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.