Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments.
The linoleum tiles are egg-yolk yellow. The walls are wood panel and pebble-crete. The corridors are hushed except that one time when a side effect from anaesthesia draws a continual, rhythmic wail from an elderly man recovering from surgery. There is a cafe in the lobby ground floor (fully licensed of course), and another beer garden bar in the beautiful garden on the hospital grounds.
Down on the lower ground level is the cigarette vending machine, which I usually access — ironically enough, from the entrance to Oncology Department. One hot day I buy ice creams for the six men in Dad’s room. Watching an old man in the bed next to Dad’s dribble ice cream all over himself is not something I would have described as rewarding. But his family rarely visit, and their visits are tinged with embarrassment and repugnance. Often this man soils himself, and then Dad and I leave, to prevent more embarrassment for this man. In his youth, he could have been a good kind man. He could have been a monster. Either way he is the same here in the ward, losing his dignity, inch by inch. I wipe his chin for him, and try to explain that it’s fine – it’s really nothing to worry about, I’m happy to do it.
There is one nurse who see this. She represents to me, everything typical about an Austrian woman of my generation. Blonde curly hair, pale skin, a shapely figure. Dad notes that she is very keen on me, and I realise that had I stayed in Austria during my adult years, she would have been the kind of girl I would have been interested in, the kind of person I may have fallen in love with. I think about it sometimes, that alternate universe I could have lived in.
I visit Dad in hospital and I refuse to subscribe to the mausoleum air of the ward. We talk animatedly whenever we can – although this varies depending on the effects of the pain killers. If Dad is floating in a haze, I sit and look out the window. I see the Schneeberg where we explored and climbed, talked and grew together. Sometimes I watch him sleep, and think about how he did the same for me, when I was a baby -just watched me sleep, in those first heady days of my life, when I was his new miracle. I look at the mountains, I hear the church bells in the nearby cathedral. I talk with Dad and his room mates. Most days we go for a walk in the grounds, or visit the beer garden.
I do all these things, and despite my fear and my sadness, despite the shock at the reduced man he has become – at the time of his death he weighs only 32 kilograms, despite all this, I enjoy this time. Knowing that time is running out is a great motivator, and a lesson never to let relationships go unacknowledged like this again.
I will revisit the hospital next time I return home, I will walk through the gardens, I will drink a red wine in the beer garden, I will walk back to the car park, and then drive to the great cemetery where his ashes are place in Vienna. His ashes that sit in the same walls that house Beethoven, Mozart, Freud, Dührer and countless others heroes of his. And those ashes, and my memories will be all that remain of a man I would have visited in hospital for all the eternities I could have given.