and also offered to help with the dishes I was simply included in the rest of the day.

20170923_120159

During the funeral festivities the women share separate areas around the house than the men. The men were sitting in front and to the right, all women were either involved in the cooking and cleaning, child care or they were quietly sitting in large groups behind the house and to the left. The whole neighborhood grounds were used for sitting and gathering. I sat with the women by the house trying to find some shade, dozing off which was completely acceptable during this long wake. Some of the people had been there all night leading up to that day, taking turns singing and mourning.

Suddenly the crowd stirred and everybody moved around the house, sitting in the dry maize field surrounding the compound. A Roman Catholic priest was reading mass behind a makeshift altar, the choir sang, woman in white blouses and purple skirts and head dresses, men in black shirts and trousers. Most attendees were of different faith. There were Presbyterians, Muslims, members of the Living Waters church and Jehovah Witnesses, but everyone celebrated the Catholic mass because that is how people here show respect.

20170923_135526

After a long time, the crowd started moving again. We walked in rows of colorful dots among and between the dry maize stalks, we crossed creeks, fields, and dusty earth, and finally arrived at the local cemetery where the actual burial was performed. The singing never stopped. It was the men’s job to dig the grave, lower the coffin into the ground, and move the earth back onto its rightful place. Then they left in a long row. The rest of us remained, sitting on the ground, singing, comforting the bereft.

20170923_143014

When we quietly walked back to our own villages 7 hours had passed. We were tired and hot, but we were calm. I thought to myself: what a beautiful way to leave this earth, supported by many, surrounded by life, food, and music.

Here in the villages, people drop everything to partake in a funeral. Nothing is more important, not even work. And if you couldn’t attend for whatever reason, you would go to the village chief to explain yourself. And that was exactly what happened to me upon my return to my own village. A neighbor had died during the afternoon and the funeral was set to be held the next day. Tiered or not, I went to the chief, explained my situation, and the chief said to at least sit and sing with the women that evening and help prepare the food for the next day. There is nothing unusual about two or three funerals close together. Everybody is shown the same respect.

And I was tired and hot, and for a second I thought that this seems unreasonable, to spend all day at one funeral, just to come home to another one. And then I thought that, if it was me who would have died, or me who would mourn a loved one, I would feel comforted, supported, even happy if people simply came, no matter what. Because presence counts. Singing counts. Preparing food counts.

 

Mary wants to be a Doctor

It has almost been two weeks since I moved to Malosa. I am still trying to find my way around this new life of mine and explore a little bit of my new environment every day. I go to the market, walk through the village, and greet all the new strangers that suddenly populate my life. Sometimes it gets overwhelming and I hide in my new little place where it is easy to hide, because it is very beautiful and serene. But every time I walk outside my door and give myself a push to be brave something unexpected and wonderful happens. Sometimes it is just a gorgeous hike up the mountain with unexpected views, sometimes it is a conversation and connection between two people that happens despite the language barrier, and sometimes it is a magical journey into the belly of rural Malawi.

20170907_094051

But let me back up a little. One of my future fellow teachers has made it her job to introduce me to much of my new life around here. Her name is Chimwemwe and she teaches Math. A few days ago she took me to a village to meet some people from her church group who cannot attend anymore either because of sickness or age. One of her students accompanied us on the long walk and we got to know each other a little bit. Her name is Mary, she will be in 12th grade starting September 18th, and she is determined to become a doctor. Of course I am thinking: “Poor girl, the odds are stacked against you.”, because it is still hard for girls to go on after Secondary School, and because she attends a CDSS (Community Day Secondary School), the very lowest ranking kind of schools in Malawi with the least resources and the least chances for students to move up. But little did I know about her determination, her life, her attitude. And of course, this is how it always is. We make snap judgments based on our own experiences without knowing more about a person.

20170907_093221

And so it goes, the education of an ignorant azungu (white person), who comes from a rich land and knows nothing about life….well, I know a little, just enough to know that I don’t know much…

I had told Chimwemwe about my Peace Corps assignment to conduct some sort of community mapping, meaning I should find out about y area and document the findings on a map. I had asked her to help me get acquainted with my new home and she took it to heart. Yesterday she had set Mary and myself up to walk together so Mary could show me a different area. I was asked to bring water, since I have to treat my drinking water as not to get sick. It was indicated that it might be a long walk, but in my experience Malawians walk very slowly and I assumed that “far” meant far only because we would walk a while…. So we set out, me wearing a village appropriate chintenje and Chaco sandals and Mary her Sunday Best, a professional dress with black jacket and flats.

