Our last day in New York City. We have seen so much, almost everything on my friends’ list, and more. There’s one more thing Johanna wants to do – visit the Metropolitan Museum. The guys aren’t interested in that. Instead, they head down to lower Manhattan. Johanna and I spend most of the day at the Met. She is impressed by its size. “We can never see everything in one day,” I have already told her. So we decide to focus on the things we want to do. She heads for the impressionists. I begin with the Dutch and Flemish masters because there is a special exhibit. I spend most of my time, though, in the American Wing, looking at early American art. There was an exhibit several months ago in Cologne called “Es war einmal in Amerika” – “Once Upon a Time in America”. I attended this exhibit in a guided group tour with some Americans and learned about artists I had never heard of, artists from as early as the time of the first settlers. I learned details about American history I had never known too. I hope to learn more about American art in this wing. I am not disappointed.
I even find some of the same paintings I saw in the Cologne exhibit, or similar ones, like these by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks, comparing the treaty between William Penn and the American Indians with the peace found in the Kingdom of God. The painting of the Garden of Eden clearly shows the connection with Quaker theology to me.
Just as in the Cologne exhibit, I am entranced with the beautiful paintings from the Hudson River School. Here is one by British-born Thomas Cole. I learned in the Cologne exhibit that many of the early American artists were born or studied art abroad in Europe. Thomas Cole was a typical example, but one who used his art to not only depict the beauty of America, also comparing it with a heavenly kingdom, but also to warn against the destruction of that beauty. He was a critic of unfettered industrial expansion. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/15/arts/design/thomas-cole-american-moralist.html
In the Cologne exhibit I learned that at least one of the painters of the Hudson River School, Albert Bierstadt, was from Germany, and that he studied art in Düsseldorf (nearly a stone’s throw from Cologne), a city famous for its art school. He seems to have been influenced by the German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, one of my favorite German artists. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caspar_David_Friedrich
Johanna and I meet for lunch in the cafeteria and compare what we have seen. We are both impressed. Near the cafeteria there is more beautiful American art, Tiffany glass pieces, and other stained glass works by John LaFarge. I admire the glass and continue on to many of the furnished rooms Johanna has told me about, as well as some exotic musical instruments. What’s cool about this room is that you can actually listen to recordings of several of the instruments to get an idea of what they sound like.
We have spent an entire day at the Met! We walk back down Fifth Avenue and across to our hotel, where we all meet. We pack our suitcases and then go down to the theater district for pizza. Timo has heard there’s a good one called John’s of Times Square. https://www.johnspizzerianyc.com/ We are lucky to get a table! This place is crowded. But the pizza is authentic New York pizza, just what my friends want for their last evening in New York. And it is delicious! The restaurant also has very unusual architecture. I ask the waiter about this. “Was this once a theater?” No, he says. It was once a church.
We return “home” and finish packing. My friends thank me for a fabulous week. It has been really special. I have been a tourist in the city I once lived in. They have been able to do and learn about many things they would have never known about if I hadn’t been with them.
I will be back to New York at the end of my long visit to America. My friends – and I – are all curious to know if I will want to return here to live. So far, the answer is no. But I’ll talk about that later, at the end of the trip.
For now, there’s more to see, many more loved ones to visit. Tomorrow I fly to Austin, Texas, where I’ll be staying with my cousin Rhett and his wife Natalie.
Timo, ever interested in tall buildings, wants to see New York City from above, and decides the best location for this is from Rockefeller Center https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockefeller_Center – the Top of the Rock. We of the older generation opt not to go up, but rather explore Rockefeller Center from the ground level.
This is one location I am familiar with, but have never really paid much attention to. I have done temporary office work in one of the office buildings, have watched the Jimmy Kimmel show broadcast from here, have walked in the concourse countless times, have walked past Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue even more countless times, but have never been particularly interested in it. I now believe it is because I never understood it. I always wondered, why do all the tourists flock here? Even in the summer, if you pause to sit down among the flowers and flags of the promendade, you are likely to sit next to some tourist eager to practice their English on you. Why is this? Is it only the ice skating rink, or perhaps the famous Christmas tree? Then why the attraction all year round? Only because it’s on Fifth Avenue?
I pick up a brochure about Rockefeller Center in the lobby and read from it as we look, and weeks later, after returning to Germany, do more research on Rockefeller Center to understand it more fully. Now I think I could explain it better to tourists, and also appreciate it for myself much more as well.
The Rockefeller family has everything to do with Rockefeller Center – and New York City as we know it. That helps me relate to it better, but what about all the tourists or young people who have no idea who the Rockefellers were, or are? It seems as though one of America’s most influential families, one whose name I grew up with, has been quietly dropped from the public eye.
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was the one who first made his name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller He is considered the wealthiest American of all time, and the richest person in modern history. He made his fortune in the oil industry, which began in the late nineteenth century. The Exxon Oil Company was formed from the Standard Oil Company, which he founded and owned. He was also a very devout Christian who fervently believed in philanthropy. His views on business and philanthropy were engendered by the words of a minister he met while young. The minister told him, “Make as much money as you can, and give away as much as you can.” So that is how he lived his life. He developed a philosophy of philanthropy, creating foundations to increase wealth devoted to philanthropy. The Rockefeller Foundation is one of them. This passion for philanthropy continued down into the following generations of the Rockefeller family.
And I suspect that John D. Rockefeller and his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller_Jr. have had a much more substantial influence on my own life than I imagined. My father was also a devout Christian, also a Baptist teetotaller, who began his life in poverty. While still relatively poor, he, like Rockefeller, gave one-tenth of his money to charity, gradually increasing the percentage. He was also a Republican with moderate to liberal tendencies, like the Rockefellers. Did they serve as models for him?
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960) continued to follow the faith and philanthropic practices of his father. He financed and was intimately involved with construction of Rockefeller Center. Columbia University owned the land, which they leased to Rockefeller. They are also the owners of most of the buildings, which the Rockefeller Center continues to lease. Construction of these buildings was incredibly important and helpful for the economy because construction occurred during the Depression years, offering employment to thousands of workers. It is uniform in style, a wonderful example of the Art Deco period. I never realized while working there how important Rockefeller Center is both architecturally and artistically.
