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Thirty years ago yesterday I got a little glimpse of eternity. It was both horrifying and reassuring beyond measure.
Let me explain.
A few years before that, my Oma – my mom’s mom, passed away in Germany, and since mom was there – she asked her dad, my Opa, if he would want to come live with us, and so he did. I still remember seeing him at the international arrivals terminal at Sea-Tac, wearing his wool coat, his old leather shoes, and his felt hat. He looked like a time traveler amidst all the hustle and bustle of the other travelers, and in some way, he was.
The goal was to have him stay for the winter, and then see how he was handling the change and go from there. When my mom’s brother (my uncle) came to visit, Opa was thrilled to see him, but, facing an empty house back in Germany, and having spent some time with us, surrounded by two generations of family all in the same house, he wondered aloud to mom, “Do I have to go back?”
Mom was overjoyed and told him he didn’t have to, so he stayed where he knew he was loved, where he knew he had a little garden he could work in, and we absolutely loved him, and he us.
I’ve written at least one story about him, and I’ll write more stories about him but yesterday was a day for thinking, and reflecting. I sent flowers to mom, and wrote my uncle a letter in German because he wasn’t here, and his English is what he learned in school and a British POW camp in WWII.
“I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and today I couldn’t put it off any longer. 30 years ago this morning, Opa went to Heaven, and I was there when it happened…”
…mom’s cousins had flown in the night before, and Opa had stayed up late to say hi to them when we got home from the airport. They talked for about half an hour, and then all went to bed.
Saturday was a gorgeous day, and we got up a little later than usual. I’d been downstairs, and people were awake, so I went to my room to write a letter to a friend on my old Remington Noiseless typewriter. It wasn’t really noiseless, it just made thunking sounds instead of the whapping sounds a normal typewriter made. So I was just hammering that letter on it, the sun was shining, and I heard the floor in the hallway creak as Opa walked by. He pushed open the door just a bit and waved at me, peeking in like a little elf. I stopped typing and waved back. He headed further down the hall to go downstairs, and as I went back to my typing, I heard this unending, unimaginable crash like I’d never heard before. Even all these years later, I’m at a loss to find words to describe it, and in the moment after the crashing sound stopped and before I got up, I heard my dad’s voice yelling, “Tom! You know First Aid! Come down here!” – I ran down the stairs I’d helped him up so many times, and saw Opa lying in the middle of a bunch of broken pottery, a huge gash on the top of his head.
I yelled for a flashlight, and for the first time in my life, shined a light in someone’s eyes, like I’d been taught in my First Aid class, only to have no one looking back at me. I yelled for dad to call the hospital for a helicopter (I’d had a bit of experience with them) and went back to Opa. He had a pulse, but it was irregular, so I didn’t start CPR, but kept checking his eyes. One responded, the other didn’t, and was pretty much dilated. I knew then, if I hadn’t known earlier, that things were very, very bad. Mom’s cousins were standing behind me as I was working on him. Dad had the phone cord stretched as far as it would go to tell me that the hospital couldn’t just send a chopper – that a medic needed to call it.
He handed me the phone, and the person on the other end of the line indeed said I couldn’t order one… Only a medic could do that. I asked him, politely, but in no uncertain terms, to call the medics then. He said he would.
About that time Opa had a pretty big convulsion, and one of mom’s cousins blurted out, “Der Stirbt!” (He’s dying!) – I wasn’t ready to accept that – and told her, also in no uncertain terms to shut up. I was 21 and wasn’t quite of the age where I could tell her that (she was mom’s age), but I did.
In less than a minute the siren went off for the Volunteer Fire Department in our town. The fellow on the other end of the line had made the call. Help was on the way.
The sirens and the throbbing sound of the old aid car stopped in front of the house. Someone opened the door and the paramedics crowded into the hallway, checking Opa and getting a pair of inflatable pants on him to keep his blood up where it needed to be.
I stood up and made room for Roy, the police officer and paramedic who’d been involved the time I’d needed a helicopter to get to a hospital, and he started doing CPR. By this time there were so many people in the hallway it was hard to move. Mom and I stood in the door to the living room just off the hallway, and we both (we talked about this later, not right then) were keenly aware of a presence above and between us. It was clear to both of us that it was Opa’s spirit, leaving at that time, and we both remembered “hearing” – honestly, “sensing” is more accurate – the words, “Lass mi doch ganga” – translated from our dialect,
“Just let me go…”
But things were moving, and once paramedics arrive, they start working and won’t stop until things are dealt with, one way or the other.
It was quickly decided that he’d go to the hospital in the ambulance, and mom and I followed in my old Saab, and we drove as fast as we could to catch up, watching Roy doing CPR on Opa the whole way. He must have been absolutely drained by the time we got to the hospital. I remember trying to pass the ambulance so we could get there and be parked by the time it got there, but the car, it turned out, had a clogged fuel filter and wouldn’t let me pass, so I tucked in behind it again, watching Roy trying to pump life into Opa’s chest through the ambulance’s back window.
