A little girl runs into the middle of the hallway to watch our approach with obvious curiosity. Her tiny body blocks our passage. Her mother hurries to pull her aside, muttering an excuse. The girl shakes her head. Her huge dark eyes are glued to the wheelchair. An elderly woman intervenes. She demands something of little Miss Curious. A rushed stream of words in a language I do not understand. The girl nods, makes room for the wheelchair. Her eyes do not derail from the object of her fascination for one second. I glance at Dad. He loves small children. I expect his hand to wave at the sweet bystander. Not today. He looks straight ahead. Nothing in his face gives away what his mind registers. We pass the family, greeting each other -with the exception of Dad.
This is my father’s third hospital admission in five weeks. How exhausting all this back and forth between the hospital and the nursing home must be for him, not to speak of the various health issues that have brought him here!
We open the door to Dad’s hospital room. Arabic sounding music comes out of headphones lying on crumbled sheets in the bed closest to the door. Alarm bells go off in my head. Don’t be silly, I scold myself, Dad might not notice anything in his condition! Deep down I know that this is not true. He has always been a hawk-like observer, no matter the circumstances, including his health. Just wait and see! I take deep breaths and I close the door behind us.
The bed with the headphones faces a TV screen suspended from the ceiling. I glance at the screen that is running with no one watching. The tone is muted. I see a procession behind a cross and a casket. Men follow the casket, wearing head scarfs and tunics that almost reach the ground.
I look at my father. Nothing in Dad’s demeanor reveals whether or not he has noticed anything unusual. A slight pressure in my stomach starts building. I pledge to myself to talk to him as soon as the situation allows.
The nurse helps Dad settle into his bed near the shaded window front. She asks us kindly to leave the room. A few minutes later, we are allowed back in. Someone has switched off the music and the TV screen. I am thankful for the silence.
I look at Dad. Oxygen tubes connect his nostrils with a small oxygen tank on the wall. An IV line runs from his bruised hand to a drip bag full of liquid. “This must be so uncomfortable!” I feel for my father. The nurse obviously had trouble finding a vein that served the purpose. Dad makes a grimace, grunts, and sweeps the topic off the table with a weak gesture of his free arm. The nurse still busies herself with a stand next to the bed that holds up all the tubes. “He will fall asleep soon! I just added a sedative to the saline fluid”, she informs us before leaving the room. My husband and I sit with Dad whose eyes are already closed. Silence wraps itself around us like a comforting blanket.
The door opens again within minutes. What my eyes take in worsens the pressure in my stomach. The Turkish looking family from the hallway enters the room that feels instantly crowded. We whisper brief “Hellos” and nod. A slim, tall man in his early 60s with a huge mustache exchanges a few sentences with his loved ones. I catch some German words, but the rest is spoken in a melodic language I don’t understand. He seems to be the head of the family. Everyone leaves, except for him, who walks slowly into the shared bathroom. Its door closes.
I glance at Dad. His eyes are still shut, but his shallow breathing gives away that he is still awake. “Remember the nice family from the hallway, Dad? The older man is your roommate.”
My father doesn’t respond. My stomach slowly twists into a knot. With his roommate returning any minute, this doesn’t seem the most opportune moment to remind Dad of his own words that I heard since early childhood: Don’t ever judge a book by its cover! Unfortunately, I witnessed over the years that my father never shied away from openly expressing his strong political and religious opinions without granting believers of a different direction the same courtesy. He could be outright racist at times. At the moment, I simply have to trust. Please God, prevent Dad from making any offensive comment towards this man! I pray silently.
The man returns from the bathroom and settles back into his bed. He reaches for his headphones.
I feel the urge to connect with Dad’s roommate before he switches on the TV.
“How long have you been in the hospital?” I initiate small talk about his health issues. To my surprise, he answers in a fluent, almost authentic Bavarian dialect. Only bits and pieces of his speech pattern give away that he is a foreigner.
Before I get a chance to satisfy my curiosity, the man asks what is going on with Dad. That is my cue. I share Dad’s dementia, his temporary confusions, and his compromised heart condition with the other patient. “My father sometimes says things that have nothing to do with reality so they shouldn’t be taken too literally and certainly not personally!” I feel inclined to add. The head with short dark curls in the other bed just nods.
