Monthly Archives: March 2017
It has pleased god to make the world so that people with unusual first names are easier to find than others. And then he created Irish given names to remind us that his ways are unsearchable, at least if you use a phone book. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Eight years or so ago I got a phone call from a friend. This time it was about something I like even more than birthday cake – she had called to tell me about a dog. A friend of hers, whom I had apparently met at a party some time ago, had recently adopted a dog and was now worried that as a busy self-employed person she might not always have enough time to go for walkies. So she was looking for assistance, and hadn’t I always said that I would love to have a dog only that as a busy self-employed person I did not have enough time … ? (Yes, I had).
But this was probably about more than a dog, since it was mentioned at some point that “she has some trouble meeting guys” which, despite being notoriously bad at deciphering social clues, correctly interpreted as “she has trouble meeting guys that I” (i.e. the friend who called me) “approve of”. “Well,” I thought cunningly (or with whatever of my meagre mental capacities I mistook for cunning, since I am not actually in any way shrewd), “maybe I should have a look at this”. After all I had a few things going for me; I might have been a bit lacking in the looks and charm and manners department, but I had figured a few things out for me, like making my own money, preparing three square meals a day with some efficiency and without too much grandstanding in the kitchen, and more often than not being actually present when I had promised to be at a given time in a given place. So while I probably wasn’t somebody you would wanted to have a weekend fling with, before reality flung you back on monday I had some qualities that might suddenly look somewhat attractive after your friends had long enough disapproved of the guys you met or failed to meet. And if nothing else I would get to meet a dog, so as far I could tell I had nothing to lose.
There was one problem, though, and that was one of names. My friend could tell me that I was supposed to meet one [ʃəˈvˠaːn̪ˠ], and “isn’t that the coolest name ever”, but she had no clue how to spell it (and neither, obviously, had I).
By now I know that Germans are not the only ones to have trouble with the name – Lee Mack has a whole routine about Irish names in general, and “Siobhan” in particular, which is apparently famous with all the Siobhans in the world and they attend his gigs just to giggle for the three seconds when their name comes up. Not that I have any reason to complain – my own name is spelled “E-I-K-E” and is (at least if your are English) actually pronounced “I-K”, so with two redundant “e”s there goes the myth of German efficiency.
Siobhan’s Bavarian family named did not help much in finding her, either, especially since I grew up in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where the Bavarian syllable “oi” is homonym with “eu”, so I ended up with some quite weird ideas on what to look for in the phone book. However it transpired that, apart from having a job, knowing how to cook and being reasonably reliable, I was also gifted with a special kind of stubbornness, so after a lengthy session with the telephone directory and only a tiny bit of abuse from some accidentally cold-called Siobhans I actually managed to fix a date for what in the end really turned out to be a date, even if it was carefully camouflaged as some sort of business transaction over a time-sharing arrangement for a dog.
We agreed to meet at the Südkreuz train station, which I previously hadn’t been aware to actually exist; the last time I had been in Schöneberg the area had been occupied by the nearly derelict, in a picturesque way, metro station of General Pape Strasse, which was then knocked down to be replaced by what looked like somebody had tried to replicate Great Britain’s experiment to create an aircraft carrier from pykrete, only this time on land to make the attempt even more risible.
So meeting at the train station it was, and I was waiting rather nervously for things to come.
What came was not a thing but a woman, with black hair and a little rogue-ish white streak (that’s “Rogue”-ish as in Marvel’s X-Men Rogue), in a red basket weave coat, and slightly out of breath because she was being pulled forward by a skinny black dog which exuberated with enthusiasm for the world in general and all the nice people in it in particular. The dog greeted me warmly (or maybe she was testing clandestinely with her tongue if I was edible – Tati was, and is, somewhat of a glutton) and then Siobhan and I got to introduce ourselves to each other somewhat more formally. I guess we recognized each other from the birthday party some time ago, but both pretended not to, so as not to spoil a new opportunity with preconceived notions.
This was in January, and it was really, really cold, and it drizzled, and and to top things off we decided to wade through the mud for a bit (actually we decided to go to a vacant lot that the district of Schöneberg had made available as an exercise area for dogs, but it rather amounted to the same thing).
Schöneberg back then looked a lot different than it looks now. The houses were still worn down from many decades of neglect, the streets were dirty, and the streets were lined with used car lots flogging of hopelessly derelict jalopies to hopeful young entrepreneurs who had successfully made the long trek from their African or Arab homes to stock up on only slightly bent camshafts and 1974 VW Golf I engines. Leading up to the train station was an avenue that, as I later found out, was named by Siobhan’s visiting friends the “rapist alley”, not, I think, because of any actual rape that had occurred that but because for the fear that rape might happen any time soon around there, which is the principle by which many formerly civilized western countries are run now.
