Die Beste Aller Zeiten

Going direct to heaven, going direct the other way

Author: Eike Pierstorff (Page 1 of 14)

Siobhan, Tati and I – Light reading

I have been reading “Team of Rivals” to the wife for the last four months now with no end in sight, and it starts to feel like we are living through the American Civil War in realtime. So I decided that we should have a break and read something else in between. On my way to the doctor I had recently blindly grabbed a book from Siobhan’s extensive library, which turned out to be an introduction to the work of Slavoj Žižek, so I decided to give that a try, because, after all, the incessant raconteur Žižek is one of the more entertaining philosophers, at least up to a point. Learning about his work instead of just listing to him spinning his yarn on youtube might be fun.

However there must be something wrong, either with me or with Žižek or, most likely, with the book (“Routledge Critical Thinkers”). I had been expected to be initiated into a complex and profound structure of thought (that was certainly what the preface promised), but so far Tony Myers only managed to make Žižek’s ideas drab and unappealing, like some sleight of hand from a less talented street magician who after 40 years is still working on getting his single trick right.

Žižek’s main influences (says Myers) are Hegel, Marx and Lacan. From the first he borrows the concept of dialectics, modified in a way that basically boils down to say that we need the bad to recognize the good by way of contrast. From Marxism he takes the (Marxist? It doesn’t sound like it) “subject” as a abstract vantage point from which to look at the world. The subject relates itself to the world via “ideology”, only Marxism cannot develop a meaningful concept of ideology, because ideology is not abstract but individual, which is why we need Lacan’s ideas on psychoanalysis.

I really hope that I got this wrong, because so far this does not sound profound at all. This trick of saying “I am using the words, but slightly different than anybody else” makes Žižek look like a slightly more telegenic Humpty Dumpty, who revels in the role as the master of his own idiosyncratic vocabulary and urgently hopes that somebody pays him a compliment for his nice cravat, so he can scold them and tell them that this is a belt, or vice versa; it does not matter which way.

It might be that I am unfair because subconsciously (psychoanalysis, indeed)  I just do not like Žižek. I prefer philosophy to be actionable in some way, and I just do not see that with him. For the ten years or so that I have occasionally listened to his interviews he has insisted that small steps are re-affirmative and thus counterproductive, and that we have to wait for the big change, which however will not come. How re-affirmative is that, delaying action for ten (or whatever number of)  years; image how much way small steps would have covered in that time.

Of course here is links back to my autobiographical experience. I have to imagine an Žižekian physiotherapist as somebody who refuses to do exercises because we have to wait that in ten or twenty or whatever number of years Siobhan will take her bed and walk.  But small steps have brought us such a long way during these last two years.

By itself the reading was not the good bit, though. The good bit was that it really felt like we were working through this together – I would read a little, and then try to summarize each paragraph in simple words, and Siobhan would try to guide me with smiles and frowns and ups and downs, and even if I still got it wrong in the end it was a lot of fun. In some ways it was probably even more fun for her than for me, because listening to me trying to use French names must be a hoot. I don’t think even their own mothers would recognize Messrs Lå-Kå and Tzo-ßür once I have finished with their pronounciation.

Still, I think it will be back to Lincoln next time.

    Dogs, or, the Importance of Make Believe in the Absence of an Actual Afterlife

    I grew up with dogs. I almost have to say I grew up with a single dog: The dog Kira joined our household when I was ten years old, and died an amazing twenty years later when I had long moved out and lived my life in far away Berlin.

    I had named the dog in a random assembly of syllables, largely because I had read in a book that dogs ears were much more attuned to high pitched noises like “i” and “a”, and like any giddy pre-teen I was very eager to demonstrate my superior knowledge. My father liked the name. He was always the history nut, with a strange (given that he was a social democrat) appreciation for nobility, and apparently one or the other russian arch-countess had indeed been named Kira. That was as good a reason as anything else to adopt that name.

    The rest of the family did not care about the name one way or the other. It turned out that the dog would not listen to her (not “its”. Kira was always, and definitely a “she”) name at all, and so they concluded with impeccable logic that the name was not all that important.

    To the neighbourhood, the dogs indifference to her name did not matter. We lived on the premises of a large hospital. My father had started his professional career at age fifteen with an apprenticeship in a coal mine. When he was later drafted into the military he trained as a medic, and on that basis was later offered a job in what was at that time a state run psychiatric hospital. By the end of the nineties it was privatized and turned into a for-profit facility, and my father would be very glad when he could finally retire. But in the eighties he had worked up his way to head nurse in a forensic ward, had been appointed a civil servant (because this was state run, and he dealt with people who had been sent by the German justice system) and had been working there for so long that he was a fixture of sorts, and a well respected figure. Some of that respect rubbed off on the dog, which was known in the neighborhood not by her name, but, in their local South German dialect, as “dem Pierstorff sein Hund” – Mr. Pierstorff his dog.

