When I was a toddler I was terrified of St Gangolf’s, the second oldest church in Trier. Its altar is a masterpiece of late Gothic art. As an adult I’ve grown to appreciate the quality of the artwork, including that of the near-life-size crucifix. As a toddler, I wasn’t quite so keen. For years the mere mention of the name “Gangolf” could provoke a cold chill in the spine. The emaciated, tortured sculpture of Christ towering over me with a bleeding wound on its side was more than I could manage. Yet, I generally got over my fear of death at a relatively early age.
The female-type parent read medicine. She was, is, quite good at it. At least no one in her operating theatre has died… Because of this, her being a young mother, I’d sit with her at a microscope looking at slides of blood and human organs at an age when the sight of a scraped knee could make many shudder. It taught me to have a healthy respect for life – and death.
When classmates died, sometimes accidentally, sometimes through foul play, I accepted it as a part of life. All things are transient and we can’t control the ratio of good and bad things that happen to us and those around us. Seeing the occasional mangled corpse, the pool of blood that was all that remained of a woman who thought it would be a brilliant idea to overtake another car in thick fog only to find herself on the losing end of a war of physics with a lorry was nothing to make me take a day off work or lessons. Even watching a man die a few yards in front of me, while certainly unpleasant, didn’t prevent my going to fitness centre for a workout after giving the police my testimony and contact details.
Seeing the older generations pass, on the other hand, drives a sense of urgency. My paternal grandfather died in 2006 – a few days short of his 70th birthday. He had been in declining health for years so his relatively early demise came as no surprise. My maternal grandfather died after a massive stroke last year. He was just over a month short of his 87th birthday. The viewing was uncomfortable and I was only able to stay for a few seconds. It’s strange, really. I’ve always been that way. I can’t eat meat if I saw the animal alive. I was not perturbed by putrefying animals on road sides, but the sight of a dead pet… It’s a comfortable hypocrisy.
My paternal grandmother died this week. Her health hasn’t been what it used to be and she’s lived in an old age home for a few years. She took a sudden turn last month before rallying. Then, suddenly, she was gone. I now have one remaining grandparent. It’s been difficult. Since my grandfather died, my maternal grandmother has aged rapidly physically and mentally. Early this year she was diagnosed with dementia. She was determined to fight it, determined to prove the doctors wrong. But she hasn’t. Her personality is changing quickly, becoming increasingly unpredictable. I’ve been in Germany largely because she can no longer be alone and getting the wheels of Hunnish bureaucracy to turn is fiendishly difficult. Some days, she’s kinder than she ever was. On other days, she’s mad. On her good days, you can see flashes of brilliance. She was a seamstress for decades – one of the last who could design, cut and finish clothing by sight and feel alone. Last autumn, she took a few cast-away garments and made a remarkably stylish coat with the material. By hand.
On her bad days, she screams accusations. She can almost become threatening. It’s hard to predict what will happen, what to expect. But it isn’t easy to live with. It’s even harder when I see the woman who cradled me as a child, who held me in my choleric infancy – who minded me when my mother was at uni or work – lose control over her functions, mentally and physically – at times very publicly. This is more than I can handle. After months and months of sheer ineptness, pure incompetence, the wheels of the bureaux have finally started to turn. She’ll be provided with regular assistance, at home. With luck, she will receive two visits daily and have transport to shops and doctor appointments arranged for her at no additional expense. But it isn’t any easier to see her decline so rapidly.
Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.