It was true, however, that some guys tried to sell weed and illegal cigarettes to the students of the local school and this is why, so the apocryphal story goes, the empty lot next to the school was rented out for a symbolic fee to a hastily formed association of dog owners who then had their collections of mutts and mongrels patrol the property to mutual benefit. The generosity of the local council did not extend far enough to cover any landscaping or paving of ways, so every gush of rain would turn the area into sludge. Undeterred we started doing rounds around the perimeter, and so did the other dog owners until the place looked more and more like a very badly run prison facility. With nice conversation and the dog hopping around us I had the time of my life.
It transpired that we had quite a few things in common. We were almost exactly the same age, both freelancers, both not necessarily thrilled by what the world had had to offer us so far but both, for the time being, open to the possibility that life had still something in store for us. Also we both have a penchant for British comedy, and Siobhan was somewhat excited to finally have found someone to discuss Red Dwarf episodes and the nuances of Bill Baileys supporting character in Black Books. She had just embarked on a quick lecture regarding how much Monty Python owed to Spike Milligan when suddenly the shouting started.
A dog run is a strange microcosmos where people from all social strata and all ways of life meet united in a common purpose, which is to unleash their critters and let them look after themselves for a few precious minutes. As a result city dogs, who have to get along with each other in confined spaces, are much better socialized than the rather territorial country dogs and, at times, better than their human masters. They are far less noisy to start with.
What had erupted here was pretty much a lower class conflict. K., a former builder whom bad health had forced out of his job and into indigence, and who would later become Tatis trusted dog sitter (because that is one of Siobhan’s little tricks, turning strangers into allies by taking their concerns seriously) was shouting at a young woman twice his size (but then he is a small man). It transpired that H. had used the bushes around the lot, in absence of a proper restroom, as a restroom, and that the source of K.’s anger were not any hygienic concerns but worry about the welfare of the animals (as dogs have an unfortunate preference for human excrement). Now all this was reasonable gross and everything, and it would have been easy to side with K., or shake the head about both of them in moral indignation and say a short prayer to thank god that we were not like these Pharisees.
Siobhan however took K. aside and pointed out to him that, through no fault of her own, H.’s mental development lagged a long way behind that of her body and that shouting at her was not only ungentlemanlike, but also rather unlikely to accomplish anything in the way of education. Then she spoke, in private, to H. to tell her that if she felt any natural human impulses she should take the trouble and cross the street were the proprietors of the gas station would certainly allow her to use the toilet. Eventually they both relented, and the shouting stopped. With peace thus restored we set out to proceed on our peripatetic ways when the dog, having spotted a rabbit, tunneled under the fence and went for a hunting trip on the adjoining railway tracks. I found myself commandeered to, basically, kneel down in the mud and guard all possible exits while Siobhan and a few volunteers finally managed to retrieve the mutt.
When she accompanied me back to the train station Siobhan looked a little embarrassed. “I can’t imagine what you must think of all this”, she said, referring to the mud and the excrement and the shouting.
Well, what did I think ?
In retrospect I think that this was Siobhan in a nutshell – a strong sense of justice, unafraid to get here hands dirty, and convinced that fixing one small, mundane or even distasteful problem in the neighbourhood might be more helpful than lamenting about all the big and ugly things that are happening in the world at large. I thought that I rather liked what I saw, a rather down-to-earth knightess in her, after crawling through the mud after the dog, somewhat splodgy armour (actually as it turned out not much armour at all – I have rarely met somebody who cared for others as much, but was as unprotected for herself as Siobhan, so I made it my job in the next years to fend off those things she could not protect against herself). It was basically then and there that I decided, as any good Sancho Panza would do, to throw in my lot with her if she just would let me, even if it came out somewhat less eloquently as “Want to meet again ? Maybe next week ?”.
Turned out that she wanted to.
Siobhan and I met for the first time some ten years ago, at the birthday party of a mutual friend, and totally failed to hit it off. This was even before Siobhan had adopted Tati, and maybe that was a part of the reason – a crazy love for dogs in general, and that specific dog in particular, is very much the glue that holds our relationship together.
More realistically the reason was that ten years ago I was gloomy, wild-haired, with a certain predilection for flannel shirts and a distinct lack of social grace. Being unable to focus on more than one person at a time meant that I wasn’t exactly a hit at parties, and I escaped by doing what I always did in such situations, which was to avoid people as much as possible while, and at the same time, not at all avoiding the birthday cake.
Some time later it turned out that the gloom and the lust for cake had a common cause, to wit Hashimoto’s disease, which was overlooked for many years; I was treated with various medications, underwent needless surgery and in the end was threatened with psychotherapie for alleged depression. In the end I was diagnosed over lunch by a doctor who was just getting started and wanted to commission a website for his new practice. It took him three questions to find the cause of my ailements, and I had a proper prescription before we had finished our starters. After I started to substitute thyroid hormone I still did like cake, but I became a lot less gloomy, which was slightly depressing in its own right – for almost forty years I had thought that I had an, albeit gloomy, personality and then it turned out I had a thyroid instead!