Just down the street, on 53rd Street, is the Museum of Modern Art. The land and museum were gifts from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who first lived in a house at this address, then had it razed in order to construct the museum for his wife, a passionate lover of art. He then moved with his wife and family into a forty-room triplex apartment at 750 Park Avenue. This apartment and building are considered the most exclusive of all apartments and buildings in New York City. Rockefeller also bought the land for the Cloisters and paid for the monastery buildings in Europe to be dismantled and brought, piece by piece, to New York City. He donated the piece of land that now houses the United Nations. What would New York City be without the Rockefellers?
The original tenants of the buildings at Rockefeller Center were businesses Rockefeller was involved in, businesses he thought would be profitable. Some of those tenants continue to operate there today. NBC, one of the largest US television networks, has been there since the time of Rockefeller. So that’s why all the NBC shows are there! Also, the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) recording label was centered here. One of the popular tourist attractions in New York City is an evening at Radio City Music Hall, located in Rockefeller Center. And the famous Rockettes, the kick dancers who dance at the performance, are named after Rockefeller.
Rockefeller Center originally consisted of fourteen buildings, now nineteen, extending between 48th and 51st Streets, and between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. They also own some buildings on the west side of Sixth Avenue.
The theme of Rockefeller Center is the humanistic “March of Civilization”. Hence the global symbols originating in Greek mythology, with sculptures like Atlas holding the universe on his shoulder, or Prometheus bringing fire to humankind.
The Rockefellers were cosmopolitans, interested in art and culture throughout the world. This love was demonstrated in the construction of Rockefeller Center. One building at its center is called the International Building. Another is called the British Empire Building. I always wondered why there were flags from so many nations at the promenade, and why institutions like Alliance Francaise, or shops like Godiva Chocolates, Victorinox, Lego or Swarovski Jewelers flank the sides.
Sculptors and artists the Rockefellers admired were hired to do the artwork. The themes are noble, meant to inspire, but to me they exude a similar feeling to architecture of the Nazi period. No wonder – it is from the same time – the 1930s and 40s. But to me, both also impart the sense that a message is being conveyed, be it propaganda or something morally uplifting. Throughout, though, is the theme of civilization marching on, ever more cultivated, ever more humane.
The Rockefellers donated this center to the City of New York as a place to benefit people physically, with the ice skating rink, culturally, with art work throughout, with entertainment through the NBC studios and Radio City Music Hall, commercially through shops and offices, and in tranquility, with the roof-top gardens, which are, sadly, now closed to the public.
I have heard that Brooklyn is the place where things are happening these days. I have been in Brooklyn several times, also as a social worker on home visits, but have never felt at home there nor had much knowledge of life there. I decide to check out one of the rooftop gardens. These gardens differ from that at Rockefeller Center in that they are agricultural, providing locally sourced produce to New Yorkers. I head for Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. There are several rooftop gardens in Brooklyn, but I decide to go to this one because it is the easiest to reach from Rockefeller Center. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/things-to-do/the-best-rooftop-gardens-in-nyc Even so, it is not that easy to reach, necessitating not only a subway trip, but also a long wait for one of the infrequent buses and a bus ride. But I amuse myself looking at an old-fashioned diner, the kind you used to see in New York forty years ago. I check out the menus displayed in the window. These are quintessential New York breakfasts! Just like those I ate over thirty years ago, when I lived here. Only the selection is broader than in the old days.
I arrive in what appears to be a working-class neighborhood with some warehouses close to the river. I find Eagle Street, right next to the East River, and the house number where the rooftop garden is supposed to be, but everything is locked up – probably for the winter. Of course, I realize! It’s winter after all, only the beginning of February. How could there be a vegetable garden in February? The views of Manhattan from across the street are great. This could be the site of the next building boom, I think. And turn my head to the direction of the sound of saws cutting through metal. I see cranes. They’re tearing down a warehouse next to the river to build a high rise, obviously. Is Greenpoint going to become a noisy, trendy hotspot? I love the tranquility and seeming normality of this neighborhood.
I do spot a café on the corner that looks possibly alternative, but that’s the only thing I see that looks even vaguely other than blue collar. I order tea there from someone with an English accent. I drink it and leave, eager to explore a bit. The buildings here are decidedly not trendy. Just functional row houses, many of them broken up into apartments, judging from the mailboxes. I see American flags in some of the windows, for me, unfortunately, a symbol of a certain type of conservatism. Why don’t all Americans fly the flag at their homes, ask myself, annoyed. Then I catch myself. I’m being judgmental! Perhaps people of all political persuasions do, and I’m so out of touch with life here I don’t know it. After all, I don’t know the people living here in this neighborhood. Perhaps because of this very aura of conservativeness, the neighborhood attracts me with its clean orderliness. There’s no stench of marijuana here. I encounter a nice lady from eastern Europe while walking, and ask her for directions to the subway. She can barely speak any English. This is supposed to be a fledgling artisic community. If so, it’s just starting to bud. I like the neighborhood. It is unpretentious, and it comforts me like the old flannel shirts I used to wear in my hippie days. I never had to iron them, never had to worry about how I looked. Here is a neighborhood where you can just be yourself. At least until the high rises take over.
My friends will try and fit a glimpse of Grand Central Station into the time remaining. I decide to have a brief look at the lobby before walking westward along 42nd Street to meet Johanna for a musical. Yep. It’s just as I’ve always known it, beautiful and tasteful as ever. How good that Jackie Kennedy Onassis saved this iconic Beaux Arts structure (1880-1920) from demolition. http://mentalfloss.com/article/62979/how-former-first-lady-helped-save-grand-central-terminal
I still have a couple of hours before I am to meet Johanna, and am also hungry. How best to fill this time? I start thinking about my son Jayden and his wife Dahee. How is she doing? Their baby is coming in a few months. Oh, how I miss them! But I just saw them – first, last summer when I visited them in Korea, and then when they came to be with Peter when he was dying. They stayed until after the funeral. What a support they have been!
A friend of mine in Germany told me before I left, “When you go to New York, be sure to go to K-Town and, if possible, eat in Miss Korea. They have terrific Korean barbecue there.” I decide to make a little detour and walk down 32nd Street to Koreatown, also known as K-Town, or Korea Way. New York has a Koreatown, a Japantown, a Chinatown, a Greektown, a Little India, and who knows what else?! I love that about New York.
