Another Day, Another Funeral

When I was in my twenties, I was attending weddings on a pretty regular basis.  Since I moved to Germany in early 2012, I’ve been attending funerals on a regular basis, admittedly not as me, but as church warden/verger/dogsbody.  Last week I even decided it would be prudent to keep several condolence cards at home “on stand-by” for the next few deaths within the church family.  I even admitted to Schatz last week that I often write Tripadvisor reviews in my head after each funeral.

  • Quality of the eulogy
  • Piety of the mourners
  • Was there any laughter among the tears?
  • Suitability of the songs/hymns
  • And so much more

Last Friday, I came with Schatz to a funeral.  Very rarely is there much “fun” in a funeral, even if it’s Grandma Beatrice who passed away at 103.  But this was not a “nice” funeral, where the Brits would sigh philosophically:

Oh well, they had a good innings.

This was a very difficult funeral.

  • A “professional” suicide.  (Let’s leave it at that.)
  • She had had a very unstable life from childhood.  (Let’s leave it at that.)
  • She had been well-loved by many friends.  It was standing room only in the chapel at the cemetery.

The lady vicar preached very well.  She bit the bullet.  She talked about the elephant in the room: the fact that this was a suicide.  The vicar mentioned God wrestling with her decision, but ultimately we humans have free will.  The vicar quoted from Psalm 130.  After the service, I thanked the vicar for using the ideal Psalm for this funeral.

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Upbeat songs were played during the service.  Tears were seen.  I squeezed Schatz‘ hand a few times, for the widower was a good friend and confidante of Schatz.

The mourners all filed out towards the grave for the urn to be placed into the ground.

Ah yes, I nearly forget to tell you, the two dog-lovers filed out towards the grave, bringing their two dogs along.  Thankfully neither dog barked.  Thankfully one of the owners had brought a sandwich bag in which to place his dog’s mess as “pooch” left a “present” en route to the grave.  I’m a great dog-lover.  But dogs at a funeral, and, moreover, at the burial?  Why?  Tell me why.

We reached the grave.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…

So called out the vicar, a fact which was quite ironic, given that a group of five or six smokers stood about 20 metres away from the grave, topping up their nicotine levels.

(Could they really not have waited a few more minutes, or stood behind the adjacent trees, out of sight?)

The mourners placed rose petals and shovelled earth on top of the urn.  Friends shook hands with, and hugged, the widower.  I shook hands with him.  I did not hug him.  Nothing to do with being British and not huggy-huggy.  I didn’t want to pass my bronchitis onto him.  (The smokers meanwhile carried on smoking.)

The vicar led the mourners in the Vater Unser prayer.  I prayed it in English.  A few heads turned in my direction, when the English language was heard.

Our Father,

Who art in Heaven…

The mourners filed out.  The smokers stubbed their cigarettes on the footpath.  Everyone headed off to the restaurant for the funeral buffet.  Schatz and I did not.  We headed home to my flat to decompress.

J, RIP.  May you finally find peace.

Have a despair-free day, won’t you!

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Topic (sic) of Cancer

Cancer.  The Big C.  A tumour… and it’s malignant.  And probably many other euphemisms.

Mrs Grasshopper was diagnosed  with stage 4 terminal pancreatic cancer on 25 October last year.

Der Tod ist sicher.

Prognosis – how long before you die – twelve (12) months from diagnosis.  As at today, Mrs Grasshopper is still alive (but not alive and well).  Every day is a bonus.  Guesstimate now as to how long she has got is now 6-8 weeks, maybe a a few days later so she gets to see Christmas Day.  But who can tell?

Anyway this article is not about Mrs Grasshopper per se.  Death, sad to say, is certain.  That’s a brutal fact.  But what about Grasshopper, my classmate from the mid-70’s, hard-nosed riot squad policeman?

Ever since diagnosis, Grasshopper and I have kept the communication lines open.  He calls me “Padre Ginge.”  I send him and Mrs Grasshopper a pastoral card.

In the last two months, Mrs Grasshopper has been suffering new symptoms on a weekly basis.  Grasshopper has been dealing in a businesslike manner, being a trained medic, logging her symptoms and monitoring her slow downhill journey.

Mrs Grasshopper is in denial.  She truly believes she will be alive in two years to see her son’s graduation.  It’s unlikely that she’ll still be around in two months.  That’s a brutal fact.

To be honest, cold, callous and clinical, Mrs Grasshopper is not my main concern.  My main concern is to make sure that Grasshopper does not end up having a nervous breakdown while looking after his wife.  Today he admitted to me that he had had a meltdown this morning and had spent almost all day in bed.  That is out of character for Grasshopper, who is normally a very positive, matter-of-fact person.  We had a good long chat via Whatsapp while I was taking the tram into the city centre this afternoon.  He sound weary.  His voice was starting to crack a bit.  First time I’ve heard him like that.  Big boys do cry, or at least allow their voices to wobble a bit.

