Dear Shekhar “the Mother” is a beautifully written ode to the eternal mother in all women. But there are also fathers out there who deserve all the love we can give to them. Here is my story:
When the phone call came from Germany on this gray winter morning a few days past Christmas 1990 and my sister had uttered the ominous words I knew that our father would soon leave us. The words fell like a hammer, there was a finality to them that left no room for a sliver of hope: pancreatic cancer. This was a cancer with a reputation for swiftness and a survival rate of virtually nil. Neither my sister nor myself had the courage to break the dreaded news to him or for that matter to our mother……
… We made them understand that the pancreas had been seriously inflamed with the possibility of a malignancy developing. Only later did it become clear to me that my father was in on this white lie almost from the word go. It was my mother who was the most vulnerable who steadfastly refused to face the inevitable truth. Later when the denial stage had slowly been traversed, even by her, did my father drop hints that he had known all along and that he had wandered the house during night hours in crushing pain trying not to wake her lest she would finally get a glimpse of the horrible reality.
Early in May, 4 months after the diagnosis, I had flown to Germany to be with both of them and on an achingly beautiful day when I had taken them to a mountain resort in the Alps I walked with my mother through fields of flowers and made it clear to her that her mate of 60 years was very close to leaving her. It was liberating for both of us to be at long last free of all pretense, deceit and self-deception. The road was clear and straight and could now be walked with dignity, the eyes didn’t have to be averted anymore. At that moment my mother must have entered her grieving phase, and ultimately her strength had become our strength as well. Her tenderness towards my father was touching, they still kissed like two lovers as though the years of toil and struggle had not interfered with their love for each other.
It was during that visit that I wanted my father to talk about his childhood days and those horrible 6 years when he was a soldier in World War II. How did children cope in an era when fathers in Germany had to be addressed in a stilted and formal manner, when one’s own father was an alcoholic and one’s own mother had died of consumption, a disease whose progress was hastened by bad nutrition or, more brutally put, by starvation. Almost shyly my father told me that there was never enough food in the house and that his mother in her final year at the age of 36 wanted the 8-year-old boy to sleep in her room on a cot to discourage my grand father from forcing himself on her when he came home, usually late at night in a drunken stupor. This was a moment when I wanted to cry.
There was one more thing I just needed to know. How did he stay sane during those six years of war. He told me that my mother never stopped begging him in her letters to him
on the Russian front to aim high when shooting at the enemy. “They also have wives and mothers”, she told him “who would be heartbroken”. He chuckled at the memory that he always had to chew and swallow the stationery for fear of being found out to be a defeatist. He did follow her advice though; he just wasn’t cut out to kill, no one needed to remind him of that.
The night before I flew back to New York I played chess with him, the last time, barely four weeks before he left us. He urged me to go all out and not feel sorry for him. He didn’t want to win because I let him win. I assured him that I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity like that, him being weakened or not, I was playing to win. It did not happen, he was just too good, his illness had not diminished his skills.
On a sunny morning in June I received a frantic call from my sister that our dad had slipped into a coma and would I please come fast. I flew out the same day and rushed straight to the hospital where he had been for his final week. There, in front of the hospital my sister waited for me to tell me that incredibly he had come out of his coma and had asked for me. After my father and I hugged and exchanged our silent “I love you” half an hour later he slipped back into a coma. That last night the hospital had put a cot into his room for me and aside of a few exhausted naps I sat at his bed and looked at those loving hands of his, hands that had held us, had always been strong and gentle. His face was at peace and all I could do was to sporadically moisten his tongue and spray some mist into his mouth that was slightly ajar, to avoid dehydration.
At 6 in the morning the nurse entered the room and called out to my father a “Good morning Mr. Vollmann”. At that very moment he made a loud, almost relieved sigh
that to me sounded like he came out of a good night’s sleep. But it was his final sigh. An eerie 20 seconds passed when one more time he took a short jerky breath and then fell silent. I looked at his neck where I could see in slowly decreasing frequency his heartbeat until there was no motion any longer. At that moment there was no place on this planet I would have rather been but right there at his side.