    Like my father, each day Mr. Pierstorff his dog had a long working day ahead of her. The hospital was separated into different wards, each ward had its own building, and each building had a kitchen were breakfast and dinner were prepared (a warm lunch was delivered by a central kitchen). So Kira would start every day by making her rounds from kitchen to kitchen, where she would sit down at the back door, sporting a starved look, until a slice of sausage or a bit of cheese would be tossed in the direction of her opened mouth. Twenty-Two kitchens later and the first appetite dampened, she would head off into the expansive vineyards of Baden-Württemberg, chasing mice and rabbits and, with an optimism unusual in the Pierstorff family, the occasional deer. There was little chance that she would ever catch any deer, for Kira was a cross-breed between a wire-haired dachshund and some other dog with somewhat, but not substantial longer legs. It is true, like some amazed rabbits found out near the end of their lives, that those legs gave amazing acceleration and maneuverability. But her limited stature meant that anything Bambi-sized and larger was well out of reach. But then, she had a true dachshund stubbornness that considered the laws of physiology or even physics a challenge to overcome, not an insurmountable obstacle.

    This was the eighties in rural Germany, when it was perfectly normal to see dogs run free. Children, too – basically everyone who did not have to work for a living was expected to be able to spend a few hours outside unattended. Older children would look after younger children, and the dogs would look after themselves. I am not sure what happened to the world since that everybody has become so guarded and timid. Unleashed dogs are widely regarded as monsters, and the outdoors as a kind of destructive device, only to be used with adult supervision: No running with scissors, or nature. But I digress.

    My father and the dog were a bit of an odd couple. Apart from the thing with the name he professed not to think about Kira too much, and he would complain quite regularly about “that stupid dog” that did not listen to commands and would live a life almost parallel to his own.

    But he was able of amazing acts of tenderness. Back then not much thought was given to spaying and neutering, and eventually Kira came down with eight wonderful little critters (no idea how they did fit in there). On of them had a crippled leg as a birth defect, and the vet suggested to spare it the suffering and put it down. My father would have none of that, and he and my mother pulled all the stops from their nursing skill and went to work with braces and bandages. Kira saw all her young grow up to find families and have a happy life.

    When she got really old, and so incontinent that it became impossible to keep her in the apartment, my father would continue to call her the stupid dog. But he also built a dog house on the front porch, complete with a heating lamp from on incubator, so that she could watch her family through the window and keep warm in bad weather.

    I think my father liked the idea of having a dog because, for him, having a dog was an expression of that respectable middle class life he was striving for, much like the library he amassing in his study, or the meticulously cared for garden were he spent much of his free time. More to the point, I guess he simply liked dogs. He might have liked it even more if the dog had listened to his commands once in a while, because I’m sure he felt that as relentless provider for his family he was entitled to a little respect, and friendship. The dog, I think, was not completely opposed to friendship, but did not see completely eye-to-eye with him on the listen-to-orders thing.

    He kept talking about how he did not want another dog after she had died. That’s how you could tell how much he liked the dog, because making plans for the time after was his attempt of keeping death at bay. “You have to look after your mother when I’m gone”, he started to tell my brother and me, after he was diagnosed with diabetes (not by itself a life threatening condition) in his fifties. Actually my mother looks after herself, and the provisions my father made during his lifetime are a great help with that.

    Kira collapsed during a last rabbit hunt in the vineyards. At that point she had long beaten the odds by living for twenty years, being run over twice by cars and surviving the cancer that slowly had spread out everywhere through her body. She was found by some passersby, and news that “dem Pierstorff sein Hund” had been found stricken quickly reached my fathers ear, and he rushed to pick her up. The vet said that this time there was nothing he could do, and that it would be a matter of painful hours. This time my father gave in and Kira was put to sleep.

    That was almost eighteen years ago. My father died three years ago from arterial embolism, after some more happy, and some not so happy years. We go on with our lives because what else can we do, but we do not forget our loved ones.

    I know that there is no afterlife. But when I pretend there is such a thing I like to image (because there is no point in make believe, if you do not make yourself believe in a perfect moment) that he is sitting there in his plastic garden chair in heaven, in his undershirt like he used to, with a book, surrounded by all the living things he has planted himself. And then he lets the book sink, and looks around to make sure nobody is watching him and says, with the hoarse tenderness of a man who is not used to admit his feelings, “Come here, you stupid dog.”

    And the dog comes.

      Siobhan, Tati and I – List Making

      The more time I spent with the wife (currently I’m with her six days a week, including the weekend and three overnight stays) the less time I have for anything else, including blogging. So instead of beautifully phrased sentences (or at least attempts at beautiful phrasing) here is a list, in no particular order, of things I want to get off my chest.

      • Not hearing her voice is the worst.
      • Related: I’ve always been leaning heavily on the wifes wisdom with my everyday worries. Whom do I lean on when my worry is that I can no longer do that (purely rhetorical – friends and family cannot replace her, but thank you for the offer) ?
      • Always check the TV program for the evening. Sometimes the nurses forget to turn of the TV, and you don’t want to have the wife having to watch the horror movie at eleven that follows the prime-time comedy show.
      • Being an efficient nurse is fine if you have a lot of patients that are expected to go home soon. Being an efficient nurse is not good if your work with stroke patients. Cleaning somebody’s teeth in two minutes is efficient, spending ten minutes assisting somebody to clean her or his teeth themselves is not; but it helps them learning to clean their teeth themselves.
      • At the wife’s place there are several efficient nurses. Thankfully there are a some of the other kind, too.
      • I am not good with paperwork.
      • This is all going very slowly, but there is progress.
      • I used to love Science Fiction, but it has become utterly depressing; everything is post-apocalyptic and pointlessly violent, albeit with excellent production values, and trodden out over endless episodes. The future will be a future of war, because if the war stopped there would be no sequels.
      • If I had believed that the future will be a shitshow I would not have let Siobhan survive.
      • I am still afraid of the future, but frankly that’s mostly about money. Healthcare costs a fortune.
      • Having to be the grown-up for 24 hours a day is terrible, how do you people all cope (rhetorical again – you probably don’t) ?
      • Sometimes I stop with things before I am fi– 
      • Not with the important things, though.

        Siobhan, Tati and I – Cake for Mohammad

        We will get to the memories eventually – I am inching my way back there. But be assured that this relates to the wife because for me, everything does now.

        Like all people today I am a hardened cynic. I do not believe that anything, ever, that somebody says or does, is done or said in good faith, and like all people I think everything that is said or done is an attack on my particular subculture (or for the racists among us, superculture, probably). But occasionally I can’t help to like something.

        The company I work for has a bake sale tomorrow to support a former colleague; he is a Pakistani who helped to uncover cases of government corruption, and who had to flee his home country when he and his family were attacked as a consequence. He has to support his family, and he has a hard time doing so. I do not know him personally but I like the idea to support him a lot.

        He reminds me for some reason of a student of Siobhan, if you want to call him a student; when the old school building in the neighbourhood was used as a facility to house refugees Siobhan helped out a little with language lessons, and accompanying people to the doctor and stuff. Strangely enough our right-wing factions like to complain how “those do-gooders think everyone is nice” and other nonsense; in fact the do-gooders usually have a far better insight into the problems of refugee work because, well, they are actually work with refugees instead of sitting at home and wining, and when deciding how much work to put in Siobhan usually focused on the more promising candidates.

        One of them was a young man from Afghanistan. He had to leave the country because during the war he had worked for a company that provided logistics support to the coalition troops. He came under threat from the Taliban and was sent to Germany for safety.  Now, no matter where you stand on the topic of immigration, you have to admit that somebody like that should not have to fight for a permit to stay in Germany, because as Germans most of us enjoy the advantages of a classic education and are aware that there is a special circle in hell prepared for those who turn their backs on those who helped them (Germany has since decided that Afghanistan is a “safe country” and refugees can be sent back there). What stood out was how normal he was – after listening to media reports you half expect every Afghan to be a religiously fanatic goat herder with dusty feet and a Ak-47 under his kaftan; but here was a young man who likes Bruno Mars and beautiful clothes and wants to carve out his niche in the world, only not today because there is some urgent hanging out with friends to do first and can’t we go easy on that crazy German grammar today (no, because you got to know the language if you want to make it here).

        When it came to helping others Siobhan always would come up with some sensible and eminently practical idea. I am fresh out of practical ideas, and for all that I am a good cook I am pretty bad when it comes to baking. But the wife would have done something, so, to proceed with life in a way she would approve of,  I can at least try to come up with a cake for Mohammad.


          Siobhan, Tati and I – The Here and Now, Part 2 : I am not Grateful

          Germans call this, more poetically than correctly (because it is really still part of the soon-to-be defunct „old“ year), „die Zeit zwischen den Jahren“, i.e. „the time between the years“, those days between the Christmas holidays and New Year when you take stock and count your blessings. I will opt out of this for this year, as I have decided that this time around I am not grateful. About the best thing I can say about this year is that it could have been worse.