I mainly listened.  Grasshopper needed to let off steam.  I told him I was here 24/7 if he ever need a good rant.  I don’t want him having a nervous breakdown or “doing something stupid.”

Yesterday Grasshopper found this pastoral card from me landing on his doormat.

Card.jpg

Who cares for the carers?

Have a caring day, won’t you!

The shock of capture

In January 2000, as Lance-Corporal GermanGinge I did a military interrogator’s course.  Three expressions are still embedded in my head:

  1. ICATQ (“I cannot answer that question.”)
  2. The shock of capture

The shock of capture is the “Oh dear, oh dear, oh f*ck!” moment when a prisoner of war realises the game is up: he has been attacking you, has lost the fight, and he is now hoping his enemy will not kill him.

Today Mrs Grasshopper went through the shock of capture.  Since her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer at the end of October 2017, Grasshopper (my old Klassenkamerad) and I have been in daily contact, swapping jokes, URL’s for corny 70’s songs and then interspersing with businesslike “sitreps” (“situation reports”) on Mrs Grasshopper’s progress.

Yesterday was another major milestone: another appointment with the oncologist.  The oncologist agreed with Grasshopper’s suspicions that Mrs Grasshopper’s increased self-dosage of oramorph, the increase in her tumour marker to 6000 units and several other symptoms were indicative that her cancer was spreading – despite ten sessions of heavy-duty chemotherapy.

This afternoon I phoned Grasshopper.  He was stoic.  He has been ever since diagnosis.

Pads brat banter. I pull his leg about being a policeman.  He pulls my leg about being a “ginga.”  We laugh.  The Germans in the Düsseldorf sit and try – as ever – to eavesdrop on our Anglophone conversation

Then the $64 million question.  Deep breath.

Grasshopper, now, tell me to f… off and mind my own business if you like.  How did Mr Grasshopper react to the oncologist’s prognosis yesterday?

Grasshopper told me she had had a major meltdown down the local cafe this morning.  The realisation that she does not have long will probably die soon.  The realisation that she cannot ask her enemy, the cancer, not to kill her.  The shock of capture.  The thoughts.  All the what-ifs.  Every single “why?” question.

Next time you are moaning about:

  • Your bus being late
  • There being no milk in the fridge
  • Your team losing their World Cup match

Please think of Mrs Grasshopper.

No picture this time, just a song.

Have a shockless day, won’t you!

Charlie don’t surf – Glasshopper doesn’t hug trees

Glasshopper and I go back to over 40 years to the days when he and I were pads brats “Klassenkameraden” at Wolfenbüttel, Germany.  He is nowadays a police officer, and spent several years as a riot policeman (Bereitschaftspolizist).  On the nerd/jock spectrum he and I would probably find ourselves at opposite ends.

In fact, here we are in this photo from 1977, HM Queen’s silver jubilee year.  Glasshopper is rear rank, furthest left.  I am next to him, with my finger in mouth.  Cute, eh?

classpic

On the last Wednesday in October 2017 Glasshopper’s wife was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

How is it that I remember that date?  Photographic memory?  No.  Did I just check in my Moleskine diary?  No.  It was the night that I had just come home from an excellent comedy evening down the Altstadt.  In fact, when I got home, I had been laughing so much, it was as if I had been doing sit-ups all night.  (Most unlikely.)

But once I had arrived home and had logged onto Facebook, I wasn’t laughing much any longer.

I saw Glasshopper’s posts on Facebook.  I saw his wife’s posts on Facebook.  I had arrived  home at 02:12.  Glasshopper was still up and on Facebook.  Glasshopper told me the devastating news.

My reply did not consist of Bible passages or words from hymns:

F*ck f*ck f*ck.

And then:

Sh1t, sh1t, sh1t!

Today was Mrs Glasshopper’s last of ten chemotherapy sessions.  This week they have several appointments to review progress (or lack thereof) and options.  Frankly, there are few options left.  When I asked Schatz (who knows a thing or two about medicine) a week after diagnosis, I summarised her answer as:

Also, der Tod ist sicher.

(“So, death is certain.”)

Over the last month I’ve chatted to Glasshopper a lot, forming a rapport with him, trying to work him out.  He seemed cheery, but was that alpha-male, riot policeman, bravado?  No, he is genuinely businesslike (perhaps as his coping strategy) and realistic.  He even uses the D-word: death. No euphemisms.  No:

  • The inevitable
  • When she passes away
  • When she moves on
  • When the end happens
  • Etc

Instead: death and dying.  He’s calling a spade a spade.  (DE: die Ding beim Namen nennen.)