I ask him kindly to make sure that my father doesn’t get out of bed without assistance from a nurse. Dad is connected to too many tubes that might be ripped out otherwise. The man nods again. “Absolutely, no problem. I have trouble sleeping anyway”, he accepts his role without hesitation. Something intangible is weaved between his words that puts me at ease. I exhale, completely. Only now I notice that I withheld some of my breath.
I turn to Dad who seems to drift towards sleep. My husband and I exchange looks and say good-bye to Dad and his roommate. Before the door closes behind me, I see dark curls looking down at a remote and a finger pushing a button. The knot in my stomach is back.
A longing melody of Middle Eastern instruments welcomes us when we return the next morning. Partially muted headphones hang from the triangle above the bed closest to the door. The bed is abandoned. The bathroom door closed. My focus turns to the other bed in the room. Its headrest is slightly elevated. Dad is curled up like a fetus and faces the wall. The duvet is pulled up all the way to his shoulders and moves in the rhythm of labored breaths. I caress my father’s arm on top of the duvet.
“Papa, we are here!” A weak “That’s good!” is the response. Dad doesn’t move or open his eyes.
“Are you in pain?” A sound of denial is the answer. His head doesn’t budge.
With a look at the rolling side table where Dad’s breakfast still stands untouched, I continue: “Would you like something to drink or eat? I can help you with it.” A dismissive sound, stronger this time. I pull a chair closer to the bed and start massaging his back. Moans of delight are my reward. I smile.
My husband leaves to fetch espresso at the hospital cafeteria.
I continue to intermittently stroke and massage Dad’s back and side.
The bathroom door opens. “Good morning!” I welcome Dad’s roommate. His dark eyes start to smile. Half suns radiate from their corners. His protruding cheek bones give his slender face a rugged expression. He returns my greeting.
“How are you today?” His eyes lose their smile instantly. As answer to my question, the man shakes his dark curls with the tiniest hint of grey and says: “Lots of pain, lots of pain”. The unhealthy color of his skin and dark circles around his eyes are testimony to his sleep deprivation. While he slowly walks to his bed, he holds his left side. He seems underweight.
“I am so sorry to hear that!” Sincerity has a way of being received. His dark eyes look straight into mine and become warm. Dad’s roommate shares his frustration about the lengthy recovery that he faces after a fall that has resulted in mysterious health issues. I listen. I feel for this man.
“The good thing about not being able to sleep was that I could call for help every time your father tried to get up”, he adds. Given the combination of Dad’s dementia and sedative-related confusion, getting up at night by himself could have disastrous consequences.
“Your father had a rather rough night” he continues.” I rang several times for assistance. They took him for multiple scans at the crack of dawn and then gave him a sedative. He will be out for a while”, Dad’s roommate informs me.
“Thank you so much for looking out for him!” I mean every word I say.
“We are all brothers and sisters and have to take care of one another!” His simple statement speaks directly to my heart. I sense that is exactly the motto he has always lived by.
While I keep caressing Dad’s arm and back I notice that his breath has become less labored, deeper. The sedative must have done its job.
Yesterday’s curiosity about my father’s roommate emerges again.
“How long have you lived in Germany?” I investigate. Since 1978, he answers.
“Wow, you have lived longer in my native country than I have”, I share with him.
My answer surprises him and we start to swap stories.
When I hear that he is from Kurdistan, last night’s knot in my stomach is back. I have to talk to Dad! Urgently. But when? How?
I force myself to suppress unwanted pictures in my head and focus on the actual life story told. A fascinating story of courage, determination and stamina:
Due to the high unemployment rate in Kurdistan during the 1970’s, Dad’s roommate decided to follow Germany’s call for foreign laborers. He was the first of his family to arrive in a foreign country, with a very different religion and culture – and a language he didn’t speak yet. Although he doesn’t go into too much detail about the obstacles he had to face, I can imagine them only too well. Rural villages are close-knit communities. It takes a long time to be tolerated and accepted by locals. My own family had experienced that, first my maternal grandmother, later my Dad when he fled East Germany. In addition to that, my family were Protestants in a purely Catholic community, Prussians in a sea of Bavarians. How much harder must the adjustment have been for a Muslim from Kurdistan! My heart goes out to the unspoken bravery of this man. I make a brief remark on how difficult it must have been without anyone’s support, before the existence of the Internet. He just nods. Something in him recognizes my deeper understanding.