          On the face of it there are many things I could still be thankful for. The wife is neither dead nor, as she could have been with all the damage to her brain, imbecile, and there is even some progress with her recovery. So far the health care provider has coughed up nicely. I have a good job that pays for the still somewhat extragavant bills that are left, and I have a very sympathetic employer (so here is a really big shoutout to Idealo. This would be so much harder without your support). We still have friends. The dog is healthy. But still, no.

          For one thing I have come to regard the phrase „it could be worse“ as a kind of threat, or a prelude to things actually getting worse (as in „An aneurysm? Well, things could be worse“). Some things will become worse – e.g. if the wife’s trach tube will be removed (which seems now possible within the next one or two years, and which by itself would be obviously a good thing) we will not longer qualify for 24 hours nursing service, even if she needs exactly the same level of care. We need to find a new and bigger home, and that will be expensive. And there is the long run – whith the money rushing out as it is there is no chance to build up a decent pension fund, so retirement will be no fun.

          Secondly, and more important, until Siobhan has regained her voice I have to speak for both of us. No matter how bad the situation is for me, it is a lot worse for her. Siobhan used to be fairly active, kept herself busy and usually saw to it that she gave more to the world than she got back. Now she has had a year of fear and pain, is reduced to almost complete helplessness, cannot focus for any length of time and tires out quickly just from sitting in a wheelchair. There is no way to tell how much of this will be permanent, but it is certain that she will never fully recover and it is somewhat likely she will need care for the rest of her life. I will not do any proclamations of gratefulness up until the wife decides and communicates that, despite everything, there are still things to be grateful for.

          Finally, not being grateful is a matter of a somewhat weird pride – „weird“, because pride usually requires that you stand up against somebody, and this time there is nobody on the receiving side. After all, to whom do you complain about a stroke? But the wife suffers, maybe permanently, our life is destroyed, our plans for the future are shattered. If we are not allowed to complain about that, if we are still being asked to be grateful for what’s left, then that raises the question at what point things would be finally shitty enough for us to be allowed not be grateful anymore.

          The best thing I can say about this year is not that things could be worse. I still manage to make the wife smile. Sometimes she strokes my hair when I am sad, and sometimes she rolls over, so she can hold me in her good arm.

          The best thing I can say about this year is that we have a marriage than can even survive an unmitigated catastrophe like this, and we owe that to no one, no one but ourselves.

          Fireworks have started. The time between the years is over.

          Happy new year.

            Siobhan, Tati and I : Interlude – Friday evenings

            Friday evening used to be the best part of the week. Now it is has become the worst.

            Friday night used to be that magic time when the weekend had already started, but none if it was yet used up, so to speak. Two full days of potentially sleeping in lay ahead of us – not that I actually did much sleeping in; the early hours of Saturday morning when the wife was still asleep were my private time, and I used them to pursue hobbies that the wife lacked proper understanding for (okay, I watched science fiction movies. Sue me). The rest of the weekend was usually filled with activity, most of it dog related. Also there was a suspicious amount of shopping for clothes, because the wife hadn’t given up hope that she might make a respectable husband out of me if she could find just the right trousers. And finally a lot of time was expended on the horror to all loyal husbands, culture. It made me a better man, I suppose.

            But at Friday evening there was none of that. Adventure is deviation from routine, and to make sure that we could have a bit of adventure now and then we saw to it that we had as much routine as possible. Friday evening was the perfect time for routine. Every other week we went out for dinner and drink (two large beer and a shot of liquor, half a litre of white wine for the wife), the other weeks I prepared something more elaborate than usual at home (also white wine and perhaps a little chocolate for dessert). Also we informed the dog at eight o’clock or thereabouts that she needed to go about her business with some alacrity because we surely as hell would not leave the house for the rest of the evening. Slightly inebriated we would turn in early, and with the dog on our feet and a good book (literally one, the one that Siobhan was reading – I would be simply glad to go to sleep) we had our little perfect paradise on earth. Those were wonderful times, but they are gone now.

            Now Friday evenings have become the worst part of the week.

            I don’t want to cry at work, and I certainly will not cry while standing at Siobhan’s bed. So now Friday evening is when I catch up with my crying – crying because suddenly the wife is not somebody I live together with, but somebody I go to visit; crying because I can talk to her, or about her, but no longer with her; and crying because my proud and independent wife has been reduced to someone other people take pity on.

            Tomorrow I will carry on. If this Orpheus is to extricate his Eurydice from hell then it  surely won’t be by looking back. But one evening per week I am allowed to collapse in a heap and cry.