Here, I expect to find a few restaurants with Korean stews and kimchee. I’m not very fond of either one. What I actually do find delights me.
I reluctantly finish my mandu and continue down 32nd Street. I see the Korean cosmetics chain Nature Republic has a store here. https://www.naturerepublicusa.com/ I buy a couple of sheet masks to surprise Johanna with on our last evening. We’ll have a bit of a spa experience at home before we go our separate ways, just like I did with Dahee in Seoul. I feel almost as though I have my Korean kids with me, seeing all these stores. I pass a restaurant with Korean fried chicken. We ate the best fried and also barbecued chicken ever in Seoul in a restaurant that looks very similar to this one. http://pelicanausa.com/ I quickly check my cell phone to see what time it is in Korea. Can I talk to Jayden now? No, it’s the middle of the night there. Too bad. I send the photos of Koreatown on to them and tell them I miss them. I miss them – and my husband, whom I will never again see on this earth. I can’t ask my father about the Rockefellers because he’s also passed on. Why does life have to be this way? Why is my family this way? Why are we scattered all over the globe? With a pang, I walk on. I am about to meet my German friends – in New York. Such is life in the 21st century. For my family, it seems, even more so.
I find Johanna near the TCKTS booth at Times Square. “Tickets to a Broadway show are outrageously expensive,” she moans. She wanted to see Anastasia. “The reduced rate tickets are $60! I don’t want to pay that much unless you do.” It was her idea to see this musical. I don’t really care. There is a movie showing, in German, just a couple of blocks from where we’re staying, “Never Look Away” (in German “Werk ohne Autor”), based on the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_Richter We opt to do this for the evening. Patrick wants to see this film too, and Timo decides to come along, even though he’s not that interested in art films.
We call it a day for sightseeing. We’ve seen enough for a while. We buy take-out food we can heat up in the microwave and salad for dinner, and rest or do our own activities for the remainder of the afternoon.
How odd to see a German film with English subtitles with Germans in New York. But it’s the one theater-like activity we can do where we can all really understand what’s going on. We find the film particularly interesting because Richter lives in Cologne, where we live. I find solace for an evening, and perhaps longer, in realizing I have touched base with my deceased father, husband, Korea, Germany and America, all in one day. We have just watched a German film in New York about a man who, in a way, is also an immigrant because he has lived in Nazi Germany, then in East Germany under the Communists, and now in Cologne in West Germany. Does he also wonder where home is? Does he, like me, struggle to connect all the pieces of his life?
Timo wants to see the architecture, especially to get a good view of the Chrysler Building – and all the other tall buildings. We walk again to Rockefeller Center and then take a cross-town bus to the East Side. I enter the Chrysler Building for the first time in my life. We can only see the lobby, but the lobby is worthy of a stop. Beautiful woodwork, beautiful masonry. This is truly a landmark building, to me much more interesting than the Empire State Building. The woodwork, the marble, the brass – it is all so warm and inviting. And imagine – gargoyles on a secular building! The gargoyles are eagles, the symbol of the National bird of the United States.
It is spectacular, but not enough to satisfy Timo. He wants a better view of the Chrysler Building.
“Why don’t we try and take a bus downtown?” suggests Johanna. “We’ve
been on the subway so much, maybe we can get some good impressions of
the city on the bus.” We’ve been trying to ride the bus, but have been
unlucky enough to usually miss the buses we want to catch. But this
time it works.
We take a bus heading downtown, getting off at Union Square, where Timo takes some more photos. Then we board another bus for SoHo. Today we’re going to explore SoHo (short for “South of Houston Street”) and take in a little of the Chinese New Year. And do Wall Street. And more. Another full day is planned. Time is running out – this is already our fifth day in New York, and there are only two more to go before we separate, I to go on to Texas, and my friends back to Germany. We’re tired, after miles of walking, but they don’t want to miss anything!
My niece Gillian has been staying in a hotel in SoHo, her favorite place in Manhattan. She’s a fashionista by profession, so she should know. I haven’t been to SoHo in years. We find her hotel, a quiet hotel on a short street. I would never have known to book a room in a place like that.
We need to go to the bathroom. It’s not always easy finding a place to use a toilet, since some restaurants are only take-out establishments. We find both a restaurant with restrooms and also promising-looking pastries at a bakery on Prince Street with a newspaper article in the window advertising the “Best Chocolate Cake in the U.S.” Well, we have to test this place! The cheesecakes look tempting too at the Little Cupcake Bakeshop, which has much more than cupcakes. http://www.littlecupcakebakeshop.com/ I have tea and a slice of another cake I’ve always been curious about – red velvet cake. It is delicious. But none of us tries the best chocolate cake in the US. We’ll have to go back to find out if it lives up to its reputation.
We walk on in SoHo. I venture into a shoe store that has interesting, sturdy but feminine walking shoes. I need new shoes. But these are over $250! Above my budget. We walk down Broadway, snapping pictures of the beautiful late nineteenth century cast iron buildings this area is famous for.
We walk on into Chinatown. This is the first day of the Chinese New Year, February 5, and it looks as though all the Chinese in all five boroughs of New York have congregated here. We want to explore, but the streets are so crowded, you can hardly move.
We head for a park where there are supposed to be fireworks, or firecrackers, or something. We know we’re going the right direction by following our ears. The sound of firecrackers becomes ever louder. We find a playground with hundreds of Chinese children and families, and a carpet of pastel-colored paper confetti on the ground. Children are somehow setting off long colorful tubes that make noise, and confetti goes flying through the air. And it seems like everybody is wearing red or pink! I later learn that red symbolizes good luck, and also joy. We watch for a few moments, then head south, passing through Little Italy, where we board a subway for Wall Street.
It is afternoon, and we are hungry and tired. “We still haven’t had New York hot dogs,” says Johanna. So we buy hot dogs at a stand in Wall Street and munch on them as we walk around. What is this?! The commercialization of the New York Stock Exchange! As if it weren’t commercial enough. They’ve plastered the facade with a poster advertising Arm and Hammer baking soda! Anything to make a few extra bucks, I guess. They say money is king in New York. What will people in a hundred years think of scenes like this, public permission to deface buildings. It’s almost as bad as graffitti.
