August 19, 2008

“Oh, What Do I Know in These Times?”

GERMANY — We were driving with my aunt’s cousin to her daughter’s house in Hann, a town known as the “bedroom of Düsseldorf,” because it’s right next door. They are both in their seventies and all they ever talk about is family. Now it was about Liesel’s daughter’s husband, who had just been released from the hospital after five weeks in intensive care.

“So what exactly is wrong with him, his heart?” my aunt asked from the back seat. We all already knew it was his heart; this was just my aunt’s way of asking for the details. I held a package of frikadelles she had cooked for the dinner with Liesel’s daughters and husbands, including the one home from the hospital. Liesel’s daughters and I had played together when we were all not more than six or seven years old. Now we were in our forties and things had started going wrong with us. I was facing another surgery to correct a funky operation on my stomach that was supposed to have helped my acid reflux, but that had instead left me bloated and gassy. Still, my problems were minor compared to Liesel’s son-in-law.

“It’s too big, his heart; it’s enlarged,” Liesel explained. “It fills with blood. The pumping isn’t right. Too much blood stays in there.” She shook her head; she slapped the wheel.

“Oh, no -– that’s what I heard -– his heart.”

“A few years ago he would be dead, but now, with the things they have these days.…”

Liesel raised a hand from the wheel. She hardly ever smiled; her face was hard, but she was not unkind. She ferociously clung to her old-fashionedness, like when she insisted that the only water she drank was Gerolsteiner; it was what Germans drank, not that new stuff, Evian or Volvic.

“What are they going to do with him?”

“Oh, they’re giving him ten pills to take every day. Don’t ask me what all these pills do, I don’t know. I barely understood everything they told me. But he’s going back into the hospital in a couple of weeks and they’re going to put a chip in his heart.”

“A chip?”

“Yes, some kind of piece of electronics. It will keep his heart steady, you see. When something goes wrong, it sends an impulse.”

“Unbelievable. Amazing what they can do now.”

“The things they can do these days, don’t ask me how. Without the chip he’d be a goner; they told him that. And, Edelgarte, if there’s a big problem, the chip sends a message to the hospital.”

“Is that true?”

“That’s what they said; I’m sure I got it right. It can signal the hospital when things go bad.”

My aunt shook her head, not completely believing.

“So are they going to cut him open? Crack his chest, open him all up, that poor man?”

“No, actually, they’re going in through the neck, with a cable, you see. And they’ll go all the way down to the heart.”

“Like they did with David,” my aunt said.

“Laparascopically,” I said. But they didn’t go though my neck, just my belly.

“That’s right. With the cable.”

“He has to take it easy now, for the rest of his life,” said Liesel. “No stress. No working twelve hours a day. He has to live quietly.”

“Like us.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right -– like a retired person.”

We were on the autobahn now. An Audi cut across three lanes, before weaving itself behind a fast moving truck, a tandem trailer.

“Look at this one,” raising an arm off the wheel again, pointing. “These people, how they drive.”

Her voice sounded despairing; she expressed her dismay in apocalyptic tones. No matter how small the grievance, it was a portent of the end of times.

We were silent as she passed a moped gang that sounded like a swarm of monstrous bees.

“How are your shoulders?” Liesel asked my aunt, who then made the noise of a whining child, to let Liesel know.

“They still hurt. Every morning. The left worse than the right. I got four shots from the doctor, but my niece tells me not to get any more. Cortisone. It hurts even to drive, so I’m glad you could take us. David is helping me in the garden. Oh you should see my garden. It’s going to hell, because I can’t work in it anymore.”

My aunt was moving from her village to a large town about 5 kilometers away. The house had become too much for her to take care of. In a month, she’d be gone from where she had lived for forty years and into an apartment in a brand-new building.

“Did you hear about Otto?” asked Liesel.

“You mean about his implants?”

Otto had gotten teeth implants a year earlier.

“Now they’re infected and, oh the poor guy, he says he wishes they had just pulled his teeth out altogether.”

Wow, I thought. What a depressing conversation. Decline, depression, death. I sat there like a child, ignored like one and mostly talked to like one. I had been given a window into my future. Fear of a world that moved forward and changed more quickly than it ever had before. Still, I looked forward to eating the frikadelles. Food: the great refuge. Green beans with speck. Boiled potatoes. Dill dressing on a salad.

The Düsseldorf television tower loomed over the Rhine. Liesel was a good driver, despite her age and her old-fashioned, slightly shabby look –- the big plastic glasses, the old woolen shawl. The way she drove, the car felt as though something was pulling it up the roads and around corners, like a cable car following its inevitable path.

My aunt and Liesel were done talking about all the ailments afflicting members of the family. They were quiet now. Rumination filled the car. Maybe they were thinking about dinner, too.