Monday, 30 April 2012

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry . . . . .

. . . . a conflation of two biblical sayings: ecclesiastes viii. 15 (AV) Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry ‥ and isaiah xxii. 13 (AV) Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die. 

In Works and Days Ralph Waldo Emerson writes “Just to fill the hour – that is happiness. Fill my hour, ye gods, so that I shall not say whilst I have done this ‘behold an hour of my life is gone,’ but rather ‘I have lived one hour.’”

Never have I known anyone to whom both the above maxims apply more thoroughly than Gisela, my one remaining flesh-and-blood [rather than virtual] friend in Germany and her partner Dietmar. When her call came on Sunday morning, it shocked me to the core. Gisela and I have been friends for more than twenty years, although we haven't met for the last eight years and our correspondence has dwindled to no more than two or three letters a year, a very rare email and the occasional phone call. And yet, our friendship remains close and fresh, and any time we reconnect we are instantly back on the best and warmest terms. I've known Gisela for longer than she has been together with Dietmar and I had the great privilege of being someone she confided in when they first fell in love.

Gisela is one of my mail-order acquaintances. I have no problem writing to total strangers, answering advertisements from total strangers or getting in touch with official bodies for advice and help. Depending on the tone of your letter, you are likely to get a surprising number of positive replies; I can say that I have never had anything but courteous answers, even the negative ones were invariably polite.

When my mother died, I suddenly felt cut-off from all contact with my home town and even Germany. Having been an ex-pat for many years, I had lost touch with all former acquaintances;  I felt dreadfully homesick and full of fear that my past and all connection with it was disappearing. I felt as if the ground had been pulled from under my feet, that I was free-floating in no-man's-land. I did what I always do: I sent an SOS. Not in a bottle but in a letter to the Oberbürgermeister, the highest civic public dignitary of my home town. He read it and very kindly handed it to his secretary, who in turn handed it to the Press Office. I described who I am, what my situation was and that I hoped they'd find a way to publish my letter, which might, in turn, inspire someone to write to me. A kind of superior pen friend, who shared my cultural and leisure tastes. Naturally, I explained what kind of person would most suit my needs. It's always best to be as clear as possible, in order to weed out unnecessary complications. The Press Office put an article in the local paper, including my letter. They also started to send me regular bi-monthly collections of articles which they considered of interest to former inhabitants who now lived abroad. In those days of plenty, towns had a budget for such things; alas, times have changed. But there was one action which proved to be the most fortuitous for me: a bright spark handed my letter to the head of English at the local Volkshochschule - an academy for adult education -, namely, Gisela. She saw the letter, decided she wouldn't mind getting to know this crazy person who wrote unsolicited letters to the highest in the town and kept it for herself, rather than pass it on to her students. I met her a few weeks later and our friendship blossomed.

I have been in awe of her boundless energy, enthusiasm, optimism and joie de vivre ever since, and when she teamed up with Dietmar a few years later, those qualities doubled in size and range. The two of them left untried no pleasure, no new experience, no happiness. They travelled and explored the regions of the world together as well as all the delights on offer nearer home. They drew in old friends and new, both their families and children (both were widowed), anyone they touched with their infectious enthusiasm came away richer for the experience and determined to try to emulate them. In every photo I have of them, whether at their cosy fireside at home, in a circle of friends, on skis in the mountains or cycling and walking in all weathers, their wide open smiles are the first thing you notice. Smiles that are unposed and natural, not the usual photographic cheesy grins. Theatre, music, books and sports, they embrace it all, jointly and separately. In her last letter Gisela describes their travels of the previous year, taking in a walking tour on the Rhine, high above the river, with frequent stops for a revivifying glass of local wine, a couple of  trips to visit children and grandchildren in Austria and Liechtenstein, and an exploration of Vietnam and Myanmar in September and October. Their last trip ended just before New Year's Eve. Just reading her letter left me breathless. Compared to the two of them, Beloved and I are dull and lifeless.