Another thing polluting New York City is the pervasive smell of marijuana. It seems people smoke it everywhere. It is no longer illegal to possess or to smoke marijuana. But the streets reek of it. I hope public smoking of marijuana can one day be banned.
We want to visit the 911 Memorial museum, which offers free admission after 4 pm on Tuesdays. But it is not yet 4 pm. We find another museum, actually operated by the National Parks, which is also free and open – Federal Hall, at 26 Wall Street. It claims to be the birthplace of American democacy.
Patrick and I enter the museum, which is now located on the ground where George Washington first took the oath of office. New York City was once the Capitol of the United States! There is an interesting exhibit about the life of Alexander Hamilton. There seems to be a furor about a musical playing right now in New York based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. In the exhibit I learn that he was a visionary, one of the first to envision a federal, centralist nation, and also to plan a stable monetary and banking system. I wish I could go to the musical, but tickets are never available for this one. Johanna and I hope to see a musical tomorrow.
We all meet at the World Trade Center visitor center and receive our tickets. There is still an hour before we can enter the museum. Johanna and I walk around the concourse of the new World Trade Center, while Timo and Patrick explore outdoors. It is a beautiful, somehow comforting, yet inspiring structure. It feels like being in the hull of a light-filled ship, or in the womb of a loving giant mama.
The only problem I see with the concourse is that the shops are only upscale, exclusive ones. You can’t just make a quick jaunt to the pharmacy here after work and pick up something, as far as I could tell. I see no inexpensive fast food joints where you can eat a quick lunch. But then I haven’t had time to explore everything. Being inside the new World Trade Center is an eery feeling, especially because I worked in the old one for a few weeks many years ago, picking up a few extra dollars so I could return to Germany, where I met Peter. Now I wanted to return and marry him. I have often wondered if any of the people I worked with at that time were still working there when it was hit. I used to go window shopping or do actual shopping during my lunch breaks.
The rest of us are taken down, down, further down on long escalators, into the bowels of the old structures. We see the concrete walls that held back the Hudson River, and metal girders. We see two rusty broken-off supports in the shape of a cross. I had read about that. We see the names of all the victims, gaze at them a while. There are audio-visual stories about some of the victims, bringing that day sickeningly back to life. We hear the voice of one of the victims, on the phone with his mother, telling her everything is all right. We quickly finish the tour of part one, and think we have seen nearly everything. A guard tells us there is much, much more to see in part two. Each exhibit is in one of the twin towers. We find the other tower and enter a maze of exhibit rooms with films and sounds of sirens. We see a fire truck and read about some of the fire fighters who gave their life here. We see dusty high heel shoes someone left behind to run away as quickly as possible. It is impossible to see everything in one hour. But in that somber hour, we are all brought back to that day in September, 2001 that changed lives everywhere. On that day, when I watched the towers fall on TV, I said to myself, “September 11 will be a day everyone will remember now.” And so it is.
Each of us is on our own for this tour, reliving our own memories of that day. Sometimes we run into each other and compare impressions, then separate again. Except for the sounds of recorded sirens, conversations with the airport towers and films, the exhibit rooms are silent. Visiting this museum is a holy, private act.
We rejoin at our agreed time. We share memories of that day. We watch the water at the pool outdoors, and let the water wash over our souls, like a purification. We need some time to transition into mundaneness of everyday life.
Reflecting pool on the site of the old World Trade Center.
But we are hungry. We have decided to eat Chinese tonight in honor of the Chinese New Year in the area of New York where most of the Chinese immigrants live nowadays, in Flushing, Queens. We ride the subway for a long time, reminiscing about the experience in the museum, about our day. We eat a meal that is too authentically Chinese for our Western tastes, but we find something on the menu that we can eat. We are surrounded by dozens of Chinese families.
Finally, at around ten pm, exhausted from another long day, we ride the subway back “home”.
The weather has changed! Yesterday was already turning sunny and quite a bit warmer. Monday is positively spring-like. We will spend the day outside.
We decide to do the High Line today, a highlight for Timo, who is studying city planning. And I decide to do some of it on my own because I want to see some of the neighborhood called “Hell’s Kitchen”. I have heard there is a lot of construction, and a struggle with what’s left of the old neighborhood fighting to survive amidst the aggressive gentrification going on on a mass scale here.
We begin by taking the 7 line train to Hudson Yards at 34th Street, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Yards_(development) ascending a dizzyingly long escalator until we emerge, onto a gigantic construction site! It is awesome, all the construction going on. A friend told me, with disgust in her voice, “Millionaires are building luxury high rise apartment buildigs and tearing down the neighborhoods people have lived in for generations. If you go there now you can see the contrast.” I am curious.
When I arrive, I see it, but am overwhelmed, intimidated, even a little frightened. The entire neighborhood is being rebuilt. All for millionaires? Do so many people have this kind of money? Who are these people? I have heard many of them are rich Asians. Who has that kind of money? Where do the many more low-income people go? Something in me recoils, but is also fascinated by building on this scale. I hear famous architects are making their name here. https://www.hudsonyardsnewyork.com/
The strangest structure is this one. Another passer-by and I gaze at this, puzzled. Is it under construction? It doesn’t seem to have any function. People are walking in it, but where to? Is this some sort of giant piece of gym equipment? I later find out it is supposed to be the masterpiece of this project, the centerpiece. It is suppoed to stand out, like a twelve-month Christmas tree. It has been coined, at least for the time being, “Vessel”. It was designed by British Thomas Heatherwick and the Heatherwick Studio, and is intended to become a tourist site of its own. It is indeed a walkway, but will serve as a connection point between all the other surrounding buildings when they are finished. And yes, even this is not a gift to the poor. Just to enter this thing to get some exercise, you have to pay an entry fee.
I do see a few old buildings interspersed between all these gleaming structures, but how long will they coexist with all this money and power? But even they are being purchased and renovated.
I walk past an old warehouse that looks awfully clean to be just a warehouse. Curious, I enter. I have seen buildings like this in other cities, even New York – old buildings that were once warehouses, but are now art galleries, shopping malls, or restaurants. Sure enough, this one is another example of this. I find it still needs some concept to make the space inside more attractive, more integral to the architecture. But perhaps it will find more investors and turn into some thriving place people throng to for meals and shopping.