“It was all worth it!” He continues, “Within a few years, my two brothers, my wife and three kids joined me. We have a good life, our kids got a wonderful education and have great jobs now. And then the little one, my granddaughter … what a blessing she is!” His pride is evident, just like the reciprocated love and devotion of his entire extended family. They take turns visiting him and bringing home-cooked meals.
We pause briefly before he asks about my family. When he learns that I am the only one of my generation on my side of the family, that we have only one daughter and live in the US, he shakes his head in disbelief –and empathy. Silence connects us. The gap between us narrows by the minute.
The word America, however, has opened the lid to a snake basket. Dad’s roommate starts talking politics. My least favorite topic and a dangerous place to be in. I cringe. Take deliberate deep breaths and turn into a snake charmer who stays out of biting range.
“How is it possible for a nation to allow a man like that to become its president?” His tone of voice is tainted with disgust. “Didn’t the Americans see firsthand what dictatorship can do to a nation when they opened the Nazi camps after WWII? How could so many people vote for him? Can you explain that to me?” A wave of agitation and judgement clashes on my side of the room. I take a deep breath before I answer this pressing question that for a year and a half has been on the minds of millions.
“Republicans must have flocked to the polls on election day. Some Democrats on the other hand were too sure that the Republican candidate had no chance to be elected and apparently didn’t bother to vote. We all know the outcome. They have a chance to redeem themselves in November, though”, I try to lower the lid over the cobra’s head.
“Will they?” The head jerks up again. I feel exposed.
“God only knows”, is my last resort. I am surprised to be pressured like this by someone I barely know. Germans don’t necessarily share with neighbors whom they vote for, let alone strangers. After all, elections are supposed to be private and secret.
Where is my husband? Why isn’t he back yet? He knows every detail about world politics, loves history, and has an open mind. He would be the perfect conversation partner for this man.
No break for the snake charmer. Dad’s roommate has changed to another hot topic, the president of Turkey. “He is a disaster for Europe! Another dictator on the rise. He already obstructs the freedom of speech and suppresses political opponents. If he wins the election in June, he will have the power to play God in Turkey, which will have a huge impact on the Middle East and Europe.” Another wave of agitation reaches my side of the room. The knot in my stomach turns to stone. This kind of energy isn’t good for anybody, especially not in a hospital setting.
I glance warily at my Dad. His breathing is deep, he is sound asleep. Thank God for that!
I decide to admit that politics is not exactly my strong suit, and that I know little about the history and current happenings in Turkey or his home country. Dark eye brows rise. His face loses the stern vertical fault line in the center of his forehead. When he speaks again, his tone of voice has changed. There are no longer peaks and edges. He has turned into an educator.
I lower my flute. The perceived danger doesn’t exist. The snake doesn’t intend to bite. It is dancing to the movements of my flute. I can invite it back into the basket anytime and close the lid. I relax. Listen intently to what this man has to say.
Dad’s roommate continues to tell me about Masoud Barzani, the current president of Kurdistan, who does everything in his power to push the Kurdish independence forward. The man’s face lights up when he shares Barzani’s achievements with me, the promotion of peace, stability and religious tolerance in Kurdistan.
I interject here and there, ask questions. Dad’s roommate is patient and explains. The more I listen, the more his longing for democracy, for women’s rights and education for all is obvious.
We are having a peace talk on the smallest scale, a peace talk on overcoming religious and cultural barriers, crosses my mind. We see the human equal in one another. Something mightier than us leads the conversation. Our exchange flows without effort as if the heaviness of the spoken word is carried away on wings of butterflies.
At one point, every topic that concerns both of us seems exhausted. We are satisfied. Comfortable silence spreads.
My attention returns to my father who is still asleep.
Did you hear all that, Papa? I hope some inner ear of Dad has listened and will behave accordingly when he wakes up.
Days later, on the way to the airport, I follow an inner voice and call the hospital to be connected to Dad’s roommate. I want to send him a thank-you gift. Only at this moment I have realized that we never exchanged names. Too late. The hospital staff informs me that I just missed his release into a rehab facility out of town. They are not authorized to release his name or address. My great idea bursts like a needle-pierced balloon.
Maybe guardian angels are not supposed to be named.
About the author
Anja Kerstin Kuentzel,
Advanced Grief Recovery Method specialist, nature lover, photographer, and bilingual wordsmith combines her passions to offer a different perspective on life that might inspire, raise awareness or even heal.