Mrs Glasshopper, on the other hand, is in denial.  She’s not saying her goodbyes, because she denies shes going yet.  She is convinced that she will still be alive – despite doctors’s predictions – for her son’s graduation in two years and probably many more family events.  Death is the last taboo in our western society.  Nobody wants to die, at least, not early.

By analogy, I once joked to a female friend of mine:

Women have PMT.  Men suffer from PMT.

Maybe it’s similar here.  The patient has the terminal cancer.  The family suffer from the cancer.  Am I being too cold?  Too clinical here?  Is Glasshopper?

He even ‘fessed up last week:

Sometimes I just want her to go so she is no longer in pain, and so I don’t have to deal with this any more.  And I feel an absolute a$$hole for saying that.

Since then he has called me “Padre Ginge.”

This is not Hollywood cliché.  No:

  • Miraculous recovery
  • Constant hugs
  • Reiterations of “I love you”
  • Final hours in hospital bed, surrounded by loved ones and devoted medics
  • Final beep, beep, beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep on the electronic monitor

Woody Allen is famous/notorious for his quotation:

“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

What can I do?  What can Glasshopper do?  Probably not much.  I told him this morning:

Padre Ginge is here if you need to let off steam, swap silly jokes, send internet memes or links to YouTube videos of cheesy 1970’s hits.

We pads brats don’t hug trees.  We don’t even hug humans.  We don’t do group therapy.  We do, however, look after each other in our own unique way, which “bl00dy civvies” never quite understand.

Please, folks, pray for and think of Glasshopper and his wife next time your train is running late or there is too much milk in your tea.

Have a grateful day, won’t you!

tree

 

In the days before Photoshop

What did people do to edit pictures in the days before Photoshop?  Let me enlighten you, if I may.

Sunray was always a creative type.  He always loved his black marker pen (Deutsch: Edding).  Not just to flick through his photo albums, stick a big black ring round deceased people’s heads, connect it to an arrow, and write:

Now dead

He also used to love defacing decorating pictures in the daily newspaper “horror comics” such as, The Sun, The Daily Mirror, or Daily Star.

Page Three models would find glacé cherries painted on their nipples, thanks to his special occasions red marker pen.  Or if his mood was particularly puritanical, they would suddenly have their modesty (and their chest) covered by a black marker pen bra.

Other less photogenic people would have their appearance amended – mostly with a Hitler moustache and haircut.  Even Mrs Thatcher…

One day, the Führer himself featured in a story in the paper.  Sunray couldn’t draw a Hitler ‘tache and haircut on the Führer.

A challenge.

GingeInGermany, can you go to the bathroom, son, and get me the nail scissors?

Yes, Dad.

I double away.  I double back with nail scissors.

Snip, snip snip.

The Führer‘s ‘tache has been removed.  Sunray now hugely satisfied.

Have an artistic day, won’t you!

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A first time for everything

This week I visited K in hospice.  It’s the first time I’ve ever been to a hospice, although at my age (late 40’s) I have visited dying people at home.  I’ve known K (a Scots British Army veteran) since 2001, when he was a case worker for an armed forces charity, when my dad was being a “problem child.”  K was a godsend to me, as he listened to me rant and rave about chaos that my Dad had been creating for me.  Now it was my turn to return the kindness to him.

A, a mutual friend, had briefed me last week that K was due to move from palliative care into hospice this week.  K knew what this meant.  He was moving into the departures lounge.  He’d been through check-in, security, and now it was time to sit in the departures lounge and just wait for the final call.  A had briefed me that K had 2 to 6 weeks left.

The night before I had Kopfkino playing non-stop.  Would K want to talk about death and dying?  Would he use euphemisms, or would he actually use the word, “death”?  Would he prefer to talk about anything but death?  (Was he Celtic or Rangers?)

I turned up on a beautiful sunny day, too nice, frankly for a hospice visit.  I didn’t ask him, “How are you?”  That would be crass.  He’s dying of cancer!

K, great to see you.

Ginge in Germany, you too!

A firm handshake from K.  Bated breath.  Will he cry?  No.  Almost, though.

A sigh from K, sitting in his wheelchair.

I arrived here yesterday from palliative care.  I know what it means.  I really have not got much time left here.  Oh aye!  I got a letter last week demanding €14000 compensation off me for a car crash I caused five years ago.  I had great pleasure in replying that I’m going to die in a few weeks, and they won’t be able to get a single cent out of me, ha ha ha.