I find my friends, lounging on platforms on the High Line. Somewhere along the High Line someone planted a tree in honor of my deceased sister, but I have no idea where that could be. Here I see no signs or placques about donations. But the day has turned out bright and sunny. It’s a beautiful, interesting walk. We can at least look onto the patios of some of these millionaires, if not look directly into their windows. There are also interesting wall murals along the way. https://madhattersnyc.com/2018/11/07/kobra-street-art-new-york-city/
I also see some of what my friend was talking about when she mentioned the few remaining old buildings in Hell’s Kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen is the neighborhood the musical West Side Story takes place in. At that time, it was the dumping ground for Puerto Rican immigrants. How times have changed!
It is mid-afternoon and we have walked miles already, but we trudge on. My friend told me we could continue our walk into Greenwich Village, walking all the way along West Fourth Street to Washington Square. This is the route we take.
We find the famous Magnolia Bakery on W. 11th Street and Bleecker. https://www.magnoliabakery.com/ We can’t eat our cake in the bakery, but the day is warm and sunny, and there are picnic tables at the playground across the street. I choose a piece of key lime cheesecake and some tea. They choose coffee and more German-looking streusel cakes, and we share with one another. I love New York cakes – at least the ones in bakeries like this! Here they use plenty of first-class ingredients. It’s important to me that my German friends enjoy American cakes. Germans generally think American cakes are too sweet and too few in variety. I am delighted, and they are surprised to bite into these fabulous American cakes.
On, on we walk, through Greenwich Village, onto Washington Square, where hundreds of New York University students are soaking up the sun, some sitting on park benches, studying, as street musicians entertain them.
On, on we force ourselves to walk. It is late afternoon by now, but the sky is such a lovely blue. Who cares about blisters? Johanna has blister bandaids in her bag. They are here for the first time in their lives, only for a week, and they have to make the most of it. I endure with them. Their plan now is to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. “But let’s not walk to the bridge,” I entreat them. “I’ll never make it! Let’s take the subway.” So we get on a subway train at Washington Square and get off at Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. There is a new path above ground, making the walk a lot shorter and more interesting than it used to be. The walk is beautiful, and in the late afternoon sunlight, warm.
“Even though we’re exhausted, we’ve got to get the view of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights,” I say. I used to work in Brooklyn Heights, and it’s one of my favorite parts of New York. It would be – it’s also one of the most expensive, with old brownstone buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Henry Ward Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Little Women, was famous in his own day as a preacher. He pastored a church in Brooklyn Heights. The poet Walt Whitman also lived here and wrote his famous New York poems from here. Somewhere in Brooklyn Heights modern celebreties like Matt Damon, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz live. We must see Brooklyn Heights!
I take them to the promenade overlooking the New York Harbor. We stand at sunset and look at the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline, silenced, in awe. New York is such a beautiful city.
We eat delicious hamburgers at the New Apollo Diner http://newapollodiner.com/ in Brooklyn, our legs and backs exhausted, our feet blistered, but we are content. Brooklyn restaurants are not nearly as expensive as those in midtown Manhattan, and we have just feasted on one of the most iconic, visually satisfying treats available – anywhere.
Sunday, our second full day in the City, we go to church. We are all committed Christians, and finding a church we may have heard about as far away as Germany becomes as much a part of our touristic experience as any other. In preparation for this trip, Johanna mentioned a church I had been to once before with Peter, Redeemer Presbyterian Church https://www.redeemer.com/ on Park Avenue. It has the reputation for having good, solid theology, a church that thinking people can go to and be challenged by. I opt for the classic service because the time works well for us, so we go there together. Timo wants to go to a church where young people would feel more comfortable, so he and Patrick go to Hillsong Church. https://hillsong.com/nyc/manhattan/
At Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I notice that there is not a single black person in the entire congregation, but there are many Asians. There are also a few families there. The music is definitely classical, with a string quartet and old church hymns. It is the first Sunday of the month, so there is communion. For the communion, ushers come to us in our chairs, serving first bread and later grape juice.
After the service, Johanna asks if the way communion was served is the American way. It is not necessarily, but it is the reformed/dissenting church way, the way they usually do it in my Baptist church in Cologne too. But Johanna belongs to a Lutheran church, where everyone walks to the front of the church, and they stand in a circle together. “I don’t like this passive way of doing communion,” she says. “It’s so impersonal, perfunctory.” I ask her how much she understood of the sermon. “I got the gist,” she says. This was not a good choice of church for Johanna. As for me, it also feels a bit dry, but at least it is not offensive to me theologically. I have heard many cringe-worthy sermons in my life.
Johanna meets Patrick and Timo, and I separate to do some shopping. But we do talk on the phone before we part. Patrick and Timo loved the services they attended.
I have arranged to have dinner with my sister Beth and niece Gillian. I want my German friends to meet more of the English-speaking people in my life. Beth is the sister my sisters and I adopted, and she adopted us, at the time of the marriage of my sister to Beth’s brother. Gillian, living in Australia, has never been able to meet Beth, who has never been to our big family reunions, although most of us we have met up at smaller gatherings. But Gillian just happens to be in New York on business this week, and we have arranged to meet. The logistics aren’t all that easy. Beth has difficulty walking for more than about a block. Gillian has celiac disease and can’t tolerate gluten, but she is hoping to eat Italian food. The Italian restaurant Beth recommended has no gluten-free options – I went there and asked. So I go online, looking for restaurants in the neighborhood that have gluten-free pasta. I find one, the Serafina Osteria. https://serafinarestaurant.com/serafina-italian-restaurant-osteria-new-york
This is good news, but Beth tells me she can’t walk all the way to the restaurant. I call the restaurant and find that they deliver. We eat in, “at home”. After all, we are staying in a sort of apartment, complete with dishes, cutlery and wine glasses. Gillian brings wine. Beth brings us beautiful long-stemmed roses.
I organize more dishes, cutlery and glasses. Beth and Gillian, and my Germans all meet for the first time, in our apartment. We eat a delicios meal at home in peace and quiet, a rare thing in New York City restaurants, and laugh and talk, communicating in a language that doesn’t come very easily to Johanna or Patrick. Timo blends right in. After dinner, we watch the super bowl together on TV, the same activity millions of Americans across the country are doing in their homes too. American football is not a German sport, but Patrick loves American football. I am no football fan, and know very little, so my German friend Patrick explains the moves of the game to his American friend.