              Siobhan, Tati and I: Guest Post by Barbara

              Your stories and your way of telling them are so heartbreaking and gently funny at the same time I find them absolutely moving.

              I have known Siobhán for a very long time; she is one of an extremely small number of people who actually know and understand how I feel, so she is a very important person for me and I hope you will allow me to share some memories of my own with you here.

              I first met her at Bayreuth University in 1992. She is extremely smart and I was not very adept at academic life or thinking, so for a long time I didn’t dare to speak to her. Bayreuth is technically in Bavaria but considers itself not to be, really, and Siobhán and I both come from the same, let’s say more rustic, original part of Bavaria, so I suppose that drew us together eventually. She is, to this day, the only friend that has remained a part of my life from this time.

              When she moved to Berlin, I visited regularly, and she was one of the few people who could be bothered to come and visit me in my not very glamorous new abode of Zwickau, Saxony. When the last of my succession of flat mates there moved to America in 2003 and I was left a little stranded and feeling very alone, she came down for a few days to cheer me up, and we binge-watched six seasons of Red Dwarf. I had to get the videos from the library in advance, a feat which took some organising in those days. It was a memorable weekend, not just because of the shows (we had done a similar thing together before in Chemnitz, when the local cinema decided to show six Star Trek films in one night, and we came out afterwards and the oxygen hit us like an exhilarating drug, and we would do the same again in Berlin with a complete show of the Lord of the Rings trilogy). But to me, that weekend was memorable because it showed me very clearly how well she understood the loneliness I was feeling and how much she cared about making it better. She bought me a little ceramic snail on that weekend, as a symbol, she said, that slow progress is progress nevertheless. I still have it on my bookshelf as a cherished souvenir.

              I spent some of my happiest holidays with her; a weekend at a spa in Görlitz, where we never left the building because we were so busy relaxing and enjoying it so much, and two weeks in Spain, where we had breakfast together every day and then we each did our own thing; she visited museums and other culturally important buildings like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, whilst I spent most of my time lounging about on the beach, doing nothing, or learning to dive. And then we would meet again for dinner and share our stories of the day. I think this was so enjoyable and I have such happy memories of it because there was never any sense of obligation or pressure, there was instead a tremendous freedom to follow our own interests and acceptance that they wouldn’t always coincide and confidence that this would not be an impediment to our holiday together but rather an enhancement of the experience. I have never found anyone else with whom I have been able to do this. It was very, very special.

              Then of course she married. You. I have to say that this came as a bit of a surprise to me. I suppose that in my mind I had settled it that she and I would remain single forever. But she found you. One day she called with the news that she had got married! And when I finally saw you together, even though you didn’t really talk to me or say much at all (you spent most of your time talking to the dog Tati, although I remember your enthusiasm when we watched Thor together in your flat) I could see that you two were good for each other and had been smart enough to recognise it. She was as happy with you as I had never seen her before in all the time that I knew her. I think that your marriage is based on the same relaxed acceptance of different interests and the trust that there will be enough common ground left over for both of you to stand on.

              After you two got married, Siobhán and I still went to the occasional „gig“ in Berlin without you. I always enjoyed these events enormously and I have always been grateful to you for allowing me „in“ on your relationship in this way.
              It has always meant a lot to me.

              — Barbara Fink

                Siobhan, Tati and I: Courtship

                My mother had (or probably still has) a cookbook the occupies a very special place in my heart, a small, unassuming volume bound in faded blue that promised to teach you “basic recipes for cooking and baking“. This is the book that helped me to make my first, tentative steps in the kitchen.

                Now, this must have been printed sometime at the beginning of the 1950s. Much to the chagrin of her neighbours Germany, who had started the war, was rather better off than the countries who had to go through all the trouble of winning it. That does not mean that all that loot from the war or the Wirtschaftswunder money trickled down evenly on everyone, and so this cookbook focused mostly on the art of making a lot from very little.

                Even so the authors had realized that even in scarce times one needs a little luxury, and so the book included a chapter devoted to cakes, cookies and biscuits. One recipe that that particularly caught my Imagination was the for a Hefezopf, a type of yeast pastry rather resembling a challah bread. This was not by itself a complicated thing, but it did look wonderfully festive with the braiding, topped with flakes of sliced almonds and a layer of only slightly melted crystal sugar. You can tell how good it looked because while the book had only picture in blurry, black-and-white picture I yet remember it crisply and colourfully. That’s how good it looked.