Yesterday morning Gisela rang. As it happens, I was in the process of answering her last letter, feeling a bit envious. Actually, 'mean' is a good word to describe my mental attitude and I was all for telling her to slow down, remember her age [ 60s], and generally carp and criticise in an underhand but ostensibly concerned way. The way envious people do, I am sure you know what I mean. I was overjoyed to hear her voice and prepared myself for a long and animated chat, instantly ditching the idea of watching a clever Arts Programme on German TV later on. The programme came and went, Gisela was still talking. Dietmar had suddenly and inexplicably lost all contact with the real world, he neither knew where he was nor what he was doing, he was unable to stand or walk, he understood nothing and could hardly speak, all in the space of two weeks. She had called an ambulance which took him to the local hospital. When the doctors there ran out of tests and ideas, Dietmar was transferred to the Charité in Berlin, the foremost hospital for research into neurological conditions in Germany. Tests established that he had brain stem lymphoma, inoperable and terminal. They tried to buy him a little time with chemo and radiotherapy, neither worked. His life expectancy is counted in weeks rather than months, but it hardly matters; although he is out of a coma, all he can do is blink and, on a good day, return a little pressure when somebody holds his hand. Gisela assumes that he can hear because music seems to bring a faint smile to his lips.

After the call ended, I told Beloved. I had been unable to find meaningful words of comfort or make promises of help which would make a difference; Gisela was calm and collected, fairly matter-of-fact about the situation. True to her positive outlook she found it in her to speak of some of the lucid moments she shares with Dietmar as intensely beautiful; she will make the days left to them count as deeply as their days together since the beginning. There is to be no miracle.

Faced with the inevitability of death for all of us, Beloved and I embraced each other for comfort, and, as we have often done before, we swore again never to sleep on a row, to try kindness in place of harsh words, and  laugh and cry together rather than alone. I doubt that we will manage to keep yesterday's vow anymore than we have kept similar vows in the past, but we will try.

This is ultimately not a sad post but a celebration of the joys this one and only life can bring when we live it to the utmost. Gisela and Dietmar  know the secret.


  1. "there is to be no miracle"
    Oh I know this kind of acceptance
    and when it comes it is a joy
    bless your dear friends
    for you are right they know the secret
    and I suspect that you and beloved do too....

  2. You never do know how life is going to go or when the day you are having will be your last. So don't go to bed angry. Say everything you want to say to the people you love. Forgive the horrible people. Smile. Have great days. I honestly believe this and try to live my life like that as much as humanly possible. I've seen life change in a moment several times. It can always be worse. You can always make it better. Right now. :):) Keep hugging Beloved!!!

  3. the truest
    most lovely
    most aweful thing
    I have read in some time.

    "Ditto" Each day an inestimable gift,
    a fearful gulf.

    Your honesty is companionable, for which I am truly grateful [another
    gift of this day]

    Aloha from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral

    > < } } (°>

  4. Heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to a couple who took the moments they had and lived them. Thanks for sharing this story with us. It does inspire. None of us know what time we have left. They are fortunate to have known true love and adventure.

  5. We are back in town and I am reading all the posts I missed. I enjoyed your posts on things that bring joy. I would not like your weather though – it would keep me melancolique (how do you say that in English?) Here we have so much sun. The few days we spent in New Orleans were sunny, warm with no humidity. I miss looking at bluebells – they carpeted the forest where I lived in suburban Paris.
    I am so sad for your friend Gisela – sometimes life can be hard. It is good that they enjoyed many wonderful times together – she will have a lot to remember with fondness. None of us know what the future will be so we must enjoy the present as much as possible. Your quotations are perfect.

  6. I have tears in my eyes after reading this post. Your tribute to love and to friendship is moving and beautiful Thank you.

  7. A lovely, poignant story, Friko, one that reminds me that we all have a common destiny. Lucky are they who take advantage of life in the present moment, for the present moments are the only ones we have.

