• Sophia

The end of the road

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

Today is my paternal grandfather’s birthday. He was from East Prussia and was homeless after the war. Where his home had been was made part of Poland and he had to leave. He ended up in Pfalz region of Germany where he met my grandmother. Haunted by the war, he moved her and my father to Canada when my father was five. Opa died four years ago. Oma lives in an assisted living facility now. This is a poem I wrote during Opa’s last days.

My grandmother’s name

is Elizabeth

I call her Oma

For a long time I didn’t know

she had any other name

To say that Oma has a propensity for restlessness

is an understatement

At family gatherings

it takes a chorus of our voices

demanding that she sit down already

before she’ll finally tuck in

to her lukewarm food

For Oma

small things are big

Big things are too big

Having a conversation with her

feels like a game of zero gravity ping pong

It’s like following a story

where the acquisition of a three-pound loaf of bread

is the climax of the plot

and all the flashbacks

are cut off half way through

Somehow, I love it

I can’t stop watching

Mysteriously, she remembers everyone’s birthdays

The family here

The family at Home

Branch after branch of birthdays

from her sisters’ children’s children

to her own great grandchildren

On any given week

thanks to the flyers that pad the free newspaper

She can cite the per-pound price of onions

down to the penny

in stores where she doesn’t even shop

I think maybe

she’s an undiscovered savant mathematician

But we’ll never know

Tonight my Opa is dying

Six days ago he followed Oma onto their patio

to inspect their tomato plant

The fall was sudden

If it had only been the fractured pelvis and elbow

the pneumonia and the bladder infection

Maybe things could have been different

But his head hit the concrete

too hard

Now his brain is churning to a halt

under the pressure

The day before he fell I had dropped in to surprise them

My parents suspected a secret

that was better unearthed

Sure enough

Opa had changed

The mask of proud defiance had gone from his face

replaced by a soft, faraway stare

Every time I met his eye, he was gazing at me

like it was his favourite thing to do

It shook me, I looked away

None of us ever found out

what really happened to him in the war

but even as a child I sensed an unprocessed pain

stuck like tar to his ability to love

That day, his conviction wore a crooked grin

like he finally understood life’s big joke

and he thought it was pretty good

even the punchline he knew was coming

Twice he said to me

“We’re near the end of the road!”

like it was hilarious

We left Opa sitting on the couch

so I could drive Oma to SaveOn

to buy 20 kilos of rolled oats

She’s 90

Oats are important

and it’s cheaper to buy in bulk

When I got her into the car

she broke down

“He doesn’t know the Deutschewelle”

Opa has been a compulsive news viewer

for as long as I can remember

He could watch the same news four times a day

The Deutschewelle is the best

It has real news

About the whole world

In German

All gone, she said

All gone

He just sits

Holds my hand

We cried already

What we gonna do?

That night I called my father

told him everything

told him he should go there

to see that look

He and my mother hatched a non-negotiable plan

to move them in

But Opa fell the next day

so dad never got to see it

Today Opa’s face was sallow

His skin looked close to transparent

Red rivulets of veins

crossed the landscape of his sunken cheeks

I looked across the bed

and saw Oma see the realness of it

for the first time

I can’t help wondering

if she figured it out

because she saw it in my eyes

My eyes that are his eyes

I am so helpless

I will never know how it feels

to watch my partner of nearly 70 years

leaving me behind

She lost brothers in the war

Sisters to old age

She has pined for a home she could never go back to

But this feeling is not like anything else

and there is nothing I can do

There is something at the middle of this

that she will have to experience alone

As she says

“Can you imagine?”

I’m glad she will never know

how I question

every missed opportunity to visit

How I wish I had never learned

she waited 15 minutes to call the ambulance

because she needed to be sure

she had his permission

Or how I felt leaving the hospital

knowing the last gesture

I would ever see him make

was when I asked him if he knew who I was

and he shook his head


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