Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life is Cruel

One of my mother's old friends called here yesterday.

By "old," I mean that she is both ancient, and has also been my mother's friend for a very long time.

Madeline Burkhart is 94 and I remember her and her husband Joe from my childhood. They were German immigrants to Canada, after WWII. Joe fought in the German army. You know, on the wrong side.

My father fought for the Allies. He hated Joe and Madeline, on principle, I imagine, but they were devout Catholics and belonged to our church, and my mother insisted on befriending them and that my father be polite.

My God, the things my father did for my mother. After fighting overseas for 5 years, and the horror he saw during the war, I've no doubt why my dad hated the Burkharts. You can only see so many people blown apart, or bayoneted right in front of you, or duck so many bullets and grapple with however many knife-wielding enemies, until the hate must just become an automatic reaction. He detested the Burkharts, but my mother made him sit in their company, and swallow his bile. Which he did.

Joe and Madeline were very musical. They played accordions and sang, and Joe led the church choir, in which my mother sang. They looked like the stereotypical versions of German musicians you see decked out at every Oktoberfest you've ever attended: he in his shorts and suspenders, neat cap with feather, hoisting his accordion to the beat. She was an absolute dumpling with pure blonde-white (oh, so Aryan), Marge Simpson-style hair, embroidered blouses barely covering ample bosoms. I exaggerate not.

I even got dragged into that choir one Midnight mass, to play my flute for a carol, and still have the picture someone snapped of me, a 13-or-so year-old girl, standing next to Joe, the two of us fluting away.

Well, eventually, the Burkharts retired and moved away from Winnipeg to a nicer climate in B.C. They called my mother just last year, and the the two of them sang her a song over the phone.

This time, the call was very different.

Madeline, who still sounds like a youngster, reported to me that Joe had a stroke last fall. He's in a wheelchair, can't feed himself and rambles on and on, forgetting the beginnings of his sentences before he reaches the ends.

They had to sell their home after his stroke, naturally. Can you believe they were still living in their own house at such an age? They moved into a retirement residence, but don't live together in the same room, because Madeline is far too weak to care for Joe.

Nope.  Joe spends his time drooling in a room that accommodates 6 people in more-or-less the same condition as him. Madeline lives alone in her own room a few stories up.

She told me the story in agonized tones. I in turn described my mother and the fact that she too now lives in a retirement residence, and that her memory is so bad that I could no longer take care of her myself. 

"Ah, her memory is just like Joe's," she said, between sniffles.

I agreed.

Now, this call had been horrid enough. But it got worse.

"Delia, life is so cruel," she wailed. "Appreciate life because it will all slip away from you, and then horrible things will happen."

As you my well imagine, I had no idea what to say. My stomach was starting to hurt a bit, though.

I finally asked if she had anyone in town who visited or helped her.

"My daughter-in-law," she whimpered. "Only her."

I didn't even think of inquiring as to what had happened to her son. If he wasn't visiting her, it wasn't for any good reason, I figured. Dead? Too sick himself to visit? Perhaps he was divorced but his ex-wife still cares for Madeline, when he can't be bothered? Who knew, but I sure wasn't going to raise it.

"It's cruel, just cruel," Madeline kept intoning.  I murmured that indeed, life could be unfair. I told her I'd send up a prayer for her and Joe. Then I gave her my mother's phone number at the retirement residence, and said goodbye.

I sat for a long time after I hung up, and was mildly ill for the rest of the afternoon. That evening, feeling the need for a rather strong drink before going to bed, I gave in. Just something to hopefully keep the nightmares away, I thought.