  8. Hello Friko
    I shivered when it came to the part about Dietmar. This beautiful love story should go on forever and ever. It is the stuff of fairytales.

    Wishing you and Gisela strength in the coming months. I will keep you in prayer.


  9. Your insightful account of your friend's terrible yet inevitable situation, and how it applies to us all, is both touching and inspiring Friko.

    I take heart from your vows and aspire to do likewise.

  10. Your quotations at the start of this post say it all, yet it is so hard to achieve for most of us. Clearly, your friend and her husband have lived these maxims every day of their lives. It is nigh impossible, isn't it, to find fitting and proper words at times like this, when "there is to be no miracle." My thoughts are with you and your friends.

  11. I've just been over at Amanda's blog, 'Travels With Persephone,' reading about the gifts left to her by her mother and father, now both deceased. My heart was squeezed by her words to the point of wringing tears from the corners of my eyes and now, this.

    Sometimes, the whole of it is so overwhelming, one knows to refrain from articulating except to let the writer understand their words have been read and taken into the heart.

  12. youknow...i am glad she lives in those few beautiful moments...and i hope she gets many more in the brief time left...lovely post...

  13. What a beautiful piece of writing. How lucky for you that Gisela responded to your need long ago, and now how fortunate for her that she can call you up now.

    You already have the wisdom to know what to do with all of this heaviness.

  14. Your post made me think deeply and remember again to embrace life and to be thankful for all the blessings bestowed on me! This is a touching story of a wonderful time together, the ending is sad - but beautiful memories will prevail...

  15. The only thing to do is to hold one's Beloved, remind oneself of what's truly important in life, and then- expect the unexpected.
    Beautifully written.

  16. Yes, make every moment count, for we're a long time 'gone'.

  17. Frico,
    Of course all this is very sad. Good that you have such a strong friend Gisela and loved one is always with you.

  18. Their children and her memories will be of great comfort afterwards . But now she's going through the loneliest time she'll ever know .
    Being able to talk to a strong and sympathetic friend is so important now and will be the kindest thing you could ever do for her .

  19. Hello:
    Although you write that it was not your intention to make this a sad post and although there is much joy to be read in these lines, nevertheless, we find ourselves deeply saddened by this news of your friend's husband's illness.

    Increasingly, we are of the view that Life instead of the robust, never ending character that we had imagined it to be in our youth is, perhaps, an altogether more fragile and ephemeral affair. Here today and gone tomorrow and in a manner that we are never to be party to until it comes.

    Yes, one must seize the day as Gisela and Dietmar have done for so many happy years. There can then be no regrets, only beautiful memories and Love, yes, most definitely, Love.

  20. Gisele is lucky she has you to share the pain.. and joy.

  21. Poignant, inspiring, there is stark beauty in those precious moments when we are fully in the present. Thank you for sharing your friend's story and your own intertwined story of living fully in the moment after your mother's death.

  22. Gives me the chills; all the best for you and your two friends and may Dietmar find ... peace.

  23. What a blessing and a sadness all at the same time. Such distressing news. I will pray for them both for sure.
    Be well dear friend

  24. Well Friko, anyone who reads this post will have much to contemplate about love and friendship. My comment words are so meager compared to your eloquence.


  25. Sound the clarion, fill the fife, to all the sensual world proclaim, One crowed hour of glorious life is worth and age without a name. Source unknown.

    Too sad. Dianne

  26. Just as there will be no miracle, sometimes there are no adequate words. Such a touching and loving post and a wake-up call to all of us who take the days for granted. I pray that having lived life together to the very fullest, the many happy memories will comfort and sustain your friend and you.

  27. What a shock it must have been for Dietmar when this first happened, but her attitude has seen her through, producing an acceptance few of us could manage. I'm impressed.
    A school friend of mine recently lost her husband, but they had time to get used to the idea together. He had time to get his affairs in order, and see that she was provided for.
    Now I admire her as you admire Dietmar, for her positive attitude about the future.
    I'm so glad your letter ended up in the right hands, Friko, in exactly the right hands.