Then silence.  K starts to blink, swallows hard, and squeezes his wife’s hand.  Five seconds later the dark British squaddie humour returns.

And the amount of money the undertakers charge for a f***ing funeral!  At my mother’s cremation, just before they slid my mother’s box into the oven, the cheeky bastard undertaker asked if anyone had a match!

Right, he’s back “in the zone.”  If a soldier is not complaining or cracking bad-taste jokes, then there is something to worry about.

The rest of the ‘guests’ here are terrible.  I joined them for dinner yesterday evening, and all they did was rattle on about their illness, asking me, “What are you dying from?  How many weeks have you got left?  I’ve got…”  It’s so f***ing depressing, the morbid buggers!

K offers me a beer.  I decline.  I drink mineral water instead.  Beer at 11am would make me too drowsy.  K tells me his son is about to turn up tomorrow with G, his latest grand-daughter, only two days old.  He’s looking forward to that, he says with fatherly and grandfatherly pride, a smile showing under his grey moustache.  (When I first knew K, his hair was black as Whitby jet.  What a difference 17 years (and metastasised prostate cancer) make.

K and I spend the rest of the visit, another hour, swapping stories and cracking jokes about death and funeral, standard ex-HM Forces chat, really.  He tells me his bagpipes are arriving this afternoon.  He tells me he intends to play the bagpipes tonight to the fellow guests – “to drown out all their f***ing incessant talk about death and coffins.”

Yes, the body may be going downhill rapidly.  But the soldier with his effing and blinding, and his macabre sense of humour is still alive and kicking.

I conclude my 90 minutes visit with thanks and a firm handshake.  No hug.  We’re both British.  We don’t do huggy-huggy, kissy-kissy.  K sees me off with the following words:

“Lunch today looks good.  Fresh strawberries, too.  The condemned man ate a hearty meal, eh!”

I actually leave the hospice with a spring in my step.  Iron sharpens iron.

Have a sharpened day, won’t you!

tartan

 

 

 

Treat like a Pagan?

I’m not Catholic, but today I don’t know if I should have a bad conscience or not.  I therefore request everyone’s honest opinion.  Billy No-Mates is the cause of concern.  Yes, him of all the problems in particular last year.

Wind back to Remembrance Day, November 2017.  A very pious and reflective day for us Brits and also for members of the Commonwealth, especially those of us who have connections with Her Majesty’s armed forces.  We remember the people, not the cause.  It’s also a suitable day for thinking of those of our loved who are dead or dying.

I turned up early to church on Remembrance Day to prepare for that day’s service.  Billy and K had arrived to do their jobs in church.  I said to K:

Have you heard about F?  She’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  It puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

Billy, standing just a few feet away, overheard my comment, and flew into a violent rage.

I’ve got friends who are f***ing suffering and dying!  I’ve had a f***ing sh*t life since the summer!

I wanted to tell Billy:

  1. We’re not in competition when it comes to suffering.
  2. I wasn’t speaking to him, but to K.
  3. He needs to control his temper and show respect for the church and other people on this very day in the church calendar.

Instead, I bit my tongue and said nothing.

A week ago, F died.  Probably a relief to her, as she had been suffering for months.

Her funeral is this Friday.  I found out that Billy is intending to come to F’s funeral.

Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?

  • He never knew F.
  • He may have known of her after I had mentioned her name on Remembrance Day.
  • He never asked anyone how F was.
  • He never expressed an interest in her progress.
  • He was always more interesting in telling everyone about how his new-found mate had found him a flat here, and that the JobCenter was paying for a new kitchen, me, me, me, etc.

I feel a bit harsh saying this, but I feel Billy wants to go to the funeral in the same way that Westerners go on “banana visits” to see prisoners in Thai prisons.  Partly to do a bit of good, show his face and offer sympathy, but mainly to “have a good gawp.”

As my policeman friend would say, “He’s got previous.”  At a funeral in October, he was meant to be helping me tidy up the church.  However, when he got chatting to the widow straight after the service, she mentioned there was a buffet for friends.  Billy immediately took up the offer, even though he knew the deceased or the widow, and off he went to stuff his face with Kaffee und Kuchen, sausage rolls, prawn cocktails, frikadellas or whatever he fancied.  In the meantime I was left to tidy up the church on my own – for clearly I had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, than to straighten chairs, pick up service sheets and lock up.  “Not a team player” is the British understatement I would use.

So… Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  And what?  What should I say to Billy? Matthew 18:15-17 encourages us to take a miscreant to one side.  Should I ask him:

Why are you coming to F’s funeral?

Or:

Was your outburst in November respectful towards F?

Or should I just treat him like a pagan or a tax collector?

Have a respectful day, won’t you!