We wake up to another day of frigid temperatures in New York City. New York is much colder than Cologne! But we will not let a bit of cold weather deter us from our plans. My friends enjoy a breakfast of bagels and coffee. I eat cooked oatmeal, the same breakfast I always eat in the winter. We put on our long underwear and head out for Central Park. Central Park turns out to be my favorite part of the day, perhaps the highlight of the week, because of a couple of wonderful discoveries. We see lots of squirrels scurrying throgh the park, but one in particular catches our attention. It runs back and forth between the ground and its burrow in a hole in a tree. I love it – nature in New York! This squirrel knows nothing about rental prices in the city or gentrification. He lives the same lifestyle squirrels have been living for thousands of years, and it’s comforting for me to see this in Central Park.
The other discovery is a community of cardinals in the park. My last trip to New York City I saw a cardinal and thought it must be a rare occasion, because the only birds I usually notice are sparrows and robins. But here there must be twenty of them flitting around. What a wonderful aesthetic experience to see flecks of red hopping around the ground, then darting into the air and back down again!
On we march southwards, through the city. It is only noon, and my feet are already tired, and all we have seen is Central Park. We glimpse at the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and walk into St. Thomas Church and witness a wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I love St. Thomas Church and walk in there almost every time I am in New York City. I once went to an unforgettable Christmas Eve choral service there. I love their boys’ choir and the liturgy of the service. But it is my first time in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am not Catholic, so never found a need to be inside this church, but Patrick is. I am impressed by its size. Surely it must be the larget Catholic church in America, I think. It isn’t, but it is the largest in New York City. We walk past the New York Public Library. This is another place I have never set foot inside, but I have been told it is a worthy tourist attraction, its lobby so beautiful, you can rent it for weddings – for upwards of $60,000! https://www.nypl.org/space-rental/your-event
If only my Peter had seen this place, is the main thing I think, walking around the beautiful rooms with carved oak walls, golden molded ceilings and gorgeous masonry. This would have been heaven to my husband, who loved books – and maps – so much. He used to spend hours at a time, just studying maps. Once visiting friends in England, they drove us to visit a town none of us had been to, but they thought they knew the way. We would have gotten lost, had we followed their directions, but Peter assured us, he knew the way. He did, and they marveled at his sense of direction.
The NY public library has a room dedicated to maps. I mourn my husband as I marvel over the most amazing globes I have ever seen.
On we go, southwards on Fifth Avenue ever since Central Park. By now it is a bit late in the afternoon, and we are all feeling the effects of our long hike in our legs and feet. Now we are headed for our last destination, the Rooftop Bar at 25rd Street. A friend of mine in Germany told me about this place, not written up in the tourist guides, but known by many young people, including her son, who spent a semester at a language school near New York City. It turns out that there are several rooftop bars in New York, but this one seems to attract mostly young people. That’s what we see at this one at 230 Fifth Avenue. https://www.230-fifth.com/ The interesting thing about this place, to me, is the heated plastic igloos where you can sit and enjoy the view.
We drink a cup of hot chocolate for $10. We have to hurry, because the bar closes at 5 pm. The hefty price is worth it. We leave, inspired and strengthened for our return home. We have seen enough for the day.
Two hours later, friends of mine join us at our suite. We have a drink together, and head out again for dinner at Der Krung, a tiny Thai restaurant only New Yorkers would know about, it is so far west of Fifth Avenue. Because of its location and tiny size, the prices are reasonable. It’s fun exploring New York with New Yorkers. I enjoy introducing my German friends to friends from New York. I am in the middle, part of each culture. This must be symbolic of who I am. Am I a bridge between cultures?
Perhaps the two questions ex-pats ask themselves more than any other are, “Where is home?” And “What is home?” I certainly do. I recently heard a travel commercial today, trying to entice people to come to Denmark on vacation. They asked this very question, “Where is home?” For them, the answer was, home is where you feel secure and comfortable, and this is a state of mind. Therefore, presumably, you could travel to Denmark and be right at home.
I only have one major regret in life – I didn’t buy my apartment in New York City when I had the chance. My building was going coop, and I could have bought my studio apartment for $50,000. My father could have easily financed it for me too, but I didn’t want to owe him anything, so I never asked him. That apartment is now worth over $400,000, and there’s no way I could afford it, even it were available. If I had bought that apartment, I would have had my own abode in New York, the only place that has ever really felt like home. Or does it only feel like home when I return to visit, because nowhere else feels like it either? Because I got so sick of my entire life in New York City – twice, I only wanted to leave, and eventually did. But did I find home?
I don’t think of New York City as a place where I feel secure or even comfortable. But I do feel like I fit in. There’s room for everybody in New York! And there are eight hundred languages spoken there, making it the most ethnically diverse city on earth, according to the World Population Review. http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/new-york-city-population/
I have an
inquisitive, curious nature, and I like to be involved in interesting
discussions. New York is discussion
paradise. People philosophize about
everything, and they’re really interested in what others think. Here, if you overhear someone talking about
something while waiting on line for your coffee (they say “on line” in NYC, not
“in line”), you can jump right into the conversation. People in New York are passionate about life
and all its details. You won’t find
passive bystanders here, but active participants engaged in conversation
wherever you go. They make eye contact
on the subway and smile at one another when they find something ironic or
amusing. Life is shared in New York.
There is so much to do in this city, I’m never bored. Home for me is not a place where I have to stay indoors to feel good. I can go outdoors and join the rest of the world in New York City any time I please. When I want to feel secure and comfortable, I can stay indoors and watch the same TV shows, cook the same foods, read the same books, or water the same plants I would anywhere else. But where else could I find such interesting people to invite over for dinner, if that was what I wanted to do? Where else could I sit in a café and enjoy such an intense discussion? That is the DNA of New York. Once New York gets into your blood, it’s like getting the hepatitis virus. My blood type is irretrievably changed after having lived there twice, for a total of ten years. I’m infected with the NYC virus. My blood type is NYC – both positive and negative.
And now here I am, returning to NYC – from Germany, my adopted country, with German friends. I was here a year ago after my sister’s funeral, where I attended the funeral of my friend’s father, and stayed with my sister. This time I have arranged to spend a week there as a tourist, spending very little time with family and friends. In fact, we will be staying in a time share apartment, just like many other tourists. Most Germans I know have never heard of a time share, something most Americans know about, so this is something of my culture I can share with my friends. How will this week be? How will New York feel to me, experiencing it again, but with Germans?
