Last farewells

/ by Clemens Berger

They were ‘the boys‘. Always ’the boys‘. Even when they were well over seventy, Kurt and Eugen, two small but bulky farmers, would still be called ’the boys‘ — that was what my grandmother called her cousins, when she was still able to talk.

When she was still able to cook, more than fifteen years before she died after long and terrible suffering from Alzheimer’s, the boys would sit in her kitchen, drink beer and schnapps and indulge in her heavy meals, not uttering a word while devouring huge helpings. The boys, my beloved grandmother reckoned, needed energy, after a long day of hard work in the woods, when my grandfather and I had been cutting trees with them, splitting wood, loading it onto a trailer and driving back to our home, the boys on their tractor, we in my grandfather’s car.

I always watched them in awe. They were heavy-set and roundish, they could carry huge trunks as if they weighed nothing, with red faces, their strength, from a life of hard work, was tremendous. They didn’t talk a lot, sometimes I could barely understand them, their heavy dialect, their muttered words, their strange intonations. They were quick at work, chopped and cut diligently, groaning and breathing heavily. One day, in the winter of 2000, after the right-wing-coalition had been sworn in under fierce protests, one of them said while cutting trees, if he could get a grip on one of those good-for-nothings taking to the streets of Vienna, he would teach them a lesson with his — enormous — hands. You can start with me, I said, the topic was dropped, we worked on, there seemed to be no hard feelings at all. On another occasion, on another day, years later, one of them asked me if I knew a certain girl from their village who was studying in Vienna — if I ran into her sometimes?

After my grandfather, who had lost his strength over the years during which he took care of my sick and helpless grandmother, couldn’t go into his forest anymore, I went with them alone, and sometimes with my father. It always meant rising early in the morning, driving to the woods, and starting to work on what would heat our fireplace. At seven in the morning they would have their first bottle of beer, and a schnapps, and one apple. That’s what I remember about our last time in the forest. I declined at seven, but I couldn’t  possibly decline at nine, if I wanted them to still take me seriously, since, after all, working well wasn’t everything. Me and one of the boys would carry trunks, after they’d been sawn into chunks, to the tractor, where the other boy would cut them in two — sometimes in four, when they were really big — with a machine that was sharp and seemed very dangerous to me. The procedure had a name that I’ve never heard before, a word that can’t be found in any dictionary. What at first, in the early hours before sunrise, seemed to never end, gradually got done, tree by tree, trunk by trunk, log by log, and I wandered through my grandfather’s forest, the one he had been so proud of, the ‘foxes‘ trench’ as it was called. I would spend many an hour there, with him, not only working, sometimes just strolling around, checking out the trees, hoping not to find any bark beetles, looking for foxes and their dens. Sometimes I would find blue cartridges, soldiers had been training there, I learned, years ago, when there were still barracks in the small town I grew up in. One day, my beloved grandfather, who had been a police officer, promised to my utter delight that someday he would take me into the forest to shoot a pistol. We would aim at cans.

It’s the only promise I can remember that my grandfather, who has been dead for almost half a year, ever broke. He didn’t have any weapons at home, my father told me recently when I told him about the broken promise, he had handed them all back after retiring from service.

When I stood at his open grave, on a cold day in early January, with the police brass band playing and a trumpet resounding from the far end of the cemetery’s wall, I could make out the snow-laden trees of the ‘foxes‘ trench’ in the distance, between the village and the town, well beyond the black hats and mourning faces, the wind brushing through the very trees that will have to be cut down altogether soon, since they were befallen by the bark beetle in the last year of his life. He hadn’t cared about it much anymore, instead he had started talking about death, yet less playfully than before, and I would tell him, though he had become weak, and couldn’t walk anymore, and didn’t see anything but shadows, and could barely hear, that he was still young, and that we still needed him. The old man, who had always been tall and strong and composed, would cry and sob sometimes, why me, why do I have to suffer through all of this — years ago, in a big hospital room full of beds, after yet another operation on his eyes that didn’t improve, but worsened his vision. When I said good-bye to him, last Christmas, when I hugged him and told him I loved him, I felt it was the last time. Four days later he was dead. He had been rushed to the hospital on the day I left, had spent a few days there and wanted to go home, to be at home for the New Year, to be around his wife. They let him go. Three hours after his release, he was dead. He had died in the house he had built, next to his wife, next to his daughter and his son-in-law. Of course the boys attended the funeral. Afterwards, when we were eating at my grandfather’s favorite restaurant, I talked to them. They were still strong, looked the way they always had, at least to me, and seemed sound in their heads.

