… so I get back from holiday and my neighbour’s died. Just like that. She was over 70. But so full of life. Not long ago, we were sitting at her kitchen table, talking about how Kate’s sister is seeing Prince Harry, wondering if that could ever work out.
The story came from one of her magazines with pictures of royals and celebrities and tales of their current joys and tribulations – like this latest business with Harry. She hadn’t finished reading the magazine, so she gave me a few back issues, ‘So you don’t get bored’. Then I fetched her some things from the pharmacy because she seemed weaker than usual. But she still sat ramrod straight in her chair and insisted she was fine. The people from the nursing service were coming at five, she said.
She had always picked herself up and soldiered on: survived two husbands and two regimes, had a perfect tan every summer from sitting outside in the rose garden on Karl-Marx-Allee. Sitting with her on a bench there one time last year, I mentioned I was going up to the Baltic coast for the weekend, and she told me she’d often been there with her second husband, at the nudist beaches. A twinkle came into her eye, and for a moment it felt like I was sitting next to a personification of the good life under socialism but also of unflagging care.
‘If only he’d listened to the doctors at the end and not smoked so much …’, she added with a trace of anger in her voice but with a tear in her eye. She took care of many things in the neighbourhood, including my post when I was away and a supply of reading material when I got back. Crazy really, but incredibly honourable, that someone in need of care insisted to the end on caring for others. On the landing, before going back into her flat, the last thing she would say was always: ‘And remember, if there’s anything …’ to which I would reply: ‘… I’ll let you know. Thanks!’
It’s unbearably quiet in our building now. When I come up the stairs during the day, her door doesn’t fly open. One more reason why death is so unfair. Someone departs, but you have no choice. Without being asked, you’re left behind among the living, with all their carrying on. Early this year, I was sick and tired of all the hoo-ha: always running round and getting things done, being left and having to get over it. And then, there she was outside the door, leaning on her walking aid. After some preliminary grumbling, she crisply declared: ‘What can you do. Killing yourself is no solution either.’ Whereupon she cheerfully set off, going out for a stroll. Boy, did that fill me with respect – respect for her, respect for life, respect in general.
If the social exists as a fluid that keeps you alive, then it’s embodied by people like my neighbour: who take care of all and sundry, who love life with no identifiable reason to do so, who talk to everyone around them about everything that’s going on without making a science out of it – and who thus end up actually knowing something. Because those who care witness what happens – in East Germany, in the rose garden, among royalty and outside their own front doors.
Since 1960, the American journalist Elizabeth Hawley has been living in Kathmandu. She is the top authority on Himalayan peaks, having spoken or exchanged letters with everyone who has climbed one in the last five decades. Upon returning from their expedition, climbers send her their summit photographs and only if she authenticates them does the ascent count as accomplished. When a witness like her dies, the loss is irreplaceable. No data processor in the world can match what she does. And no architect or social planner can conjure life into a block of flats the way my neighbour did, without asking for reasons; of her own volition and in a totally distinctive manner: with style. All the writer has are gestures. So I’d like to propose a toast:
‘To Vera R., the soul of Berlin personified. In gratitude and deep mourning, with the greatest respect. People always say: Life goes on. But it wouldn’t if someone like you didn’t make sure it did. So I’ll think of you, always, if there’s anything … ’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell