Walk beside me
Saying goodbye to a special person
Hi blog, are you there?
It’s me, Margaret.
So 2023 thus far has been, interesting. A week of gorgeous crisp blue sky opened with more sobering news: One of my mother’s closest friends (and certainly, my favourite) passed away abruptly after a relatively short battle with Leukemia, here in Berlin.
She was the mother of a classmate from when we lived in Bonn in the late nineties. We spent most Sundays at their house playing Mortal Kombat as the adults smoked, joked and talked adult things in the kitchen downstairs. Bonn was a happy time for my mother, and I think this friendship was a real contributing factor to that sense of belonging the small expat circle there gave her, at which this friend played the role of glue that held everything together. I’m writing this because she was an inspiring woman, and I feel inspired to write about her.
She was a warm, strong and highly intelligent Israeli woman of intense principles. Passionate about politics and a staunch critic of her government, she uprooted her family to start a new life in Germany, where they knew no one. She held onto that rage and indignation such that those political values and strong sense of right and wrong reverberated through her family, so much so that each funereal speech given explicitly referenced the sacrifices she made that kept her moral compass intact, and articulated her anger at the Israeli state within Berlin’s largest (and extremely beautiful) Jewish cemetery. And she did all of the above while living struggling with MS that gave her severe limp, having to provide for her family, while maintaining her wicked wit throughout. A real force to be reckoned with.
My mother really loved her. Their large, loud and generous family welcomed our small and awkward one with open arms, and when my mother and I visited her it was so nice to see that bond they shared was just as strong as it always had been, despite years of life they had living apart. “We’re soulmates,” they said.
By coincidence, my mother spent the final years of her career researching treatments for blood cancers. They spoke about the drugs she was on, and my mum was pleased and hopeful about the fact that she was on a new and really promising drug. Her friend mused that the MS and the Leukemia could be connected to pesticides used by the Israeli government. “Well, there’s no data to back that theory up,” my mother said flatly, the way she always does when she’s got that scientist’s cap on a little bit too tightly for the room. To be honest, I’ve come to love her for it.
She was telling me mostly recently that another old friend of hers has found a new boyfriend who it turns out is an anti-vaccer nutjob who believes pandemics can be healed through singing at a specific vibrational pitch. That was a dinner party that didn’t go well, apparently. “I just tried to explain the science to him,” she said. He got so annoyed at her his border collie leapt to her defense. Imagine that. Being so off your rocker that an animal specifically bred to stand your ground picks the enemy side.
But back to our departed friend. More nice things to say about her: On seeing her again last year I was struck by how clearly she saw me. My mum joked about my odd hobby of picking up big rocks and carrying them around when I’m at the family hytta in Norway.
“I can see why you like that. Sounds really stabilising,” she said. I told her that whenever my mum sends me pictures of my niece, I respond with pictures of my rats. She leaned her head back and howled with laughter. Seriously. Total badass bitch vibes, even through chemo. On leaving her flat, she loaded me down books, including an analysis of the life of my favourite German playwright (Kleist), and shared my number with a woman who lives near me and likes to go running, the daughter of a Syrian friend who had been trying to teach her Arabic.
And another thing, a diamond quote from her shared by one of her family members at the wake.
“Do not walk in front of me. I won’t follow you. Do not walk behind me. I won’t lead. Walk beside me, be my friend.“
In which the writer's troublesome but beloved rat passes away
Hermann is dead (long live Hermann). Apologies for the facetious delivery of the news to my thousands of readers who I know are deeply invested. I’ve been in a terrible funk this week.
To cut a long story short, Kotti’s death brought about a rapid decline in Hermann’s health. He stopped moving his hind legs, took to dragging himself slowly around the flat using only his front legs, until he gave up moving entirely.
Going into more details about his decline seems disrespectful to him, so let’s just say he was obviously very sick and that keeping him alive would have been -- I would like to say “inhumane“ -- but this word suggests humans have some moral standard that is superior to animals. And that’s just bullshit to be honest. Humans suck.
Well, some humans. The vet and her assistant were very nice. You learn a lot about people when you find out their feelings on the world’s most perfect creature. I’ve seen it all. Disgust. Wonder. Admiration. Cautious intellectual curiosity and the kind of curiosity that grows quickly into warmth and affection. “I don’t think Hermann likes me,” said my roommate, trying to figure out which snacks she could win him over with. “Don’t worry about it, he’s a total emo,” I replied, as Hermann glowered from his hammock.
By the time Hermann and I had arrived at the late night clinic, his misery and discomfort had grown so acute he had started lashing out and biting. I warned the vet and she spoke to him directly, the way a true rat-lover knows how. She told him she knew he was a good rat, really, and she complimented his fantastic coat, wonderful tail and marvelous little fingers.
“I really don’t understand why some people don’t like rats at all,” she said. Her assistant nodded.
So there we were, three rat lovers surrounding this little, somewhat petulant but really very wonderful, really intelligent, and I mean -- I know all rat moms feel this way -- super special creature, telling him how great he was, and that he would soon be playing with his best bud again, as he lay motionless on the table, his heartbeat slowing until it finally stopped.
The vet opened the window briefly, and then shut it. “We always do that when we euthanise an animal here,” she said. “So their souls can go to heaven”.
I went home with wet eyes and holding their empty handheld carrier. It took a couple of days to get out of the habit of checking up on them, and making mental notes to pick up their mascarpone and fill their water bowl. But now it does feel like they’ve properly left. It’s an eerie thing to consider their lifespans next to ours.
Here they were, these once rambunctious middle aged rat men who had Iived through a spring, a summer, an autumn and winter by my side, growing old while I, I don’t know, took one day after the next, grasping onto to one thing after the other only to feel it gently slip between my fingers. Picking up the crumbled pieces of whatever it was I had begun to build to see if I might make something new out of that rubble.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.