We started walking up the tarmac a bit, then turned right onto a dirt road. Dutifully, she pointed out landmarks like big trees, a small river and where it will connect to another, larger river, a community/ conference building, the names of villages (yes villages, as in several) we passed. We walked through a large estate with remnants of old, colonial glory, passed a Primary School and Roman Catholic church, the chief’s house whom we were supposed to meet, but who was not home. Later I found out that the chief was her uncle. All along we documented our journey by sketching a small map in my little book. Everywhere we went people greeted us and yes, also stared. I think Mary received an education as well of what it means to walk through native villages as a white person and how much (unwanted) attention one draws. She now took on the role of my protector from all the little children that follow and surround me everywhere I go.

After a long time the dirt road led into just foot paths through dry maize fields and I could tell we were nearing an area that Mary was known in. Friends of hers greeted us and families called out her name. We stopped at every house to say our greetings and introduce me as the new teacher at Mary’s school. Up to now I had no idea we were actually going to visit her family in the mountains. But as soon as it dawned on me we already passed groups of people eating nsima (the national food), laughing, and pointing. As soon as we turned around the next corner we heard laughter, happiness, exuberance, and many hands stretched out to greet me. I knew we had arrived wherever we were going. This was her family, her mom, her siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandma, grandpa, and father. The family lives in buildings that were organized in some sort of rectangle forming an open courtyard with a covered area on one side that reminded me of a stage of some sorts. A bamboo mat was laid out for us to sit on, and family members trickled in and out introducing themselves, greeting me. All the while household chores continued. Unceremoniously I was included in the shelling of peanuts, cutting of masamba (green leaves eaten with the nsima), boiling water. The grandmother took me by the hand and led me down another path to show me her own house, crops, animals and her husband who proudly chatted with me in a very polite British English.

20170907_135235

The family made it their business to teach me how to cook nsima and how to serve and eat the food. As a sign of respect Mary and I had our food laid out in a small separate room with a table, beautiful plates, and perhaps the only chair in the entire village.

20170907_114414.jpg

We chatted some more while dishes were done, and everybody wanted to see the pictures on my phone that I took of them, then my pets in America, my children and videos from Gule Wamkulu dancers back in Kasungu.

Then it was time to go and we received gifts in form of peanuts and cassava roots which were freshly dug up. I was also shown how to eat them.

We said our good buys and started walking back. It is customary in Malawi to escort a guest for some of the way, so various people walked with us for different lengths of the way. The grandfather had changed for this purpose in freshly washed cloths and shoes. He walked with us until we reached his son’s house, the house of the village chief. In Malawi strangers are always greeted by the chief, because it is the chief’s business to know about everything that goes on in his or her village.

The chief asked me about my purpose of living in Malawi, and not understanding the mission of Peace Corps, told me that his village needs a maize mill and a borehole. Malawians always assume when they meet a white person, that we come with lots of money and build much needed infrastructure. However, this is for another blog post.

Reaching the tarmac close to my home I had to shake the feeling that we just stepped in and out of a time loop. The life in the rural villages in Malawi seems like life from many thousand years ago. The contrast is stark even within the country.

We were gone for almost nine hours, the one-way walk being almost two hours. This is the way Mary has been walking to and from school every day for the past 3 years. This year will be her final year and she is looking for a place to live closer to school since his is her important examination year. Everything about her future will be decided with the results of this year. And she is anxious, because she has big dreams. Her family is proud of her, because she is the first one in her family to even finish secondary school and they want her to succeed. Her family’s love and laughter, and care surrounds her and gives her strength. Yes, the odds are stacked against her, but I learned something about her determination and about the difficulties she has already overcome to be where she is right now. She has been walking 4 hours each day for the past 3 years just to get to her school, a school that has no resources. Some of the classrooms don’t even have chairs or desks. There is no blackboard, so the wall has been painted with blackboard paint.