But at the time I did not know that and was hogging the cake buffet, when Siobhan came by to liberate one of the remaining slices from my gloomy embrace. I watched her as she fiddled with her insulin pump. University days weren’t too far back, and among peers we were still discussing gender theory and Donna Haraway’s essay on cyborgs and, for some reason, Star Trek, and so I was fascinated by the fact that somebody regulated a vital body function via an external device. We discussed (i.e. I blathered on about) how the thing was less capable than it appeared (as it doesn’t measure blood sugar, it merely, well, pumps insulin), but how that need for manual intervention really just added to the steampunkish and slightly Borg-ish charm and so on and so forth. Siobhan nodded, selected her cake, and went along her way.
When years later we recalled our first encounter I asked her what impression I had made on her. With typical candour she said that at the time she found me boring, somewhat strange and, as she put it, “unappealingly depressive” (must have been that thyroid).
I have no idea why some two years later she still agreed to meet with me, but am I ever so glad that she did.
Some eighteen months ago my father, whom I loved very much, died from arterial embolism. There wasn’t a single day since I did not cry, and I just wished that something would happen to take my mind of things. Then my wife suffered a stroke, which just shows that you should be careful what you wish for.
Or maybe not. For the better or the worse, the universe is not moved by our wishes, and things do not usually happen for a reason. This is in fact my single comfort in these times, that events did not happen because we did anything wrong, or because we are somehow bad people, or we failed to do or not do something that we should or shouldn’t have done. Events occurred as they did simply because something always happens to somebody, only the things that happened to us were pretty bad.
What happened is this.
On January 11th Siobhan, my wife, called me at work and asked if I could return home immediately; she had caught a flu, or so she thought, and needed me to look after her. When I got home she lay on the sofa, unable to walk, had already thrown up several times and spoke only slowly, with a slur and uncharacteristic trouble to find the proper words. My wife is a type one diabetic, so I checked her blood sugar which turned out to be normal. That was when I called the ambulance.
In the hospital they did a cat scan, and discovered an aneurysm at the brain stem partially closed with a thrombus. She was immediately committed to the neurosurgical ward at Klinikum Neukölln.
The doctors there said that we had come just in time. The aneurysm had not yet ruptured, so they would insert a metal coil to stabilize the walls of the affected artery. This was introduced to us as a standard procedure with a success rate above 95%. Four or five weeks of speech therapy, so a nurse suggested, and everything would be alright again.
Surgery was the next day. I called Siobhan at the hospital to wish her luck, and then went online to order her an iPad so she would have something to keep her busy during her stay at the hospital. Then I sat down and waited.
In the evening the hospital called. They said if it would help me to calm down then I should come down to the hospital and watch Siobhan waking up, only she didn’t. I sat by her bed waiting for her to wake up, until finally the hospital staff started to get worried and she was rushed off again for another cat scan.
It turned out the blood clots in the aneurysm had not completely dissolved despite the blood thinning medication; some coagulated blood had escaped, and blocked the neighbouring blood vessels, resulting in a brain stroke. There was damage to the thalamus, and the cerebellum, and alas even some damage to the left side of the cerebrum.
I was worried sick, literally. My short term memory disappeared almost completely, I developed tunnel vision to a point where I was half blind on the left eye and I suffered from chest pain (eventually I had this checked by a doctor who confirmed that there was no organic cause; this was mere panic). I was on sick leave for almost eight weeks.
For forty-seven days I spent my waking hours at the hospital, while Siobhan suffered through a double craniectomy to reduce pressure on the brain, a tracheostomy, pneumonia and a systemic fever that only went down many weeks later after the swelling of the brain subsided, all the while she was in a first natural, later artificial coma. Eventually I had to return to work, and Siobhan was transferred to a rehabilitation facility where they started to wake her up. She has made some progress since, but it is still not clear what we can hope for as a result of the therapy; the only thing doctors have categorically ruled out is a full recovery, she will remain paralyzed on her right side.
Some nice people have suggested that I am somehow praiseworthy for staying with the wife. This is not exactly true, or at least not relevant; rather I am horribly selfish.
I was not a very happy person before I met Siobhan – not particularly unhappy, either; just idling in neutral gear, waiting if someday, something would happen that was worth the effort. With Siobhan I was tremendously happy, and she did not have to do very much at all – it was enough that she would sit on the sofa and smile at me before she carefully selected another episode of some english panel show, or silently and diligently drew her plans to make me change my hoodies for proper shirts or make me join civilization in some other way. I want that back, to the extent possible (if anything I am worried that I am too selfish – the worst thing that could still happen that the life she returns to is not a life that she deems worth living).
And of course I made a vow, quite purposefully and deliberately, that very distinctly included the phrase “in good times, and in bad”. Now the good times have been much, much better than I had any right to expect, so it it unthinkable that I would not be at her side during the the bad times.
So to make you understand what Siobhan means to me and why it is so important that she returns home (and what the dog Tati has to do with all of this) I want to share over the next months a few thoughts and memories with you. Some of those are Siobhan’s memories, too; I know she would not like this, but at the moment I am the one who has to function out in the world and make plans for us both, and if telling stories helps me to cope then so be it.