We – that is Johanna, Patrick, their son Timo and I – arrive at JFK airport on the bitterly cold afternoon of February 1. It is cold in Germany, but this cold is insane! Minus ten degrees Celsius and a huge wind chill factor. We can feel it walking off the plane into the terminal.
It takes an age to get through immigration, even for me, with the luck of going through the US citizen line. This time no one asks me any silly or loaded questions, simply welcoming me to the United States. When I arrived in Seattle, the agent leafed through my passport, noticed all the stamps from previous trips to Egypt and Turkey and asked in a friendly voice if I had family over there. It was only hours later that I realized this agent wasn’t merely making small talk with me. He was feeling me out to see if I was trying to smuggle some people from Muslim countries into the USA. That experience didn’t feel very welcoming. Today feels better, even though I’m separated from my friends, who aren’t allowed to go through the line with me.
I wait for over a half hour for my friends, wondering if they have somehow gotten through before me and are waiting for me somewhere. But no – immigration takes very long these days, especially if you’re not American.
We finally meet again, and leave the airport for the Airtrain, a monorail that circuits between the terminals and the Sutphin Boulevard subway stop on the E line, which is also the Long Island Railroad stop. I don’t know how to work the machines to get a ticket. I am just as much a tourist as my friends. We end up buying a ticket from a salesman at a kiosk, paying him a tip for the privilege of buying from him.
We enter the subway train and are immediately entertained by a performer who does incredible acrobatics on the train. I have seen performances like this many times in New York, so this feels familiar to me, and I know he expects about a dollar from each of us, which we gladly fork out to him. He leaves the car by forcing the door to the next car open, something that is strictly prohibited by the Transit Authority. But perhaps I am the only one who knows that, because everyone smiles, waving him a farewell as he leaves.
I had forgotten how long the ride is from the airport to 53rd Street and Lexington. Almost an hour long! New York is a huge city. We leave the train and I am disoriented and begin walking in the wrong direction until Johanna asks, “Aren’t we going in the wrong direction?” What is wrong with me? I have always been able to get around Manhattan. I just stand somewhere, figure out whether the Hudson River on my right or left is. If it’s on my right, I’m heading south. But this time I can’t figure out which side of me the Hudson is on.
Before we left Germany, I checked online where the nearest supermarket is. Morton Williams on 57th Street. I have never heard of Morton Williams. Another change in New York. There is also Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. I read about how Amazon bought them. When I lived in New York there was no such thing as Whole Foods.
Our suite is really nice! We will be living in more luxury than I have ever enjoyed in NewYork. I have a huge bed all to myself and my own bathroom. We have a microwave to heat food in, and a little drip coffee machine. I inquire and find that they renew the coffee supply each day, as they also do with dishwasher tabs. My time share is again proving itself worthy of the money I pay each year!
After checking into our suite and unpacking we head out for Morton Williams. I recognize Carnegie Hall on the way, and right across the street from there is Calvary Baptist Church, the church I belonged to when I last lived in New York. I scarcely recognize it now, a tiny structure sandwiched between two very high buildings. Normally, my trips to New York don’t take me to 57th Street or midtown Manhattan. No wonder everything seems so strange! But I am familiar with the choices available in a New York supermarket. We find everything we will need for breakfast tomorrow, when Timo will go out again and buy bagels. The bagels look really good. When it is time to pay, I am again overwhelmed. There are many cash registers with numbers. It seems you have to stand on line, like at the bank, and wait for the next available cash register. Some are unattended. Apparently you have to scan your own groceries and pay with a credit card. Can I do this? I can. I manage this as easily as if I had been doing this my entire life. I even ask for cash back, and get it. But only $50. Johanna and Patrick don’t know about cash back. I learned about cash back in Germany, where they even use the English word for this system of getting cash off your debit card when you pay for something with it.
Johanna and Patrick have a comfortable sofa bed they make up each day in the living room. Timo has a rollaway bed in the corner of the living room. We have a comfortable home for the week.
Prologue “What do you think you’ll do, now that Peter has gone?” My sister Jenna had flown halfway around the world, all the way from Australia to Germany, to keep me company, and to say her last good-byes to my husband Peter. I had done the same in reverse when her husband died. Our son and his wife arrived from their home in Korea in time to be with Papa for his final hours on this earth, and stayed for the burial. August 24, our wedding anniversary, was the day we said our final farewell to him. Now my kids were leaving, tearing another hole out of my heart. Why does my family have to choose homes impossibly far and fantastically expensive to reach?
My family of origin, which consisted of seven children, now down to six still living, is literally a micro-United Nations. We have all married or live with people from different cultures, races and countries. I went to Germany and married a German. There’s Australia, where Jenna and her family live. Japan, where my brother Simon lives with his Japanese wife and family. One brother is living in America, but with a woman from Bangladesh. My brother Jason, who also lives in America, married a Malaysian. Naila’s Sam is African American. Their son Blair longs to go back to Asia to live, where he went to music conservatory. Knowing my family, that is what he will end up doing. My son went to Korea to study, and met and married a lovely Korean girl, and settled down with her in Seoul.
Because my family is so spread apart, there are many places for me to go to. “Go on some long trips and visit all the people I love,” I answered. I had already been to Korea and Japan last summer, so I wouldn’t go there just now. I would go back to America, the land where I spent the first thirty-six years of my life.
I’ve been back “home” so many times over the years, but there are people dear to me whom I haven’t seen very often, some not in years, who live in America. Besides people, there are also places in America leaving holes in my heart, just like people. Places like New York City, where my soul seems to be drawn, like a magnet to its pole. The aching hole in my heart keeps finding reasons to go back to New York City and be filled again. There are a couple other places I love too. The Boundary Waters of Minnesota, too, where I was conceived and kept returning to, year after year during my childhood. The wild coast of Oregon, the State where my sister lives. She brings me back to the coast each time I visit her. Other places I’m not so familiar with, and there are still one or two others where friends live, but whose homes I have never seen. There is plenty for me to discover in the land of my birth. Where to go on this long trip back home?