20170906_065528

The library is not usable in the sense we use one, there is no laboratory for science instruction, but the exam requirements don’t make any allowances for the severe lack of resources. Exam requirements and standards in Malawi are high. Mary studies throughout the summer to stay ahead and has been voted in as the Head girl in her grade level. She studies in the dark with a candle or flashlight after all the chores are done. She wants to be a doctor and she has great expectations for me to help her in English, in science, to provide opportunities for her that, in her opinion, only white people can provide. She and her uncle, the chief, asked me if I can build a laboratory for the school, a library, create a scholarship fund…..and I feel like I will fail them, because I cannot provide any of these things. At this point I don’t even know if I can manage to teach a class of 60 freshmen in a room that does not have chairs or desks or a blackboard, in a school that only provides one copy of a book per classroom. As Peace Corps volunteers we don’t come with money, we come to integrate, we come with knowledge to share, maybe with some opportunities in form of scholarships.

But today I wish I had money. I wish I could make the dreams of this girl, who is so determined against all the odds, come true.

Instead, I will be a teacher to many, I will be a mentor, an “encourager”. I will pass on any opportunity that will come across my desk and hope that Mary will make it, that she will become a doctor and connect the worlds of her ancient village and the modern day Malawi. She is determined, she has dreams, she works hard, she already has come far. The odds are against her, but the odds are just odds…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Real Thing” or What happened between June 5th and August 26th, 2017?

This is it. All previous posts have been based on events leading up to my departure to Malawi with the Peace Corps. I am currently sitting in my new bed, in my new place near my new school writing this post. This is the first time in three months that I have a semi-reliable internet connection and certainly the first time I have access to my computer. And I actually have TIME. But let me back up just a little bit.

I left Cedar City for Philadelphia on June 5th, 2017. In Philly, all 65 of us (Peace Corps Trainees in the sectors of Education, Health, and Environment; first group ever to be combined. We have literally been guinea pigs in more than one way) stayed in a hotel for 1.5 nights for initial training. I say 1.5 nights, because we left the hotel half way through the second night, 2am to be exact, for the airport to NYC. We boarded a plane to Johannisburg, South Africa (15 hours) and continued to Lilongwe, Malawi for another 2.5 hours. Peace Corps directors, volunteers, trainers, and drivers picked us up with a whole fleet of vehicles and took us to a large hotel for our first week of training. Even so the hotel and food were excellent we got a first glimpse into the rigorous training awaiting us.

In hindsight I must admire the gradual immersion into this new country PC provided for all of us rookies. So many things had to be learned and needed adjusting to. And as much as we were being protected from too much too soon exposure, the villagers around Hotel “Linde” were also being protected from this possible invasion of ignorant, eager, and mostly young, very large group of “azungu” (white people).

Every stage of adjusting was just long enough to be excited about up to the point of us being completely ready for the next phase.

Next step was shopping at a local market in preparation for us to move to our training village. Most of us were a bit anxious about staying with a host family, literally strangers with strange customs and a strange language. And so it happened, again, 65 of us descended on Njombwa, a larger village in the heart of Kasungu district. To our surprise we were welcomed by many people from the village with music and dance and one by one, we were publicly greeted by our host parents.

The expectations for the coming 11 weeks were to listen, prepare, study, adjust, do chores, integrate into the family and community, study harder with no time and do more chores…For most of us our days started around 4:30 or 5am with chores like sweeping the courtyards, lighting fires, washing dishes from the night before. School started 7:30a sharp, which caused, I am now 100% sure, a lot of anxiety and the need for adjustment for our host families as well. Villagers in Malawi just don’t live by the clock. It is unheard of that one would leave without eating breakfast just because a class starts at 7:30 am and chores have not completed yet…

Over the course of our training we had classes in local language, policies, safety/security, culture and customs, technical skills as they applied to our different sectors, technical language instruction, teaching methods, a two week teaching practicum at a local school, presentations, community development, medial issues and how to say healthy, the use of water filters, how not to go crazy and how to provide self-care for oneself, reporting procedures, sustainability concerns in developing nations,community needs assessments, food security, permagardens, healthy cooking, HIV/AIDS prevention, Malaria prevention, youth integration, gender issues, transportation and how to get around safely in Malawi, how to shop, bargain and bank, how to teach literacy with only one book for a classroom of 80-100 students, how to hold meetings in Chichewa and follow the proper protocol, how to address issues of violence, school drop-out rates, particularly for girls etc, etc. In the end we had to pass several very serious exams like the “readiness to serve” (5 hour written test), round-table assessments, presentations, and the dreaded LPI, a standardized language proficiency test, in which a certain level of proficiency had to be reached in order to be let loose on our prospective communities.