                I never had actually tried to make the thing for fear to fall short of all the imagined greatness, but when it was time to impress Siobhan with my prowess in the kitchen I decided that nothing else could possibly be good enough for her. It came out rather well, even if I say so myself; the only thing is that the original recipe was supposed to server a family of ten, and I forgot to scale it down for the occasion. Siobhan’s eyes grew wide when I unwrapped my giant loaf (which may sound rather like an off-color double entendre, but it was really just cake), and from the lower echelons of the kitchen floor a little black nose hopefully sniffed in my general direction.

                It is not that I did not try my hand in romantic gestures; once I had learned to spell her first name I scoured the internet for examples of famous Siobhans’, and finally found, in an antiquarian bookshop, a biography of Irish actress Siobhán McKenna. Siobhan looked at the book and “Oh, I think I was named after her”, she said (apparently my mother-in-law had been a big fan). And that was about the last time she mentioned the book. The loaf however is something she remember fondly for years to come. “I was amazed how big it was,” she would say (still talking about pastry). The three of us munched on Hefezopf for the next two weeks or so.

                Mostly we did so in front of the television while watching episodes of Red Dwarf on DVD. Science Fiction sitcom is not exactly a big genre in Germany, and never before had I anybody to share this particular infatuation with. And as Siobhan said, I was the first person in Germany she had met who even knew that the show existed. It’s not like she is a big science fiction fan – quite the opposite, she finds my penchant for spaceships and far-away stars rather strange – but she liked the bantering between Craig Charles and Chris Barrie (bantering is not something Germans usually do), and the rather physical humour. That is another thing Siobhan and I have in common – after all we met when were were late in our thirties, and had both amassed unnecessary large amounts of highbrow culture in our respective CVs. So we both felt entitled to set poststructuralism and medieval hagiography and whatnot aside, and enjoy watching a rastafari slob guzzle down messy vindaloos, in space, while being joined by a hologram of his dead, neurotic superior in the department of chicken soup dispenser maintenance. And then she would proceed with some insightful remark on art, or literature, or fashion or economy or any other topic that she had just dived into as a part of her freelance teaching job.

                That was the fun of it, that she did not stop to be cultivated, but that to her culture was not a means to elevate herself above others, but something to enjoy and share with others. She even managed to drag me off to art exhibitions that by myself I would neither have attended nor appreciated. I remember a display of depictions of Our Virgin Mary that under her scrutiny revealed much more insight into medieval psychology than those old painters could have possibly had themselves. And then it was back to humour, because there was one more test I had to take.

                “Do you know Eddie Izzard,” she asked innocently. I had no clue, and did not quite understand, what she was talking about, but this was not the time to admit ignorance on anything she deemed important.

                “Sure, I love lizards,” I said, “especially chameleons. Isn’t it amazing how they become almost invisible against the background?”. Siobhan looked at me in a funny way and popped in a DVD. Out on the screen strutted, in twelve inch heels, a man in dress and heavy makeup who ejaculated an incessant stream of syllables while he impersonated successively God (a.k.a. James Mason), Henry VIII, Sean Connery and Darth Vader. Men do not like to admit they have been talking out of their arse, so I turned around with a flourish, pointed at the painted chatterbox on the screen and exclaimed, “What did I say? You hardly see him at all!”.

                Well, maybe this is not exactly how things happened, even if from now on I will remember it that way. It is true however that she looked at me attentively from the side, and when I nearly choked with laughter at the joke about original sin (“Father forgive me, I poked a badger with a spoon”) she nodded approvingly. “He is extremely funny,” she said, “and without any racism, or sexism, or malice”. Which was a very typical thing for Siobhan to say, and I was glad that I had passed the test.

                It’s not that we see eye to eye on everything. I don’t think she understands my infatuation with science fiction, or my habit of fiddling around to assemble small bits of technology that I could much easier buy in a shop (or do without). But then, that became part of the secret of a successful marriage, that we have enough in common to understand each other without talking, and are different enough to always have something to talk about.

                But at the end of the day what really brought us together was not culture, or humour, or even pastry. It was the shared affection for somebody who was, if at all possible, even more craving for love than the both of us. And so we spent most of our time together walking in circles, watching the dog hopping around, the dog watching us walking around, all the three of us engaged in the long, but pleasantly entertaining process of becoming familiar with each other.

                  Siobhan, Tati and I: On not having the wife killed

                  We interrupt our usually upbeat program for an important service message.

                  It has been suggested to me that I see things to negative, and that I “should not always assume the worst will happen”. I feel it is important to clarify my feelings on the matter, and I’m going to do this in the way that, for some reason, helps me most at the moment, which is in public. I guess it is easier to fight your demons out in the light where you can see them (and lest anybody thinks I have finally snapped, the “demons” are strictly a metaphor; I do not, rpt. not, believe in the supernatural). I would be nice if this would set the matter to a rest, but undoubtedly somebody will tell me that I am wrong to feel the way I do. Be that as it may, I wouldn’t be me if I felt any differently, so there.

