FROM HABITUS: A DIASPORA JOURNAL, NO. 7: BERLIN
It Might Even Be Nice
by Jakob Hein, translated by Ross Benjamin
One morning in January, my father called me. After weeks of agony, my mother had finally been able to fall asleep the previous night. Her daily worsening condition, the strain of maintaining control over her life, the sleepless nights in which her brain would keep working despite the boundless exhaustion of her body, the light-extinguishing negativity enveloping everything in gloom—in all this unhappiness I experienced the actual news of her death, when it came, as only another piece in the mosaic of sadness, not as a crash of thunder drowning out everything. Rather, the clarity of the news filled me with a sort of calm. Now there was no more conflict between hope and despair.
That day I went to work as always. The people around me, the streets, the houses, everything seemed to me as if staged. I looked at my feet, how I kept putting one in front of the other. I heard the sound of every single step I took. Even on the street everything sounded dully resonant to me, as in a cramped empty room. I still remember my boss calling me into his office that day. I sat down, stared ahead, and registered only that a large gray man was scolding me. I knew his shouting was supposed to mean something. But I just sat there, waiting for the humiliation to end, and then left his office without a word.
That same day my father called the management of the Jewish cemetery, which was less than a ten-minute walk from the apartment in which my parents had lived for almost thirty years. The cemetery had not even been destroyed during the Second World War. But because nothing had been done to maintain it for at least fifty years, a forest had grown there like something out of a fairy tale. Only the most important paths had remained accessible; everything else had been surrendered to nature. Large trees growing at a slant threatened to fall on the old gravestones and seemed to be holding themselves up with their branches, like hands stretched toward the ground by someone in mid-collapse. Over the years we had gone there time and again. My mother had shown me the graves of our relatives. Most of the gravestones were inscribed with Hebrew letters. Family members had left small stones as a customary sign of sympathy. Even those small stones had been overgrown with moss. A mysterious place.
“Is your wife a real Jew?” a woman asked my father on the telephone. He briefly explained to her my mother’s story. “So your wife’s mother wasn’t a real Jew? Then there’s nothing at all we can do.”—“But she was a member of the Jewish community,” my father said. “How did she manage that?” the woman asked with an indignant undertone. “That was still in East Germany, things weren’t so strict yet,” my father answered. “I’m afraid we’re stricter now. Are you completely certain that your wife’s mother wasn’t a Jew? Not even partly?”—“I believe the Nazis checked that very thoroughly back then. She had an Aryan certificate,” my father answered. “Then that’s that, of course,” the woman on the telephone agreed, sounding almost relieved. There was an uncomfortable silence between them.
I knew well the little cabin in which the cemetery employee sat. It was a small, flat-roofed brick house, right after the entrance. For unknowing male visitors, head covering was provided there, and in the window were a few dusty brochures with poor reproductions of old black-and-white photographs. As a child, it had fascinated me that one of the brochures was even written in English. The staffers there had given my father the telephone number that morning.
“Are you yourself actually a Jew?” the woman asked suddenly. “No.”—“Then,” she said in a conciliatory tone, “the most the two of you would have gotten would have been a plot on our burial ground for mixed marriages. That’s not especially nice anyway.” After these consoling words, my father hung up.
Before her birth, my mother was too Jewish. Her parents had been too Jewish to be married in Germany. Her father had been too Jewish to be permitted to live. My mother had been Jewish enough that she had to be hidden in a cellar because the law did not permit her to live. She was too Jewish for a somewhat happy childhood. Too Jewish to know a single living relative. Still Jewish enough for the Jewish community in East Germany. Ultimately Jewish enough for her serious illness. But after her death, she was not Jewish enough for the Jewish cemetery in Berlin. At least the whole thing freed me from questions and doubts regarding my religious affiliation. Together with my mother, now I too had unquestionably been excluded from the Berlin Jewish community.