Training was tough, geared towards us being 100% prepared since we will be on our own. But perhaps also to weed out anybody who might not be serious enough to embark on this journey. All the while all PC staff was highly professional, passionate, knowledgeable, hard-working, and committed.

And now this chapter is also closed. We are all (except one, who left about 8 weeks into training) at our permanent sites waiting for life as a PC Volunteer to begin.

 

It is always impossible until its done

Only eighteen more hours until I depart to this amazing adventure called Peace Corps service in Malawi, Africa. It took me 11 months to prepare for this trip. And I cannot believe I actually still have time to write another entry.

Why does it take so long to get ready for service? I cannot speak for everybody, but in my case there were a lot of loose ends to tie up, many arrangements to be made, jobs to finish etc. But what about the details?

The application for Peace Corps service is the longest application process I have ever been through and the longest I have ever heard of. It starts with writing a letter of intent. I filled out a form and ask to be invited. I also pick the field of employment and three countries you want to be considered for. After that I sent in a resume, references, and aspiration statement. An interview was set up next where I already had to show familiarity with electronic communication tools. Well, I failed this test. Fortunately, the PC is all about being flexible. I had my interview via old-fashioned phone instead of business skype 🙂

After the interview I was told to wait for a response, which could take up to 4 months. After all, Peace Corps receives 17000 application each year for 4 to 5000 positions. During our conversation I was also assured that my references will not be called until much later in the process, so I felt safe to give up my principal’s address. Little did I know that I was invited within a couple of weeks which did not give me any time to notify my employer first, it being summer and all. Luckily my principal is was a good sport about it and I still love him for that.

Anyway, after I received the official invitation letter to serve in Malawi as an Education Volunteer I received a link to a Peace Corps portal. And that was when I got a first glimpse of how much work still awaited me. The portal was full of tasks all to be completed in a very specific time frame. Tasks ranged from security clearance to dedicating beneficiaries of the life insurance policy. Nothing was left to chance. I also had to re-write my initial statements and resume aligning it more with my now determined assignment.

The following months were filled with passport applications (yes, the PC has their own version of passport, which seriously confuses the passport agent at the local post office), finger printing, essay writing, picture taking, re-doing the passport application, going to doctors, dentists, labs, getting all vaccinations up-to-date which included getting re-vaccinated for childhood diseases I already had, filing paperwork, taking online courses, starting to learn the local language Chichewa, reading PC books and manuals, finding tenants for the house, dedicating someone for power-of attorney, writing my will, deciding that I want my ashes spread….well, you get the point.

I started the process in July 2016 and received my final clearance not until April 2017.

What an amazing marathon. And when I thought I finally could relax I started to look at packing lists. Yes, I bet you have not asked yourself the question yet how to survive on two suitcases worth of stuff in a culture you have no clue about and with the expectation to be professionally dressed for work every day.

In short, I spend several months shopping for things I had never used before like a kindle for example, or a solar charger since I will be living in a mud hut without water nor electricity. Yes, and after I felt good about all my purchases I tried to pack all that good stuff into my two bags. You can imagine the rest. I just survived the wildest packing orgy in my life and I already have moved to foreign countries twice before.

It is Sunday afternoon and I still have time to add this blog entry to my day. Unlikely, but true. And yes, I also had to learn how to create and maintain a blog and how to navigate a messenger group discussion with, I believe, 70 people chatting with each other in 4 or 5 different time zones.

Everything worked out in the end. I successfully completed my job, my second job, my medical and legal clearance tasks, my license renewal, my house, utilities, car, and tenant challenges, said good bye to all my friends and family (which included a trip to Germany), gave presentations about Malawi in two countries, packed my bags, beautified my yard and took the dogs on a last walk though the canyon.

Last year I had a to-do list of 4 double-sided pages hanging on my fridge. Today, the only note that is still around reads “don’t forget to take alarm clock”

Yes, it is always impossible until its done.

P.S. Next week I will be in Africa with no reliable internet connection. I will write again as soon as it will be possible…..until then, tiwonana (see you later)

“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>