Friday, April 18, 2014

RIP—Günther Heise, 24/12/1931 – 18/4/2014

This Good Friday morning, around 7:30 a.m. Berlin time, my Dad took his last breath and peacefully slid away.

You may remember that I had seen him only two weeks ago, during my last trip to Germany. I had returned to the US just last Wednesday and was en route home from a weekend high school mountain bike race (950 miles of driving plus the race in three days!) on Monday morning when word reached me that Dad had been hospitalized and was not doing well at all. With my brother in Vietnam for a 3-week vacation (and at the time of my notification not reachable yet) I immediately booked a flight to Berlin and left Lubbock on Tuesday morning. When I arrived in Berlin at noon on Wednesday, my nephew, Dennis, picked me up and we went straight to the hospital.

Things had progressed quickly. My Dad had not been feeling well for weeks, and, quite frankly, we thought that a lifetime of heavy smoking had finally caught up with the 82-year-old and that cancer was ravaging him. So, really, none of this came as a surprise to us. ("Us" in our case is a very small family: My brother, Bux; his two children, Dennis [21] and Jannick [15]; his ex-wife Gabi, who happens to work as an ICU nurse in the hospital where my Dad was stationed and who had taken care of cleaning chores at my Dad's once a week or so; his other ex-wife, Andrea; and a literal handful of cousins, aunt, and uncle from my deceased mom's side. That's it.)

We had no idea how bad things were with my Paps even if we knew he wasn't doing well. He was not much of a complainer, and he didn't let on when things were wrong. Still, when I had said good-bye two weeks ago I had been wondering how many more times I might get to visit him in the "smoker's den," as Judy and I had called the yellowed apartment in the middle of Berlin's Turkish quarter. Apparently things became so difficult and uncomfortable for him that he called an ambulance on Sunday to be taken to the hospital. (I had two brief telephone conversations on Friday and Saturday with him during which he sounded totally worn out.) Gabi was on-site soon after, and he made clear to the physicians that, should things turn south, he did not want to be kept alive with artificial means and treatments other than to provide comfort; his living will stated the same. According to Gabi, he was lucid and appeared somehow relieved, even though the initial diagnosis indicated that some medication would take care of whatever ailed him. I am sure he knew that the end was closing in rapidly. I hope that, once my time comes, I can show the same dignity and courage that he displayed.

Monday saw my Dad's condition spiraling downward. The doctors found out that his heart function was greatly diminished and that he had a large amount of fluid in his lungs and abdomen; what had seemed as possibly fixable with some medication became an increasingly hopeless situation, especially in light of my dad's explicit wishes to not utilize high-tech procedures to keep him alive to avoid becoming somebody requiring 24-hour care. His liver and kidneys started to fail. The call to me was made.

On Tuesday, his younger grandchild, Jannick, visited my Dad after his brother, Dennis, had picked him up at an out-of-town Easter vacation camp for special ed kids. Dad's condition had already deteriorated markedly, but he still had lucid spells and obviously was glad to see Jannick. Gabi and Dennis started taking turns staying with Dad, as much as possible, while I was sitting in airplanes to make it back in time. I did, but only to see him in a more-or-less comatose state. There was never an obvious sign that he recognized me or my presence, which is of no consequence since we will never know. For those of us who are left over, the temptation is great to assume that our presence is calming and soothing. We believe what we want to believe, and hope often tops intellect.

With the exception of a short 3-hour break on Thursday afternoon, during which I made personal contact with a funeral home and rode for an hour to clear my mind and body, I spent the entire time with my Dad. The hospital bent the rules a little bit and provided me with a bed so that I could rest some. The nurses were friendly and emphatic, the way most nurses are—what a blessing on mankind they are! The doctors were mostly absent since, let's face it, there was nothing to be done. I had sent my good friend Alan the results of my Dad's blood work, and he ventured an estimate of 24 to 72 hours. I read this e-mail around 6:15 a.m. this morning. At 7:30, Dad was dead.

So, who was this man? Physically, we were quite similar, even though I am taller and have always been a bit more muscular—my Mom always made fun of his sticks in the ass legs! But look at pictures of his face and mine at similar stages in our lives, and the similarity is striking. He was a good husband and father. His dedication to my mother, whom he nursed for ten years after she fell sick with MS, was 100%, to the point of being self-destructive. He always had the best for his family at heart. He was the type of provider that only the post-war years could produce. (Both he and my Mom were born in Berlin and had their formative years during the final stages of WW II.) He was a curious person, and he instilled in me that same sense of curiosity and adventure that lie at least partially at the root of my urge for travel and, eventually, having emigrated.

I remember well a defining moment in my life that, in retrospect, seems like a turning point in my Dad's life, too. It was sometime in the late '70s, after I had already left for college in Trier but before my exit to the USA. Most of his life, my Dad had minor heart problems, and on that particular afternoon he had experienced some medical problem that had necessitated a house visit by Dr. Lehmann, our longtime Hausarzt. Apparently, things weren't too acute since the doc just told my Dad to rest up. When I went to see my Dad, who, quite curiously, looked shrunken and much smaller than usual, and check on him, he turned to me with an ashen face and sad eyes and let out a sigh that has stayed with me since: "I had wanted to do so much!" The resignation in his voice turned these words into something like a mantra for me, reminding me to not just want to do but to actually DO. I have been doing, and that may be one of my Dad's greatest legacies, even if he never intended it.

Dad was a good guy. Like everybody, he had his flaws. As a family father, he could be quite authoritarian, to the point of intimidating. Generally, he had an even temper, but on very rare occasions, he would erupt in an unpredictable manner, and it was not a good thing to be in the direct line of fire. He was a man of rigid principles, sometimes to a fault. I started to recognize these various traits once I left the house, and, sometimes seeing the same in myself, I have been trying to be cognizant and avert the worst damage. Those of you who know me will know what I am talking about. We are, after all, our parents' children.

His biggest fault, though, is a personal one that may have prevented him from having had an even more fulfilled life than I believe he must have had: My Dad had a very hard time communicating his feelings to and with others. Even though he was very, very soft on the inside—easily brought to teary eyes—some events in his childhood made it impossible for him to truly confide his feelings, aspirations, fears, hopes, and demons. There was some barrier, something that over time had become so large that he couldn't overcome it. I am sure others have seen the same in their parents. I do not know how often over all of those years and many, many visits I tried to break through to that inner Dad that I know existed. It was like an encapsulated tumor, and the slow and cruel death of my mother made it even more of a foreign object. Still, I thought that Judy's death might, just maybe, open him up toward his elder son. (I do not know how open he may have been with my brother, but I believe that certain doors stayed closed, there, too.) My father's resistance to share emotion and allow others to see inside him has certainly left its mark on me, someone who is gregarious, full of love for life, optimism, and the need to share with others. I tried to crack the nut, didn't succeed, and am OK with it—yet, I can still wish he had shared this inner self with me.

I am writing all of this a few hours after Dad's death, less than 100 meters away from his apartment. You see, right on the corner of Sonnenallee and Erkstrasse/Wildenbruchstrasse, there is this small Eckkneipe, a corner pub called Zum Tiger. How often did my dad and I joke about going there to have Sunday Frühschoppen, a time when German men escape their wives and have a pint or two before lunch? Of course, we never went. There were no women to escape from.... So, when I was slowly trudging back to the apartment after finalizing everything in the hospital, I saw Zum Tiger. And then I stepped in—Good Friday and all—and decided to have a pint or two and write all of this.

Rest in Peace, Dad.



1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your father, Jurgen. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

    Ginger Hall and family