After dreadful years, five months after her husband had been carried out of their house, my grandmother passed away. One hour before the funeral we were standing and sitting around her coffin in a small building with its milk glass windows, the afternoon light turning them orange. The first people arrived with condolences, amongst them one of the boys. He wore a white shirt, shook my mother’s hand, shook my father’s hand, who told him to sit with us since he was family, but he declined. He shook my hand, I smiled at him, because I was glad to see him, and with him all the memories of days long gone, he shook my brother’s hand, my sister’s hand, my brother-in-law’s hand, my niece’s hand. People came and went to offer their sympathies, when I heard a loud bump. I looked out of the room, through the door, and saw someone falling onto his knees. People came for a last good-bye and went. I felt an uproar outside, heard mumbling voices, noticed people trying to revive the man who'd fallen, saw terror in the face of one of my brother’s friends when he shook our hands. Suddenly the orange of the milk glass turned into a blinking blue. People came in and went out again. I saw first responders, then a head of hair I knew — my uncle’s hair, an emergency doctor’s, who couldn’t attend the funeral because he was on duty.

When we went to the small church of the village in which my grandmother was born and raised, I learned it had been one of the boys who’d been taken away in the ambulance. It didn’t look good, the undertaker told me, not at all. Which boy it was, nobody could tell for sure, and hours of gossip later someone would ask my father if his brother — the emergency doctor — was doing better by now.

It was raining when we walked silently along the main road of the village, people hid under black umbrellas, tears pouring out of my eyes when we passed by the school my grandmother had gone to and where she had given birth to my mother, a building that has seen neither classes nor pupils in decades. And then, on the right, next to a door bell, I read the last name of the boys, which was also my grandmother’s maiden name. I had not known, had maybe forgotten where they, or one of them — since they were always ‘the boys’ and thus one — lived, and I wished that what had probably happened, hadn’t happened.

One of the boys, Kurt, had suffered a heart attack after walking out of the room where he'd said a last good-bye to his cousin, whose heavy meals he had last indulged in more than fifteen years ago. He had been called back to life twice, as people reported, and is said to have said, ‘I don’t want to’, but if it was to live or to die, no one can say. Everyone just shook their head in disbelief. I remembered me standing at a window in the hospital, after saying good-bye to my grandmother and leaving her room, looking at a green meadow, the wind rushing through it, sobbing, my brother putting his arm around my shoulders. Heimat, that strange German word that has been misused and is being misused so terribly, that’s neither home nor terra, and that I could only use in the way Ernst Bloch uses as the last word of ’The Principle of Hope‘, after thousands of pages, set after a colon: Heimat — as something that will arise once human beings have started to build a real democracy, something that shines in every childhood, and yet a condition no one has ever been in. But until then, I thought, when I took some notes, Heimat, or home, that is people. And I realized that I had lost a big part of it within the last months.

The next day I was supposed to read and talk about my ‘record for eternity‘. I had chosen The Cure, ’Boys don’t cry‘. I was eleven then, and twelve, and thirteen, when I listened to it time and again. It was when everything was still good, when everyone who was home was still fully alive. I thought about my grandparents and the boy, when the title track was being played. But even then, back then, when I listened eagerly to the song, I felt and knew that ’Boys don’t cry‘ really meant the opposite as well.

....
Clemens Berger

born 1979 in southern Burgenland, Austria, studied philosophy at the University of Vienna. He’s a writer, essayist and playwright. Recent publications: „Und hieb ihm das rechte Ohr ab“ (2009), „Das Streichelinstitut“ (2010), „Ein Versprechen von Gegenwart“ (2013), „Im Jahr des Panda“ (2016), www.clemensberger.at


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