  28. This post brought tears to my eyes. How incredibly sad.

  29. I keep trying to remember that life is finite. That helps me to decide who and what is really important in life and what really matters. You have been and will always be a good friend to Gisela. That is very important and it really matters.

  30. A story told about people, friendship, love, communication, life and death.

    You told it well.

  31. Bleached me mind. Thank you. I shall keep that much in thought.

  32. Oh goodness, how tragic and how terrifying. You are right, we must treasure the moments when life is good and that is something I always try to do.

  33. Gisela and Dietmar are the miracle. For each other and for you. This is a wonderful post about the best of being human. It is wonderful to read about your home town and the letter you wrote and how it touched those that were privileged to read it so that enabled such a powerful and meaningful friendship. I, too, have such a friend in the UK and now she and her husband and me and mine have a very special and powerful friendship that brings all of us so much joy.

    And now Gisela is able to turn to you at this terrible time for her and you are there. This is truly blessed.

  34. The happy coincidences of connecting with a random yet perfect new friend, of finding one's heart's desire for a life partner, and the tragedy of having that person suddenly disappear while corporeally still visible... They are all part and parcel of Life.
    This post seems to me to be filled with fatefulness and the acceptance thereof for better or for worse.
    I think such acceptance is admirable as it indicates great strength of character.

  35. Luckier to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all ? What a .wonderful couple they sound and how wonderful to die knowing you were loved so truly and deeply. I hope the knowledge of that love helps her through that love helps her through the emptiness that will follow. And you ? You truly are lucky to have your love still with you I am sure even if you can not always keep those vows you will remember and show your love to each other, constance is better to strive for than perfection.

  36. HI Friko - what an amazing post - beautifully written .. I could feel my own heart cry out .. for them and all who are living life to the full.

    Poor Gisela and their families - such suddenness ... that brings it home .. your words are amazing .. I'll be back to read again .. eat, drink and be merry with life - so true. They certainly did not live with regrets ..

    My thoughts go out to you - but I'm so grateful you've posted here - this will I'm sure help so many.

    What a wonderful story your meeting with Gisela came to be, while your continued friendship with their lives as they explored all things.

    There are no words .. I'm thinking - Hilary

  37. I'm so sorry for your friends. Devastating news for all concerned. Life can be as cruel as it can be beautiful. Because how you met Gisela and your warm friendship is of course a beautiful story. We take it all for granted don't we. Even if now and again we're reminded of how short life is.


  38. Dear Friko, . . . my heart is aching for your friend and her husband. And yet you have planted seeds of joy within the dark earth of ache. Your posting truly is filled with the joy that Gisela and Dietmar have shared and still share in some mysteriously human way.

    And their joy in one another still touches your life--and ours--as you and Beloved vow to share your deepest thoughts and concerns with one another.

    This story is a lesson to me--to do those things that Rita mentions in her comments. To speak the word; to do the act; to love and hope and rejoice.

    Thank you, Friko, for sharing this story of the love affair between Gisela and Dietmar and their love affair with life. It's inspiring. Truly.


  39. A good reminder not to live in the future.

  40. There are no more words . . .

  41. I dallied before work today to come around and visit, having made my own vow to be more attentive to those whose words I appreciate.

    Your beautifully-rendered story of your history with Gisela and the terrible, sad news about Dietmar are at once inspiring and heart-breaking. How easily we forget certain truths about life - primary among them, that it is short, even for the luckiest.

    I can't help remember some other words of Annie Dillard, who says, "How we live our days is, of course, how we live our life". And sometimes, it seems, how we live our hours is how we live our days.

  42. What a moving post... sad, but a great celebration of life too.

  43. Such a sad way to live out Dieter's last few weeks. Every Blessing as you try to help and comfort your friend. It makes me aware of how important it is not to squander the gift of quality time together with loved ones. Every Blessing


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