But what were we to do now? We were no longer able speak to her about it, and the Jewish cemetery had been the nearest at hand in every sense. My mother had been there often and fondly, and we could imagine that she would have liked to be buried there. We looked for a plot for my mother in the area where she had grown up, where she had spent her strange childhood in her parents’ strange house. We would bury her in a completely normal city cemetery, where the dead weren’t asked any unpleasant questions.
When it was imminent, my mother had been able to speak to us briefly about her death. “Take care of your father, I’m worried that he’s not eating enough,” she said, her voice breaking, to my wife and me. Then she wept briefly and we sensed that she was finally able to weep and we with her. Why, then, should we have stopped? Had there ever been a better reason to weep?
But she interrupted her weeping after a few seconds and said: “But now let’s talk about something else instead of my illness and my little ailments.” Because nothing else occurred to me, I pulled out of my backpack a camera that I had happened to buy that day and showed it to my mother. She took it in her hand and seemed to be looking at it with the utmost interest. Then we took photographs of each other with it. That was when I took the last photo of her. In it, she is sitting in her armchair, wearing a thick wool rainbow-colored cardigan and with a blanket over her legs, because she was always cold. And she looks ill. Very ill.
In the past she had sometimes spoken to us about her death. She had said things like: “When I’m gone, you should have this kitchen knife with the ceramic blade. It cuts tomatoes really well.” Or, to my wife: “Even if you and he are no longer together, I’d like you to come to my funeral. You can cry so beautifully.” After such sentences, she would always let out a short laugh and then loudly sing some German pop song with particularly terrible lyrics. Sometimes we would sing together. We would belt it out into a cooking spoon, squinting our eyes and performing an awkward dance step with a wooden hip thrust like the singers on television.
Shortly before her death, my mother told her friend Petra that she had everything sorted out. She had spoken to her family about her death and about where she wanted to be buried, she was content and would depart her life at peace. Petra told us that later in an emotional state at the funeral. None of it had been true. The second time my mother had cancer, she could no longer speak to us about it. I could tell by looking at her how clearly she sensed the imminence of her death and how distraught and angry she was about it. I had never dreamed of last words, of a last important conversation. Had I been able to think clearly in those days and utter a single sentence that was important to me, only the following would have occurred to me: “Don’t die, it’s much too soon.”
I had arrived and stood in front of the old building in which my parents had lived. On the left was the bush in which my mother had found my dead cat. On the right the small corner shop. In front of me the door. I had climbed these steps with my mother when she picked me up from kindergarten on my first day and had climbed the same steps the first time she told us about her illness. We walked left down the street to the lakes, and to the right was the path leading down to the Jewish cemetery.
I knew my mother had died. I had not yet comprehended her death. We had all gone through a hard time together, which now seemed to be over.
As I walked through the door to our old apartment, it would not have surprised me if my mother had come out of her study and looked at me over large reading glasses. I would only have stared at her wide-eyed and said in astonishment: “Hello, Mom. I thought you were dead.”—“What nonsense!” would probably have been her answer.
The apartment was now completely empty; my father had moved out. There was only old carpeting on broken floorboards. The sound of each step echoed from the walls. I was supposed to unscrew another few old bathroom cabinets that we wanted to throw away. I walked through the whole apartment one more time. As a child I had learned, before entering my mother’s room, to grasp the door handle firmly and pull the door slightly toward me before I pushed down the handle. That was how I could open the door without a loud crack. In the far right corner of the room, next to the window, my mother always sat at her desk and looked at me when I came in. She wrote with black or royal blue ink on rectangular graph paper. For school I learned to forge her signature. I didn’t want to confront her too often with notes about my once again forgetting my ruler or annoying the teacher. Her signature was not hard to forge. A continuous arc that came directly out of the large first letter and proceeded to the end of the name.
The kitchen was now a completely empty room with a naked gas connection and an old, ugly sink we had fetched from the cellar and reinstalled. The kitchen furniture and appliances had been brought to my apartment. I had cleaned and cleaned them for hours, until my hands had been completely softened by soapy water. I unscrewed everything, took scouring powder and sponges, and sanitized everything thoroughly. The whole time I kept saying the same sentence to myself: “It’s all bad enough already.” It hadn’t been important to my mother that every corner of her kitchen sparkled. It was important that there was good food on the table, that afterward everything was clean enough that you could go for a walk right away. Winning the contest for cleanest kitchen wasn’t important to her. And yet I scrubbed everything meticulously. As far as I was concerned, the same corners that I was now polishing could get dirty again later, but no one should be permitted to say that my mother had not been a clean person.
At that moment I had the feeling that it was enough already and she should finally come back now. I had to call her, play her a certain song, which she would find just as beautiful or just as terrible as I did, read her something from the newspaper, tell her something about work. I needed her advice. The feeling lasted no longer than the blink of an eye, too fleeting to become an actual thought. When I felt it, at unexpected moments, I knew immediately that it couldn’t be, that she was truly dead, gone forever. Then the feeling disappeared again and what remained was a very real sadness, as if I were standing alone on an abandoned country road.
But it was that very feeling, coming in repeated flashes, that prevented me from giving away my mother’s things, emptying out her cabinets. She would be pretty mad if she ever came back. Her clothes were no problem, she’d never clung to them. Over time she’d buy new ones. But her materials for her documentary film work, the recorders, the cassettes: “You can’t just sell my computer and rearrange everything here when I happen to be away. I have so much to do!”
But when I thought about it, I knew better. And ultimately we gave her things away. The disappointment of that strange feeling, repeated enough times or one time too many — that must be what it means to work through death.
I had friends whose parents had died. I had always offered them my condolences, and meant it sincerely. I had really felt sorry for those friends. But then I thought about it for only one or two days and perhaps the next few times I saw them. And when my grandparents died, I was sad for a few days, and during the months that followed there were some brief moments when I felt painfully that they were actually gone and would never come back. That, I had thought, was death.
I had been completely unprepared for what happened to me with the death of my mother. A great emptiness, black and all encompassing. It took all my strength merely to keep away from this hole. The gradual comprehension that it had really happened, that she was no longer there and I nonetheless did not lose my balance, could simply go on, because I had to, because things were no longer as they had been before. There was no longer a separate my life—my life was now simply one without my mother. And from then on there was also anxiety for the others I loved, because only then did I know, really know, that they too could one day be gone, and I hoped that I would be the first to go away, because I didn’t know whether I could bear it again. I had the feeling that, for years to come, even when no one would be able to understand it anymore, when I wouldn’t tell anyone, because no one would be able to hear it anymore, I would still be dealing with it. I could scarcely remember a good-bye from my mother. Of course, I had said “Good-bye,” “So long,” “Take care,” to her countless times. But even when I had gone thousands of kilometers away after these words, there was still always that basic feeling that she was there, that she was at most a phone call and a flight away, that I only had to turn around to her. Now I had dreams sometimes. I would dream that my mother was back. We didn’t do anything special, she didn’t say any mysterious sentences. We simply took walks together on the old paths, where we had always taken walks, or stood next to each other in the kitchen. In those dreams I suddenly had that good, reassuring feeling of her presence again. It was nice to feel relief. Waking up afterward was like—a rough blow.
My friend Noga had been twenty when her parents died in a car accident. After she heard about my mother, she brought me a large bag of cookies she’d baked the previous evening. “Maybe this will help a bit, for a few moments,” she said. She looked at me sadly and gave me the cookies. Then she hugged me and left.
Andreas’s father had died a few months before my mother. Andreas simply rang the doorbell without warning. He brought along a bouquet, which he pressed into my hand without a word. We stood opposite each other and shifted our feet a bit in embarrassment. “What should I say?” he remarked. “There’s nothing to say anyway.”
Later, while I was walking across the cemetery with my father to pick out my mother’s gravesite, my wife called me from her gynecologist. She was pregnant.