Tuesday, December 21, 2004

my oma

It is one of those nights. One of those in which I go to bed knowing that I am fighting the urge to write--tonight I was thinking practically, thinking of the many hours of driving ahead for tomorrow, of the unknown road stretched before me. But the story won out over practicality--the story of my life, of our lives. And so I am out of bed and writing, resisting no longer.
In this case, it figures that the need would be so strong, considering the power of the inspiration. The words that are swimming in my head are about my Oma. She is a force to be reckoned with--a woman to admire, a woman to obey, a woman to love.
Oma is what I have always known her as, and I am only one of millions of Germans who know their German "grandma" by the same term. Though in fact she was raised in Russia, on a remote farm where she grew up poor--so that she and her siblings in the winter sought out fresh, steaming piles of cow manure to warm their bare feet in. They moved in her childhood to Germany, however, and so she is more German than anything else, marrying a German and raising her kids to speak German. One of my uncles in fact made fun of them all once, telling me that he was amazed that any of them were able to marry, wooing a wife-to-be in such a horribly un-romantic sounding language as their own mother tongue.
But Oma had no trouble being on the receiving end, turning down several suitors before my grandfather won her over, surprising her when he did so, seeing as how he was younger than her. But he was a handsome, charming man, charismatic to no end. He sang in a popular men's ensemble in their young married days, and ran a successful carpentry business. Until the alcohol won him over.
It took Oma completely by surprise. They were staunch German Baptists, in a culture of normal beer and wine consumption, so she brewed her own beer and had her own wine cellar, using their orchard fruit, so that they would always be well-stocked for wedding and holiday parties. And parties they were indeed. This was a family in which hard work was a given, and real celebration was considered as much a part of life as the work was. So, when there was something to celebrate and to praise God for, the celebration was a hearty one, with much laughter and many hours of good companionship.
My grandfather was a good man, a sincere man, but one whom Oma said could have been addicted to anything--he just had a nature with a weakness for addiction. During the War he fought well, and was wounded--received a medal for it, I believe. At any rate, the wound left him in constant pain from then on. So the doctor started him on a morphine prescription that he faithfully took for many years. Until, that is, the medical world discovered the extremely addictive nature of the drug. His prescription was immediately changed to something substantially more innocuous, but by that point it was too late for him. Opa was terribly addicted to morphine, and in withdrawal as well as in constant pain again as soon as the prescription was changed. Oma was horrified at the state her husband was suddenly in and went to the Doctor begging for whatever they had changed to be changed back—he declined, apologizing for the fact that they had only then realized how addictive Morphine was.
After some time in pain, Opa began to drink more, more often and more heavily, and soon he was an alcoholic. Eventually it got so bad that he moved out, explaining that he did not want to make his wife and kids see him in such a state. And so Oma raised her eight children alone, without complaint. Oma could do anything. She was a trained chef, a trained masseuse, an amazing homemaker, and a prayer warrier. She prayed for Opa, and never considered looking for anything other than the life God had given her. The way she saw it, she had given herself to my grandfather many years ago, he would forever be her husband before God, and she may or may not be with him in this life, but what did she have to do but to care for her children and, eventually, dote on her grandchildren.
That she did—she doted on us all fiercely. When I was old enough to try to express my sentimentality, I made simple little gifts for her. One year for Christmas I used a rather tacky satin scrap I found, probably in the discard bin of a fabric store, to painstakingly labor over the process of figuring out how to make a pillow. And I did—I sewed a little, slightly skewed square throw pillow for her that I mailed to her from Tennessee. The last time I visited her there in Canada, 4 years ago, she still had that pillow proudly adorning the sofa (to my slight embarrassment). And when I began to shyly offer an “I love you”—a difficult move for me with my ever-loving but not openly affectionate immediate family, Oma responded in just about the best way possible. She accepted my gesture in a way that allowed me to give it freely, without embarrassment. She took it as if it were the most natural thing in the world for me to say, and gave me a rib-crushing quick hug and a “You better!” I still have difficulty hearing “I love you” without smiling to myself as I whisper a silent “You better!” to my inner child.
As I grew up, Oma began giving me about the best compliment I could ever imagine, saying that whether I liked it or not, I reminded her of herself when she was younger. Oh, I hope so! If I can be a woman like my Oma, for my own children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, I will truly have lived a blessed life.
But the story I was going to tell, out of infinitely many that could be told, is the end of one story, at least—my Opa’s. After many many years alone, fighting the demons, Opa turned his eyes upward and rediscovered the God who had claimed him so many years before. He became a new man, the man he had been before the alcohol claimed him. And about that same time, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and it began its slow process of stealing his strength. As he grew weaker, Oma began to discuss with him the prospect of taking him back in. They had already divorced a while back, after my aunts and uncles convinced Oma that a divorce was the only way she could remain financially stable as the years went on, seeing as how it looked at the time like Opa was forever lost. But Oma decided she was still his wife, if not legally, and she wanted to care for him in his latter years—so Opa moved back home.
My senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to go to visit Oma and Opa for spring break. After thinking about it for some time, I found some decent airfare, and just knew I had to do it. I didn’t know why I wanted to go so badly at the time, but was compelled to do it. That week Opa was doing well. They were planning for a big gathering there for Easter the next month, and everyone was excited at how healthy he was. It was the first time I had been around him for any period longer than a short passing-through visit, on our way to or from Africa, so I watched.
I watched as Oma fed him, teasing him still for his odd taste for steak prepared to be more like “leather” than steak. But she made it the way he liked it, happy when he could enjoy his meals. I watched when he persuaded my aunt to hold a cigarette in his mouth for few short puffs, sneaking in a smoke, for old times sake, when Oma wasn’t looking. I watched when his face lit up as Oma talked to him—by this time, she was the only one who could really understand his garbled speech, though his brain was still sharp. So I watched his facial expressions to try to figure out what he wanted to communicate when he spoke to me. More than anything else, though, I just watched as he smiled. And I got to see him ask Oma to start his favorite hymns. He still loved to sing, and we would all 3 sing together each night before bed—3 voices raised together in praise, a praise that God no doubt relished. Those were moments in which we could taste some small piece of that which God intended us to be, some hint of the eternal creatures we were at heart.
I awoke to Oma’s frantic calls. “Anna! Anna! Come, come quick! He’s gone, gone . . .” Her voice disintegrated into a series of wails, and I ran up the stairs to see her at his bedside. “His lips—I kissed his lips before I went to bed. And I thought they were colder than usual, but I didn’t know . . .” And she sobbed—paced and sobbed. The next few days were filled with nurse visits, police reports, and phone calls to family members.
Opa died in the best way possible, for ALS. Often death comes from suffocation, the throat muscles being the last ones to go. That thought had terrified him. But he actually died in peace, quietly slipping away in his sleep, after a day of contentment and of good spirits. And thus ended the story of Oma and Opa’s life together. What amazes the most about it all is the sheer redemptive grace God has for us. To put back together again the pieces of such shattered lives as these. The truth is that life, all of our lives, is full of evidences of such grace. We fall, and God picks us up again, and again, and again. And something beautiful is created in the end, something more beautiful than any story we could have invented for ourselves.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Amen! :-)