Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Loss Beyond Words

In the air, on my way from Berlin to New York I finish Monika Maron’s “Ach Glueck” somewhere above Newfoundland. The sparse and forlorn prose, the author’s questions about happiness in old age and the role of fate in our lives, speak to me. Like the protagonist, I am on a transatlantic flight headed into a new scary life, a future much different from how I envisioned it months ago. Maron’s protagonist is leaving behind her husband in Berlin. My husband died and left me behind.
I take out my note book to add to my bloated to-do list. English words appear on the paper. I am surprised. After more than five weeks reading, speaking and writing German, my brain has switched over to English. I wasn’t aware of it. I take it as a good sign.
On April 4 I brought Roman to the emergency room of Mount Sinai Hospital. Language was my refuge for the twenty- three terrifying days that followed. I woke up after a few hours of restless sleep and sat down at my computer. I wrote friends asking for help and prayers. I gave updates following his twelve-and-a-half hours of brain surgery. I told them about the diagnosis of Schwannoma and my relief at finding out that it was a benign tumor. I wrote about the complications and setbacks, his optimism and his plans for the future. He was looking forward to Christmas in Goerlitz, Easter in Vienna, and summer in Venice. He promised to take me for a ride on the Siberian Railroad once he retired.
On Wednesday, April 27th I wrote the final message: Roman died this afternoon.
I wrote the obituary for his memorial service for I could not bear the idea of a stranger delivering the final words of farewell. Then the English language failed me. I was struck speechless. I could barely write. When I scribbled down a few paragraphs into my journal, it was in German. I have resided in a place without written language ever since.
Living in a new land, the land of the grieving, I live with tears, pain, despair, but also gratitude and love. I cannot shape these emotions into words, sentences and paragraphs. They are too raw and too unruly for words. Roman was my husband, my best friend, my life companion for twenty-five years. A loss beyond words.
It has been four months since Roman left this world. He lives in my heart, in the cells of my body, and in my memories. He lives on in the hearts and memories of his friends, his family, his students and colleagues. He visits me in my dreams, takes me in his arms and comforts me.
The English language is the second language for both of us. We spoke to each other in English, we argued with each other and expressed our love for each other in English. A language made precious because he told me several times each day that he loved me.
I hope to make him proud by going on living and writing.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The second snowstorm of this winter has arrived. A priceless stillness has fallen over New York. The city that never sleeps usually moves to a fast-paced soundtrack of honking horns, wailing sirens, and rumbling subways. Music blasts from windows and stores; vendors shout to attract customers. Street preachers pontificate to their impromptu flocks. People talk and argue louder and faster than any place I’ve ever visited.
Not this day. Not outside my window. St. Nicholas Avenue and St. Nicholas Park are blanketed with snow; the parked cars are buried under mountains of it. No one walks, no one shouts in the street. Except for the occasional sanitation department snowplow, the street is sparsely trafficked. The pristine white, the serenity, the brilliance of the winter sun, the unique winter light are a miracle to me --- not the weather emergency it is for the rest of the city. I can sit at my desk and devote a full day to my novel, look up and out once in a while to take in the serene city.

“So gemütlich,” I think.

There is no word in the English language that accurately captures the meaning of “Gemüt” (mind, soul, disposition, heart) or “gemütlich” (comfortable, smug, and cozy).
The term originally meant soulful (voller Gemüt.) In the beginning of the 18th century “Gemütlichkeit” appeared in the writings of the Moravians in the sense of “Herzlichkeit” (cordiality, heartiness, warmth). In the Biedermeier period, “Gemütlichkeit” gained the new meaning of comfort or comfortableness and became a fashionable concept. At times “Gemütlichkeit” appeared related to nationalism and Teutonic mania and took on the negative connotation of laziness. The writer F. T. Vischer coined the derogatory untranslatable term "Vettermichelsgemütlichkeit" (cousin kraut‘s coziness?).

A word does not only carry linguistic and etymological meaning, it carries cultural as well as emotional meaning. In contrast to the common and valued emotional restraint, “Gemütlichkeit” is an acceptable way of expressing emotions in German culture. It’s a way of making oneself and others feel at home, to let down one’s guard and experience intimacy. My own etymology, origin and meaning of the word “Gemütlichkeit” stems from the Germany of the 60s. I was invited for “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) by my neighbor, Frau Stanke. Sitting across from her on the kitchen bench, I watched her set the table with ritualistic accuracy and care for her ten year old visitor with the linen tablecloth (picked up earlier in the day from the Heissmangel pressing service), the gold trimmed Sunday china, a platter of poppy seed cake, a cup of Muckefuck (ersatz coffee) for me and the cup of Jacobs Krönung for herself. She squeezed her massive body into the narrow space on the bench and slid closer to me. Then came the precious invitation in her charming Silesian accent:

“Lass es uns gemütlich machen.” Let's get comfortable.