We got there, and they rushed him in straight through the E.R, Roy still doing the CPR as he ran alongside the gurney. Mom and I were told to wait in a stuffy waiting room, but there were so many people there, we told them we’d be outside as we tried to comprehend all that had happened. They promised they’d send someone for us if there was anything we could do.
At 12:00 straight up, the sliding doors opened and someone came out and told us he was gone. They led us into the room he was in, partitioned off by curtains, and there was our Opa, lying on a bed, covered with sheets, looking as peaceful as anything. Mom took some scissors and cut a little of his beard off to remember him by, we signed some papers, and then headed home, both, admittedly in a bit of shock.
Our day had changed pretty drastically.
By the time we got home, there was no evidence of any pottery on the floor. The cousins were doing their best to be or look busy, and their thoughts of having a fun visit turned into thoughts of helping mom plan a funeral.
We stood there, mom and I, where we’d stood earlier, and realized we’d both heard Opa tell us, reassuringly, “Just let me go.” –
And we had to.
He was 10 days short of his 89th birthday.
This was August 6th, 1983, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, and every year I make sure my mom has flowers on that day, to remind her that someone remembers her Papa, my Opa.
It was only yesterday, as I was talking to Mom on the phone, that I finally realized, that Opa’s time on this earth was over that day, stairs or not. We found out much later that the doctors said he’d had a heart attack, which was likely when he’d lost his balance and tried to catch himself on that vase, but it went down the stairs and so did he.
And even though I’m now considered grown up and a man, there’s still a much younger ‘me’ inside who misses his Opa…
Take care folks… love the ones you have – you never know how much time you’ll have with them.
I was talking to my mom the other day about an email we’d both received – about an American soldier in WWII and how he had done brave things on the battlefield. For example, killing the enemy, saving his compatriots, just doing what soldiers do.
And she, having grown up in Germany during World War II, sent me this note:
You know Tom-Son, looking at war and the so-called ‘victories’ from both sides, something became clear to me during that war. I was between 10 and 14. In school we talked about how many air planes had been shot down, how many ‘Panzer’ (tanks) or ‘Gefangene’ (captured, how many ‘enemy soldiers’ were killed, until…
Pastor Gotthilf Hoelzer one day somberly made the remark
“THEY WERE ALL THE SON OF A MOTHER”
That brought those ‘victories’ into perspective.
During the war, there was no TV. Everyone who had one huddled around a radio in the evenings to hear the “special bulletins”, the “Sondermeldungen”, to hear how the war was going.
Mom was born in 1929, in Germany, at the height of the Depression. This is the Depression that Hitler got Germany out of. The Depression where he convinced many people that he was the right person to be their “leader” – their “Führer” – before things went completely crazy. The unemployment situation was absolutely dire, and mom’s parents – my grandparents – had found employment by working at the milk “Sammelstelle” – a collection station where the farmers would bring their milk to be processed and sent to the larger dairies.
Mom told me just a short paragraph of a story – a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes:
“I remember one family on our ‘milk run’ in Hanseatenstrasse. Their soldier was there when Stalingrad was surrnounded and was expected to be taken by the Russians. The German troops were trapped. The adults of that family were huddled around their radio to listen to the ‘Sondermeldungen,’ knowing that they would not see their man come back. They were all crying. Their little girl did not understand and she said : “Lasset me doch au mit-heula’. (essentially: “Tell me what’s going on so I can cry with you”) She sensed that all those hearts around her were breaking and she wanted to know why…
It was most likely that the adults were crying about her Dad.”
And a flood of images came to my mind.
…the chores still needed to be done, but they were rushed so that everyone could gather around the radio to hear the news of the day. The husband, the father, the brother, the son of someone in that room, was in Stalingrad. Hitler himself had ordered that there would be no surrender. The 6th Army of the Wehrmacht, which had stormed into the city that summer was either decimated or being left there to die.
In that moment, the adults realized that their son would not come home. His father, who up until that moment had been looking forward to sitting down with him and hearing his stories, and in hearing them, would relive some of his own battles in WWI. But he realized as he listened to this news, that he would not hear them, or his son’s voice, ever again. He remembered back, remembered seeing his wide open, trusting eyes as he, like all fathers, tossed his little boy into the air and caught him again and again, his laughter ringing like a joyous bell. He remembered his birthdays, his baptism and confirmation in the church, and his marriage at the little town church flooded his mind as the tears flooded his eyes. He remembered how he was able to sit down, after a hard day’s work, and celebrate that German tradition of ‘Feierabend’ which, while hard to translate into English, can best be summarized by the meaning behind the phrase “It’s Miller Time” .The work is done, it’s time to rest. He’d been looking forward to the end of the war, to be able to have a huge Feierabend with his son, because the work – the war, would be over.
