It’s a long corridor, cold fluorescent light, constant beep-noises from invisible machines, and that smell. A strong disinfectant, like a heavy layer on everything and everywhere: on my hands, on my clothes, on people – even the water I drink tastes of it. In the distance two nurses and a doctor exchange encrypted messages – fast, emotionless, I had forgotten how harsh the German language can sound.
I sit in a small visitor area at the Berlin-Buch hospital. Intensive care unit. My father is here. My father, who I haven’t seen in 4 ½ years.
…48 hours earlier I had received a short email from my sister, who I hadn’t seen in 4 ½ years either. She had written that our father had major bleedings and had been taken to hospital for an emergency operation. Could I come? Of course, I can. I did. In less than six hours I had booked a flight, emailed my employer, packed a bag. A friend picked me up in the middle of the night to drive me to the airport. On my journey to Berlin a huge wave of anxiety, fear, tiredness and confusion flooded my body. What should I expect to see when I’m there? What can or should I say? Will he be alive? What will happen?
With sweaty but cold hands I boarded the plane. A beautiful purple-orange sunrise at take-off did let me forget everything for a moment. I just wondered who else might witness this little piece of magic and peace? Would my Dad see it? Or my children? No, they were probably still asleep. At 6am they didn’t know yet that their Dad left for Berlin to see Grandad. I left a note for them on the table.
In the early afternoon my mother, sister and I arrived at the hospital. With heavy steps we climbed up to the first floor. I held my mother and felt her shaking hand. The room seemed small. Behind a white curtain I saw the silhouette of a human body. Screens, tubes, cables, more tubes, beeps, noises. His face white and bloated. His eyes colourless and empty. I hardly recognised him…
When the Borders between Life and Death become Blurred
Now I’m sitting here. I try to figure out what’s going on. What am I doing here? What am I supposed to do? The doctors say it doesn’t look good for him. He’s got cancer. For months he had been receiving therapy and for a while he had been recovering quite well. Then this sudden bleeding. In only seconds he loses so much blood that life is fading away. The paramedics save him by minutes only. But after two days of artificial coma he’s coming around. Still, the doctor’s advice to me is to say good bye. How the fuck do I say good bye to my dying Dad? We haven’t spoken much in the last years. Short emails for birthdays and Christmas. Once in a while meaningless conversations over the phone: ‘Yes, it’s still rainy here. How’s the weather in Berlin?’ – you know, that kind of chat.
I have not the slightest idea what is going to happen. I feel helpless, speechless, alone. The only way to deal with this devastating situation is to follow my very own instinct and heart. Yes, in the back of my mind I remember so many moments where he and I were light years apart. His life and mine have little in common. Disappointment, frustration and even anger have been the ingredients for our relationship over the last years. He knows that. I know that. But I’m not here to judge him. This is not about forgiving, understanding or questioning. This is about being present and authentic. I listen to my heart and I feel my love for him. Love he needs to know about.
I go inside his room again. He is awake and his tired eyes look at me. I don’t know whether he is wondering what I’m thinking right now. He tries to smile. I take his hand, look into his eyes and kiss him. Tears run down his cheeks. Everything is still. Just him and I. We hold each other. A perfect moment between father and son. We are close, we are connected.
I don’t care about the past. I care about the present, about him, about now. I hold his hand and whisper that I love him. Tears block my throat. With a shaking hand he picks up pen and paper. He writes: ‘Torsten, I’m happy that you came’. I cry.
A New Closeness to My Family
He sleeps and I’m talking to a doctor again. He’s very clear and doesn’t hold back. His question drills a hole in my heart: ‘How far shall we go to keep him alive?’ What the hell does that mean? Of course they should and must try everything they can. Even if only machines keep him alive? You see, life is not always life. Am I here to make such a decision? No. As long as my father has clear moments it is entirely up to him.
My sister and I agree on that. My mother, understandably, wants to answer for him. Confusion follows. The doctors receive different messages, some get even lost with shift hand overs. It gets blurry and misty. Does this happen to all families where a relative might die? The chaos needs sorting. My sister and I sit together and talk. It feels good as we didn’t speak much with each other for years. We push our own issues with one another beside and focus on our father. I feel closer to her. I know her pain and she knows mine.
Together and somehow united we talk to the doctors again. And to our father. Gently I tell him what the doctors can do if he starts bleeding again. Frankly, it’s not much. I hold his hand again and under tears my sister and I talk about our mother; that he doesn’t need to worry about her, we’ll take care of her. No pressure on him, from no one. We ask him to use all his strength for himself, to make up his own mind. And whatever he decides about the hours and days to come, we will be there for him.
It’s quiet again. My Dad looks at my sister, then at me. He writes just one sentence on the white board I bought for him: ‘I want to go in peace’. We hug and kiss him. He smiles at us. I try to smile back. But tears run over my face and my body shivers. I feel incredibly sad and my heart could break any moment. But I also feel peace and truth. We are close to him and I am glad that we experience this moment together.
I don’t know how much time he has left. No one knows. What’s important for me is that in all this sorrow my father and I feel connected again. Something I have been longing for, for years. He knows that his son loves him, something all fathers want to know sooner or later. His note ‘I’m happy that you came’ is inside my pocket when I board the plane home.