                  Of course nobody suggested to me that I should have the wife killed. The preferred legalese phrase in my jurisdiction is “Einstellung lebenserhaltender Maßnahmen”, the cessation of life prolonging treatment. The phrase is specifically designed to make clear that the process has nothing to do at all with killing, or actively bringing an end to a life. But when I was asked to make a choice whether Siobhan should cease, or if doctors should attempt further treatment I did not feel in the mood for close semantic analyses. Siobhan had given me (as I had given to her) a legal mandate to make decisions for her if she ever were to be incapacitated, including medical decisions. A word from me and the doctors would end their efforts, and Siobhan would certainly die. With treatment, there was a chance she would live.

                  What should have been a no-brainer – what kind of husband would give up on his wife after a few days (over ever, really) – became a tough choice as the doctors went through their gruesome laundry list of incurred damage. Left side of the thalamus gone. Unknown amount of damage to the right side. Damage to the brain stem. Damage to the cerebellum. A lesion in the cerebrum. Rising pressure in the brain, due to inflammation, and because the ventricles of the brain had rearranged themselves so that cerebrospinal fluid could no longer escape. Fever of unknown origin.

                  The doctors were unable to provide any kind of guidance. In part I think they felt the hospital had already messed up by telling us beforehand that Siobhan’s surgery was a low-risk standard procedure (admittedly it was one of the nurses who had said that, not the doctors) , but mostly I presume they just had no way of what was going to happen. The only thing they categorically ruled out was a ful recovery, they were certain that Siobhan will suffer from hemiparesis in her right side; but there is a wide continuum from needing walking frames while clear of mind as a best case scenario to being committed, damaged on body and mind beyond repair, to a permanent care facility as the worst case, or anything between. They required a decision within the next 48 hours.

                  During those two days my mind raced in circles. There was no handle to the situation that would allow me to make a decision in Siobhan’s best interest. As you know I decided that treatment should continue, but that decision I made for my own best interest, not hers, and there is no way yet to know if I did the right thing.

                  The only thing that is certain is that I made her suffer a lot. I agreed to have a hole cut in the back of her skull to relieve the pressure. I agreed to have a much larger piece of skull removed from the left side of her head when the first hole proved ineffective. I agreed to have a smaller hole drilled into what remained of her skull to insert a probe that measured intracranial pressure. I agreed to have the back of her head to be cut open again, when the there was an infection to the wound. I agreed to a rather aggressive therapy with antibiotics when Siobhan developed a prolonged fever. And if you think maybe that wasn’t so bad, certainly she did not feel pain while in coma, then you probably haven’t spent forty-seven consecutive days at a hospital bed watching the contorted face of a loved one (and I really hope for you you haven’t). She did feel pain alright. Admonitions that I should not always assume the worst to happen seem rather out of place to me, because from where I am standing the situation already looks pretty messed up.

                  And there was, and still is, no way to tell if I made the right call. People keep telling me that, no matter how things will turn out, I could not have decided any other way. But while they are right, broadly speaking – I could not have let her die just to be on the safe side – this does not mean mine was necessarily a good decision. This is not a situation where, if things go awry, I can admit I’ve lost and be a good sport about it. My wife will have to live with the consequences of my decision.

                  Siobhan was always convinced that something would happen to her early in her life. That was not any kind of clairvoyance – she is as skeptical as me w/r/t the existence of yonder realms – but owed to the fact that she has been a diabetic ever since her teens, and she thought that some consequence of that disease would finally catch up with her (although by “early” she assumed her early sixties).  And since I love riding that motorcycle, and we were always very much aware that there is such a thing as accidents, we talked a lot about possible consequences should anything happen to either of us. So I do not need to rely on speculations on what kind of live she would still find acceptable – I know it, from her very own mouth. She could certainly adapt to a life on walking frames, or in a wheelchair. But speech, and her mental faculties, and a modicum of mobility and independence while living in her own home are the things she could not live without, and right now there is, despite all the good progress she makes, still a danger that she ends up  mentally impaired stowed away in some facility. The main reason that I have a legal mandate to end life prolonging treatment is that she trusted me that I would exercise that mandate if necessary.  

                  But when the time came I decided that doctors should do everything in their power to save her. I did not do that for her – I did it for me. I figured that if nobody could tell me how things would end they might as well end well, relatively, and I just could not bear the thought of living without my wonderful wife. But that is ultimately a gamble – if it turns out that I made the wrong call, and that I have condemned her to a life she could not possibly want, then I would have failed her as a friend and a husband, and a trusted person. I do not know how I could ever live with that.