But there would not be any more Feierabends with his son.
And he wept.
Unashamedly, he wept.
For the companionship he would no longer have with his son, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of sons from their fathers.
The enormity of what he was hearing on the radio was too much to bear. He tried to read his wife’s expression, and saw the sorrow of a mother who’s being told she’s lost her only son. She was inconsolable. The words she heard from the radio, those of victories for the fatherland, of bravery and sacrifice, were overcome by her own memories. As she sat there, the words turning into a dull buzz in the background, she remembered the moment when she knew she was going to have a son, the first spark of life inside her. She remembered waiting to be sure, and then remembered the simultaneous look of shock, doubt, surprise, and joy in her husband’s eyes as he realized he was going to be a father. She remembered sharing that special communion a mother has with her child as she nursed him. She remembered his first day of school and his last. She remembered the gleam in his eye when he told her about that very special girl, the one he wanted to become his wife. She remembered their wedding day, and how this girl became part of their family.
She remembered his laugh, that belly laugh that can only come from the absolute, unrestrained joy of a little boy, and how it had gotten so much lower in tone over the years, but still, the joy was there. She loved to watch, and listen, as he and that special girl laughed together.
And she realized that she would never hear that laugh again, not from her son, and not from that special girl.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her son, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of sons from their mothers.
She held that special girl in her arms, trying to support her, as she was lost in her own thoughts of him.
He’d been in her class, in school. They’d grown up together. They’d laughed and had a history together that started long before the day they walked down the aisle. And as her vision blurred with tears, she saw images she knew she’d never see again.
She remembered the bashful look in her husband’s eyes the first time he talked to her, the nervous look on the day he proposed to her, and the confident, anything but bashful, look on the day they were married. A part of her smiled at that memory.
She remembered the moment when she realized she was going to have his child. She remembered waiting to be sure, and then remembered the simultaneous look of shock, doubt, surprise, and joy in her husband’s eyes as he realized he was going to be a father.
She remembered seeing her daughter’s wide open, trusting eyes as he, like all fathers, tossed his little girl into the air and caught her again and again, her laughter ringing like a joyous bell. She remembered the tough times, and how hard he worked to keep food on the table, and a roof over their heads and how he, despite the Depression, had kept them fed. She remembered quiet evenings sitting by lamp light, quietly sewing, or reading, no words, just companionship, and how much that meant to her.
She remembered when everyone had chipped in and bought the radio, and how it had filled the room with music and laughter; how they had invited friends over and they were able to dance as if they had their own orchestra.
She remembered the light in his eyes as he saw his daughter take her first steps, and how once that happened, there was no stopping her.
And she remembered trying to decide whether to be proud or horrified, or both, when the draft notice came in the mail. She remembered her guarded tears as a train took him to parts unknown for basic training, and the anguished tears she shared with his mother after the train was gone, and they knew he wouldn’t see them.
She remembered that first visit home – how he’d changed, and how proud he looked in that uniform. There was still a sense of pride in her, but there was also an uneasiness that that took quite a bit of strength to keep from turning into outright terror at the things that can happen to a soldier, both to him and by him.
She remembered looking at his hands, the ones that had recently held a new life, wondering if they would be asked – or ordered – to take a life.
She remembered the next trip – the last one – in spring, when he wasn’t allowed to tell her where he was going. She remembered holding him fiercely, and how, as she looked into his eyes, she saw the love, the caring, the gentleness of the man she knew, and she remembered, how the sound of the train whistle changed that completely. She saw the eyes of her husband turn from the look of one who gives and nurtures life, into the look of a soldier, one who takes it.
She remembered recoiling at the shock of this transformation, and how he had pulled away from her. Both of them had brave faces, both had heavy hearts. He turned, walked toward the train, and only once turned to look back. In that moment, she saw, for a split second, the eyes of her husband saying goodbye. Neither of them knew it would be their last .
At first, the radio reports and the newspaper accounts were all full of victories and successes. Then, as the months wore on, September came and went. Hitler had said that Stalingrad would have fallen by then, but it hadn’t. October came, November came, the Russian winter came, and the news then was that the 6th army had been cut off and surrounded. The news reports confidently said that a relief force was fighting its way down to help them, but the Russians fought them off. Then Goering said he’d resupply what remained of the army with 750 tons of supplies a day, by air. But there weren’t enough airplanes left to even get one third of that, and like so many other things in this war that they’d been led to believe were necessary and would succeed, this had failed as well.
They’d been listening warily to every news report, wondering how much of what they were hearing was the truth and how much was lies. They would get bits and pieces of information about what was happening, and it would, all culminate in an overwhelming sense of dread as the news reports came in. Every night, they sat by the radio – the thing that had brought so much joy, laughter, and music, but now it brought nothing but strident propaganda and death.
