When I was a freshman at law school--I was nineteen-years-old, I decided to spend my vacation in Germany learning German and ended up in Trier, the oldest city in Germany that has a huge Roman gate in its center called the Porta Nigra. I ended up staying with the Laux family in Pfalzel--a suburb--which was arranged by their son, Richard, who was teaching my brother Seamus at high school in Ireland at the time.
I arrived speaking little German and both Frau and Herr Laux spoke little English, which meant I had to learn fast which I did. Frau Laux was an attractive redhead, about mid-fifties, and she made it clear from the beginning that this Irishman was to be treated as one of her family. She became a surrogate mother in a way and took me into the city, helped me find a job at a restaurant called Zum Domstein, and spent her afternoons feeding and conversing with me in her garden. In the center of their garden, which swept down to the banks of the Mosel river, was a Mirabella tree that produced a sweet delicious fruit that looked like yellow plums. She baked the most exquisite pies--those German pies where the fruit is halved and put on the top of teh salty-sweet like a plum comforter.
Some days Frau and Herr Laux came to the restaurant to collect me after work and then they'd drive in their gray Ford Tauras to a hospital carpark where I'd wait while they went inside for a long time. I could never understand what was going on, nor did they offer an explanation, though the rides home where always very somber. Moreover, even if they had, my German was so poor I wouldn't have understood.
The summer passed quickly and I grew to love them deeply. On the final morning, they came outside with me and hugged me tightly before I left for the train staion. (They'd wanted to take me to the station, but I didn't want that as I knew it would be difficult to take leave there.) As I kissed her, Frau Laux's amber eyes sparkled with tears and she gripped me more tightly that my mother ever had. I looked to Herr Laux and saw his eyes were similarly full.
"I'll be back at Christmas time to visit," I said in perfect German. "I promise."
Frau Laux began to sob.
"Tschus," she said, and I can still see her beautifully tanned arm rise and wave sand then she went quickly inside leaving the others to watch me leave.
Three weeks passed and then I got a call from a friend Michael--a student from the same village that I'd befriended--to say Frau Laux was dead.
"What?" I said, shocked to the core, memories tumbling like kaleidoscope pieces in my brain.
"Damian," he said, "she didn't want you to know she was dying of cancer. That was her one condition to her family. When their son Richard told them that someone from Ireland wanted to come to Germany to learn German and asked if they were interested in having him stay, they held a family conference. Herr Laux didn't want you to stay because he said you'd be too much of an interruption because she was dying. But Frau Laux wouldn't hear of it. She wanted you. She said she wanted the Irishman to come and no one was to tell you that she was dying. She wanted her life to be full and normal. She didn't want pity. She wanted to show you the real Germany."
I was at once humbled and in awe. My love for her surged. There was so much to tell her, so much to say, and it was all too late. For the first time in my life I knew the true meaning of death, its silence and permanence. I hadn't even felt such loss when my grandfather died, but then I was a child and didn't understand.
I take comfort in knowing my presence and my ignorance helped her during those final days, helped her live a normal life till she could do it no longer, that being there stopped the family from becoming dark and breaking into endless bouts of tears and darkness. She was an amazing woman and the laughter we shared--often when I said crazy things in German like "Es regnet Katzen und Hunden" on rainy day (It's raining cats and dogs) when in German it should be "Es regnet in Strom"--is vivid in my memory, as is her chiselled, tanned smiling face as she stands beside her beloved Mirabella tree.
[technorati: Trier, Germany, Pfalzel, family, cancer