                    Siobhan, Tati and I: Interlude – About food

                    Both Siobhan and I like good food, maybe a little too much. Married life did become us a little too well when it came to calories. We complement each other in a slightly detrimental way, since I was raised to believe that portions sizes were lacking if there aren’t any leftovers, and the wife likes to clean her plate since she does not like good food go to waste. Not that any food would have had the chance: Tati appreciates a good meal as much as any of us, and indeed would be hugely disappointed in her humans if would ask her to make do with dog food. I am hugely in favor of a species-appropriate diet and it is hugely appropriate for the species canis familiaris to share their meals with humans, since eating kitchen scraps is basically what turned wolves into dogs.

                    Apart from being tasty and nutritious food has also a few ancillary uses. For one, I find preparing food is a great way to relax. Spending time in the kitchen always helped me to relax after a day at work, especially when the result were (well, most of the time at least) so very well received – as inappropriate as it might be, the thing I probably miss most right now is that moment when Siobhan with an expectant smile raises her empty plate in my direction and asks, “Are there seconds ?” (of course there are). Cooking for the wife is, for me, pretty much the epitome of happily married life.

                    There was also the matter of breakfast. I usually get up a lot earlier than Siobhan (sleeping in is to some extent a prerogative of freelancers), so at some point I started to serve her breakfast in bed. Siobhan’s habits are not exactly demanding, and the few minutes in spend in the morning to prepare toast are amply rewarded by a smile and a kiss. And Siobhan thoroughly enjoyed that little luxury, too. “Behold the queen of Saba”, she would crow, surveying the vast domain of her bedsheets where, down at her feet, her single loyal subject stretched its paws and wrinkled it’s nose to ascertain if it was worth negotiating for a share of the breakfast (bugger it, it’s porridge again) before the humble servant cleared the table and, on a kiss, transformed back into the not quite as humble husband.

                    I also noticed, with some faint amusement, that getting served breakfast in bed entitled her to bragging rights among her friends. The way I found out was that Siobhan was calling a friend, and some time into the conversation the words “YOUR HUSBAND DOES WHAT ?” emerged in a volume that did not really require the telephone line to travel the way from the antipodes to our Berlin apartment. I am as vain as the next man, so that it reflected well on me that Siobhan was allowed to feel just a little smug about the excellent room service was just another reason to keep it up.

                    And, for Siobhan more than for me, food was a way to trigger happy memories. It took us a while to track down a brand of malt vinegar that rather tastes like something a person would use to clean their bathroom fixtures (provided they do not like their bathroom fixtures all that much), but which apparently is rather the same that a certain Fish and Chips shop in London used to drizzle on their meals (while we visited London early in our relationship I cannot quite vouch for that, as the shop had been gone by then). And she was quite thrilled when more and more shops started to carry prepacked british tea sandwiches, with egg and cress and without crust and cut into triangles (I can at least confirm that bread tastes much better when cut into triangles).

                    Last but not least food became an indicator for our gains in socioeconomic status. We love eating out (once a month, or twice. Well, thrice at most, because then the expenses are becoming frivolous), and our palate evolved with better job opportunities and rising income. First we visited that little Indian place in Feurigstrasse on the basis that two people could get away with less than 30 Euro (both, not each) including dessert and drinks, a price that makes you excuse certain shortcomings like taste, or lack thereof. In time, we worked our way up – when I landed a new job and the Indian place had closed we tried a more expensive place, and rather liked it. And so on.

                    This was not just about the food, either. As freelancers we had had a reasonable income on paper, but by the time the money actually arrived most of it was already dedicated to some purpose (usually patching some hole in our finances that had opened while we waited for our money – we were good workers, but not good businesspeople). With my fixed income later on our lives became a lot less improvised, and while Siobhan (and to a lesser extent myself) always championed social causes and justice for the world at large we found what we really craved for ourselves was a regular life with all the trappings of a small bourgeois existence.

                    We knew we had succeeded when, some years later, we arrived at our favourite Italian on a hot summer evening and along with dinner I ordered a bottle of water. When I poured us a glas I suddenly had to laugh, and Siobhan was laughing back because she knew exactly what I was thinking. “I know, I know”, I said, “here I am, spending money on water, when you can have water for free from the tap, right ?”. She nodded, and laughed again. We were really going up in the world.

                    So, we like food. That was probably the reason, when the time for courtship came, it didn’t even occur to me to invest in flowers or insubstantial chocolates or any of the other things that are usually considered romantic. Instead I headed for the kitchen and cranked up the oven. Clearly, pastry was what was called for here.

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