And then the news reports stopped altogether.
She wasn’t sure exactly of the moment it happened, but somewhere in those weeks of silence from the eastern front that cold winter, she knew. She knew she would never see her husband again. She knew she would never hear his laughter again, or see the look of love in his eyes as she felt his love inside her. She knew she would raise their daughter without him. She knew that she would never again be able to drowsily reach over to his side of their bed and feel his warmth, or hear his soft breathing. She knew now that she would miss even his irritating habits, like cutting his fingernails with his pocket knife. She would never have to ask him to clean up the cut off fingernails again, or clean his dishes off the kitchen table after dinner. She knew she’d never hear him say grace in that wonderful way he said it, thanking God for the simplest of meals, as if it were a feast, fit for a king. He made her so proud when he did that. He was grateful, even for the little things. She remembered that. Oh, what she’d do for those little things – to hear him say grace again, to hear his breathing, to hear him tell her what a good breakfast she’d made, to feel him lift her off the floor in that all enveloping hug he’d always used to say good bye. And she realized, with a start, that when he’d said goodbye that last time, at the train station, that he hadn’t lifted her up like he always did as he said goodbye…
Somehow she knew that from that moment, nothing would ever be the same.
The news reports 3 weeks later confirmed it.
She would not hear his voice again.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her husband, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of husbands from their wives.
She remembered her first married Christmas without him, just a few weeks earlier. They were supposed to be done with Stalingrad by September, and here it was more than 3 months later. They did what they could to make it a joyous Christmas, with Mama, and Oma, and Opa, but it seemed hollow. Through it all, the church service on Christmas Eve, and the “Heiliger Abend” later at home, her – their – daughter kept looking at the door, and kept asking, “Wo ist Papa?” (Where’s Papa?)
Christmas and New Year’s came and went, and still no news.
Finally, in late January, there was news.
No, not just news.
The regular radio programming was interrupted by music, and then, The News.
The relief force had failed.
Goering’s Luftwaffe had failed.
Stalingrad had fallen.
It was so hard to look her daughter in the eye as she tried to give her the news that so many mothers had had to give their children over the last few years, that their father had joined the thousands, the millions, who had “fallen” in the war. They used that word, in their dialect, “Er isch g’falla” – “Er ist gefallen” – “He fell”.
It didn’t mean that he’d fallen.
It meant, quite simply, that he’d been killed.
Stalingrad had fallen.
A son, a husband, a father, had fallen.
And she wept – for him, how cold and brutal it must have been – she couldn’t imagine and didn’t want to.
She wept, for her daughter, who would never again feel the gentle touch of her father’s rough, work worn hand, hear his laugh, hear his deep voice call her name.
She wept for his parents, now across the room together, but each suffering their own world of pain, realizing their legacy was at an end.
And she wept for herself, that she would not be able to grow old together with him.
And as her daughter said, “Lasset me doch au mit-heula” – “Lass mich doch auch mit heulen” – “Tell me what’s going on, so I can cry with you” – she held her, hugged her, lifted her up off the floor like her father used to, like her husband used to, and as the radio droned on in the background, mother and daughter melted into each other, and the little girl finally understood.
She would not hear his voice again.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her Papa, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of Papas from their little girls.
Her mother realized she would not be the only child who lived through that war who lost a father. But even still – for months afterwards, the little girl would stand at the window every day, waiting for her Papa. She wanted her Papa to know that he wasn’t alone, that she was there, waiting for him, that his little girl hadn’t forgotten him.
The finality of it all, the stupidity of it all, the arrogance of it all, was just too much. Every day there’d been reports of so and so many thousands of the enemies killed – and she realized, that for every one of them, every one of them, this act was being played out, too… Every day, in Germany, in Russia, in countries far and wide in this war, in living rooms and kitchens, in barns and shops, in factories and train stations, someone was getting news that a beloved part of their life had been savagely torn from their heart.
Of the million soldiers in the Wehrmacht, The German 6th Army, 750,000 had been killed or wounded. Many more simply froze or starved to death. After the siege, the 91,000 left in the city had surrendered. Of those, only 6,000 would ever see what they knew as the fatherland again.
Mom went on:
On the one side of the house was Karl Beisswenger (with 3 children) and on the other, my cousin Karl Klotz (2 children, Kurt u. Elsbeth), who never came back from that war. And upstairs, it was Paule Rosenberger’s father.
That’s the face of war.
No, only part of the face of war.
That’s not mentioning the dead from the ‘Bomben-angriffe’. (Bombing attacks)
I better not get into that.
War is Hell.
On both sides.
The images came unbidden – in the blink of an eye, if you will. A story that could be told in six words – but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes.