Three months ago my father died, last week an uncle. Besides the grief, it changes the architecture of life.
Since my previous article was also about my uncle in the USA, I translated it for my family living there.
Somehow the whole last weekend I have been thinking about writing this article. Fragments of it went through my mind, but until now it just didn’t want to be a good post, one that I would want to read myself and which I could assume someone else would want to read. But “so far” is not quite right, because I’m still not sure how this article will be … so if there are readers who, as one of them once wrote, want to “watch me think”, then this is the right place. Maybe it won’t be a good article (probably it will be too long again) … but maybe it will be one that is worth its weight in gold – for me and for my readers.
Many of my readers know that my father died a good three months ago. He was 83 years old and when you look at it soberly, you can’t expect to have decades ahead of you at that age. And yet, at that time, nobody in our family expected it. He was in the hospital for an operation on an inflammation of his foot – “you don’t die from that” I said to my mother minutes before the doctor called to tell us that my father had died.
But apparently the operation and the general anaesthesia that came with it were too much for him. When he woke up, he was not the same person. For years he had been developing senile dementia, which in fact only manifested itself in certain “scatterbrains”, memory gaps and a general feeling of unease in unfamiliar surroundings. A change in character, as it is apparently often observed elsewhere, was accompanied by this only to a very limited extent. An older gentleman does not like to be told when he tells something for the third time or when he is asked to come to dinner several times. After the operation, on the other hand, he was extremely aggressive, sometimes having to be prevented from falling out of bed with several nurses.
As my mother told me, the doctors said that in his condition it was a result of the anesthesia and would go away … until Saturday. But he also became calmer after my mother told him on Friday that I was on my way to visit. We live about one and a half hours by car from each other and, as I said, I only went to my parents’ for a visit to the hospital at the weekend and was looking forward to spending time with my mother, maybe having dinner together (that was just before the Corona period started) and otherwise cheering up my father a little.
In fact, I was with him late Friday afternoon and was able to hold his hand, which he hadn’t taken from anyone after the operation. In retrospect, one can assume that he was reassured – consciously or unconsciously – that I was there, that I would take care of my mother … and that he could now leave. I then left my phone number at the hospital so that in case of difficulties (by which I mean if he became aggressive overnight) I could be reached.
At home with my mother after dinner the doctor called: “I am sorry to inform you that your father has just passed away.
I can’t tell you what’s going through your mind at that moment. First and foremost I still have my mother in mind, who was in the kitchen preparing an ice cream for dessert. “How do I tell her that? How do I say the words, “Daddy died”?”
A lot of what came after that was more organizational. If you think you’re going to be incapacitated after a message like that, it wasn’t true for me. You just function, take responsibility for your own mother and see that everything that needs to be organized is organized.
Only in retrospect do thoughts come up: Did we part in peace? Has something remained open? I feel that I can say that it is not. My father and I are neither men of many (spoken) words, and so I believe that my father, in the hospital bed, when I held his hand, felt that I loved him – and with his calming down he wanted to let me know that he loved me … and now he is handing it over to me.
In a way, I can also say that I was not overwhelmed by deep sadness, simply because I also know that the path he has now taken was a necessary one, and I also trust that Jesus will take my father in his arms, that he will have no more pain (which has also increased in recent years) and that he will be well now. What is to be learned now, someone wrote to me, is to love someone who is no longer sitting opposite you. He is not gone, he is just not here anymore. I find this thought comforting and I actually “practice” myself to continue talking to him.
But it remains the same: your own father is no longer there. When today there is much talk of “father wounds”, then I can say without exaggeration that mine cannot be too great or deep. My father has always been there for me and the whole family, has renounced a lot for all of us – he did not count among the fathers who are not available for their son. However, in the past (as a young man with many ideas) I had interpreted this very sacrifice as a weakness and only learned in recent years that having a family is a life-task (German “Aufgabe”) in a double sense: It is a task (German “Aufgabe”) and you have to give up (German “aufgeben”) something for it. But what you get in return is infinitely better. So today I can also say, what I probably would have rejected far from me as a teenager, that my father is also a role model for me in many ways. And unfortunately I only learn now, when he is no longer there, that I miss him. I just had a picture of him in my mind’s eye and it hurts that I can no longer look into his friendly and mostly cheerful eyes. I miss my father…
And now, a good three months later, my uncle living in the USA, my mother’s only brother, died at the age of 74. A few weeks ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As we have since learned, the doctors had not given him much hope from the beginning. He himself said that with chemo he would “still have years”, but apparently he had been told that with chemotherapy it would be perhaps a year without just a few months. But he did not want to die, he wanted to do everything possible to prolong his life.
