About the book
Dieter Baeu was born in Nazi Germany, the son of a Wehrmacht officer. Yvette was born in wartime Bulgaria. Each of their families escaped to America-Yvette’s Jewish parents, a step ahead of the Nazis, and Dieter’s on a flight from the Russian occupation. They were not an unlikely couple. What they shared, from the start, was an attitude towards life as a thing to be savored and always lived in the moment. Their moments added up to fill eighteen happy years. Their story, told in short bursts of memory intertwined with the everyday realities of illness and death and the many stages of mourning, is at once a guide to grief and a stunning meditation on the purpose of life and death.
YOU ARE GONE
Dieter is gone! These are the words I hear as I enter the house. A short sentence—a simple fact. You are gone. Where did you go? I see that you are lying there half turned as you had been earlier in the evening. But now there is no breath. No life. I wash you down and cover you. I remove all the trappings and devices you no longer need. You are still warm. You lie there silently. I brew a pot of tea. Your color is changing. What is there to do? I have no thoughts. I sip the tea that is now getting cold. There is a sense of emptiness that may be what misery feels like. Should I play Beethoven’s 9th at decibels loud enough to drown out my sorrow? I am without impulse. I feel that my life is over, except for the gestures and the strange need not to break down. I realize I can do nothing because there is, at this moment, nothing left to do. You are no longer here. I stand by your bedside, tears in my eyes blurring the image that will remain with me for all time, unable to believe that while you are here before me, you are no more.
THE DAY OUR WORLD CHANGED
When the diagnosis came—Astrocytoma: brain tumor—you merely said that the news was disappointing. I said nothing because I could not. I just bent my head and began to cry. Something heavy on my chest was stopping me from breathing. I began to shiver. My stomach was in convulsions. I couldn’t wrap my head around the notion that after all these years of your remarkably good health impervious to anything resembling illness— you would become the victim of a disease that had no cure. You were in my life for eighteen years and it hardly seemed enough. What would I do without you? How could I live without you? How could the day turn into night, the seasons change? How could there ever be Sunday again? Would I be strong enough to see you through this terrible time? When would I lose you?
The word that surrounds me is grief. It has become more than a word. It has become a live thing, infiltrating everything, like water. Grief has the capacity to rearrange itself and accommodate any space or object, attach itself to whatever you are doing. It is everywhere, and it is not benign.
I woke up some time in the early morning hours to the distinctive odor of skunk. When confronted with some yet-to-be-explained phenomenon, I construct a story as I visualize an explanation in my mind. A woodland animal, a skunk, in its slow and nearsighted way, is attempting to cross a path as a car barrels down the road. The car is travelling faster than usual because of the early hour and empty roads. The creature looks up in time to see its predator, and a split second later, between life and death, the skunk attacks the car with its only weapon—both inadequate for the situation and pathetic in its impotency. But this action does have an outcome. The creature heralds its own death and requires its life to be considered by some of those living in the immediate vicinity. At least for a moment, we experience the finality of the creature’s life. Some of us will care just a little that she did not make the full journey, perhaps to where, after foraging for food, her young still wait. To me, this small incident is convincing evidence of the unconscious brutality of man and his inventions in collision with nature. When I become aware of this creature’s passing, I am drawn again to one simple truth about life—the understanding of how quickly it can be taken away.
THE LAST LETTER
This will be my final letter to you, though my conversations with you will not end here. I will include you in at least three different thought messages a day and many more conversations. I will share a joke with you or a well written article. I will feel your outrage when you listen to the false prophets. I will know you are scolding me when I forget to close the kitchen drawer. I will remember how your arms encircled me after a long day apart, how you placed them around my shoulders when you acknowledged that I did something well, or when you noticed that I did not take myself too seriously. I will sense your confusion and frustration when I bring another electronic gadget into my life. You will be present at night in the memory of how we wrapped ourselves around each other like a prayer and I will still feel the soft touch of our skin mingling. You will remind me when I have forgotten to call a friend, left the dishes in the sink, or have not read the front page of the New York Times. I will hear you tell me to get over whatever I might be obsessing about, and encourage me when I begin to wonder if I am up to a challenge. I know you will approve when I look for happiness again. You will nod your head agreeing that life is difficult, but I must keep going. You will remind me to give my life meaning but you will also acknowledge that I too, must occasionally feel reluctant.