But he hadn’t tolerated the first round of chemo well, had to stop it and in the meantime had to go to hospital for weakness attacks. In the past week, the second unit, after which he could not get out of the car alone at home. On Thursday morning he had a breakdown and had to go back to the clinic … and then the doctors admitted that he would probably not survive. Luckily – that’s how you have to see it – he was allowed to leave, on the hand of my aunt. When she called me on Friday at half past nine our time I knew that something must be wrong – the time difference is seven hours and who calls at half past three at night?
Again the message hit me like a blow “Georg passed awy fifteen minutes ago”
I was not able to say goodbye to him, our last phone call was rather busy, he wanted to talk to my mother, his sister, who was visiting us. This time I could not give the message to my mother either, who also visited us last weekend and was picked up by my wife, who then told her.
In a way, I am suffering even more from his death, but this is not because I would have preferred him, but for three other reasons. Firstly, I actually had even less ‘preparation time’ with him than I did with my father. Actually we would have flown to the USA the week after next to visit my uncle and the whole family. We had to cancel that just because of Corona. But we already had in mind to make up the trip. We didn’t have a good feeling about his illness, but we hadn’t expected it to happen so soon.
Secondly, it is of course also the second death, which comes “on top”, so to speak. If the first one half outlines you, then the second one strikes all the more.
The “cool uncle”
Thirdly – and probably most importantly – is that with my uncle, the second man in my life after my father, who together with him shaped my youth and also my life like no other, died. In very different ways, both were models of my life. When I was a teenager, if I perhaps rebelled against my father, then there was still my “cool uncle” who straightened my head in friendship. With his lifestyle – he was enterprising, unbelievably “American-loose” as a Westphalian, travelled a lot and was also on the road a lot on business, first in Germany, then to London, then to the USA and worldwide on assignment – he had a considerable influence on my finding it difficult to accept restrictions. Besides, he has also influenced my taste in music like no other (much to the chagrin of everyone around me who may not like Pink Floyd). And a few years ago, together with my aunt, he also initiated the new path of faith of my wife and me with his example.
I also have a picture of him in my mind and, surely also because it is not so long ago, I cannot believe that I will never see him again. We didn’t have an “unfinished business” either, but now that he is no longer here, I notice how much I had trusted inwardly that I would have another father figure after my father’s death. And not only do I miss him, but somehow I had hoped that as my “cool uncle” he would also be the “cool great uncle” of my children. I can’t ask him now, and the memory of him will fade with my children who have only seen him a few times.
Also he is not gone but just not here anymore, and also with him I can learn to talk to him, even if he is not physically present. And I console myself with the thought that somehow my father and he, whose relationship was not always uncomplicated due to very different characters, are now looking at my life together (and probably whispering to each other that I shouldn’t get too pathetic).
The king’s crown
But to all this comes another thought: the previous generation of men who brought me up, shaped me and helped me with advice and support is no longer there. There are still relatives, but none of this “caliber”. I know that I have a father in heaven next to these “spiritual and worldly fathers” – what more do you look for? – but here in this world, within a few months – expressed somewhat archaically, perhaps also pathetically – the King’s crown has fallen into my lap. I am almost fifty years old, have a family of my own with two wonderful children, am – as they say – ” settled” in my job … the kingdom itself is already there, but the crown had not yet been passed over. It is now and with it the awareness that apart from the absence of two dear people, even more has changed. Reinsurances are no longer an option, the responsibility now extends to ones own mother … and in a way, as a man who no longer has his role models in front of him, you are alone.
No fear but respect
I don’t want to put this up too high either: I am not alone, my wife and family are there, friends are there and first and foremost God the Father in heaven, Jesus my brother, friend and comrade-in-arms and the Holy Spirit as my advisor, comforter and link to both of them. But something has felt changed, something has changed – as one priest recently put it – the architecture of the relationship: The architecture of our family but also the architecture of my further life has changed and must first prove itself.
Fear? No, I am not afraid of that – but respect for it is. I hope that my father and my uncle will also have an influence, maybe put in a good word and help me in some way to avoid the worst pitfalls.
Role model, thank you very much
Somehow a few lines from one of BAP’s songs – “Ful ahm Strand” (“Lazy on the beach”) – came to my mind, which, not Christian at all, but nevertheless, fit (for my English speaking readers I will translate this, as the song is sung in dialect.):
With the wave of the surf,
the names come to my mind.
Even faces that seem to have not yet been completely forgotten.
Some of them dim, I see them as if through fog.
Some people you never forget.
In any case, feelings,
dark gray to brightly colored.
I think of something like love
and of many a hour that I liked to give away.
After a long time I even remember my role model.
Uh, role model, thank you very much!
I think I’m starting to get it right myself.
And the true king
And perhaps even more than usual I put my trust in the actual king, the lord of my life, in whom I trust and who does not expect anything from me that I cannot carry.