My wonderful, strange friend “Serendipity” had already stepped in for me, months before I had any thoughts of going back to America. I had just come back from the States, where I attended both my sister’s funeral and that of my friend’s father. I wasn’t really looking to return to the States. But Serenditpity came in the form of a phone call a couple months after my return. My timeshare company wanted to know if there was some location my husband and I would like to travel to. “What? Didn’t you know? My husband had a massive stroke over three years ago and can’t travel!”
That was one of the biggest losses I have had to face since Peter’s stroke. He and I were such good travelers, and he was never as interesting or stimulating as when traveling. We fed off and nourished each other’s curiosity with our contrasting insights and information.
“Oh – I’m so sorry,” the voice on the other end said. After a pause, “Maybe YOU would like to get away somewhere. Is there anywhere you would love to travel to?” I couldn’t think of anywhere. All there was now was family, and I didn’t need a timeshare for that. A twinge of self-pity threatened to tug at a corner of my heart. Then, just as I was about to hang up in disappointment, I remembered New York City. “Well, there is New York City, but you never have any openings there.”
me just check,” the agent said.
“Ah, there is an opening at a hotel called The Manhattan Club for
the first week in February. Would you
like that? It is a suite that can sleep
“Yes!” I said, with no questions or doubts in my voice. So, months before Peter died, the seeds of a trip to the US were planted. I would be a tourist again in the city I spent ten years of my life in. As soon as Jenna asked her question about what I would do, I knew I would make a long trip out of this week in New York City. I also knew just how I would do it. I had already found friends, people who had supported Peter and me throughout Peter’s entire illness. These friends had recently asked if they could travel with me to New York City sometime. And the rest was there, sitting in front of my imagination like a trayful of goodies.
America seems to be slipping away from me, the longer I spend away from it. People watch TV differently. Now at least those of us with internet have Netflix and Prime, no matter what country we live in, but what do people in America watch? They eat different things too than they used to. What would I discover in the culinary landscape of America? New words keep creeping in, new expressions, new fads, new phobias. I am way out of touch with the bureaucratic side of America. I don’t have to deal with Obamacare or group health plans, thank God. But I wonder how other Americans deal with getting sick. How do they face longterm illness like I had just spent four years dealing with, as I became acquainted with the German system? By now, I know more about how Germans live than Americans, the people Germans keep asking me about. The longer I spend away, the less I know.
And then there’s the political scene. What on earth is going on in America, that a man like Trump can be President? How could the evangelical Christians ever support such a person? I consider myself an evangelical, but I sure don’t share any values with this man. Or at least, I don’t think so, but then we don’t get Fox TV in Germany. Still, I get enough information to ask how myself how Christians can explain their support for the current President and administration. It was time for a lengthy visit.
February is a strange month to travel, one would think. It’s dark and deathly cold. But nothing beats the winter blues like traveling, and where do many Americans travel to in the winter? To the South! It was clear to me that since the week of my timeshare stay in New York City was the first week in February, I would follow that week up by traveling to the three peope dear to me who live in the South. Everyone was excited at the idea of my coming, so I planned a trip lasting five to six weeks. I would not travel north this time to my brother in Minnesota. I had seen him last year at our sister’s funeral, and Minnesota is infamously cold and snowy in February. It would have to be the South – and New York, which is cold enough.
From New York I would fly down to Austin, Texas and visit my cousin and his wife. From there I would somehow get to Louisiana and visit an old friend from college. And I would travel by some unknown means from there to Tennessee to visit my brother Jason and family, who recently moved to Tennessee from California and were having some problems with their adjustment. Then I would travel back to New York City from Tennessee and have plenty of time for family and friends. I checked Google Maps. The distances between each of these places were quite far, but doable, either by renting a car or traveling by bus. Why not? I could take the Greyhound bus, just like Simon or Garfunkel does with Kathy in that song about being lost and looking for America. That kind of fits me, I thought. I feel lost too, and am looking for America.
there was Christmas to get through. One
piece of advice I got after Peter’s death was, “Whatever you do, don’t
spend this first Christmas alone. Go
visit someone in your family.”
By the end of October, the days were getting cold and the nights long. I sat in my living room, imagining Christmas. Would I buy a tree? No way! Why would I lug a tree from my car, spreading needles and scratching myself, spreading pine resin on my fingers, just for myself? The idea of decorating a tree and then sitting there all by myself to look at it made me so depressed, I knew I could not spend Christmas at home. I also missed my only other living sister Naila, who had not been able to come to the funeral. I hadn’t had much contact with her since we’d seen each other in Minnesota after our sister’s death the December before. Soon after her return home, a double whammy of bad news came to her. Both she and her husband had cancer! Naila ovarian and Sam prostate cancer. And both would need treatment. Naila went in for six months of chemotherapy, and Sam radiation therapy. Naila was told she needed to take time out from the world and go into a long hibernation of several months. She was too vulnerable to infections. She was also exhausted from chemotherapy. We wrote, but she didn’t want to share her burdens over the phone.
I risked phoning her on that long, cold night in October. Chemotherapy would soon be over and she was feeling stronger. Yes, she was up to talking now. “I miss you, Naila,” I said. “I wish I could just fly out there and see you for Christmas,” popped out of my mouth.
“Why don’t you do that?” she said. “We’d LOVE to have you! I just saw a commercial on TV from Condor Airlines. It looks like they have cheap, direct flights from Frankfurt to Portland.” Naila lives in Portland.
And so I
booked another flight – to Portland, Oregon, but it wasn’t direct. I’d have to fly to Seattle first.
In November, my dear friend Miriam from Seattle came to visit me for three weeks. Unable to come to be with me for the funeral, she offered to come and keep me company for three weeks. What a wonderful buffer that was from the pain of being alone! We went on a couple of short trips to nearby tourist sites, did Thanksgiving together, another hurdle I needed to somehow clamber over. We talked and cried nonstop for three weeks. And then, before I knew it, it was time to fly to the States.
Going to Oregon for Christmas was the perfect thing to do. Both my sister and her husband were feeling pretty good by the time I arrived. I was a caterpillar cocooned in familial warmth. My nephew Blair, living for the time being with his parents, is a fabulous cook and we were treated each evening to feasts. The Christmas tree was decorated when I arrived, and everything was as I remembered a Christmas or two in the past, spent with my sister. But there were stabs of pain, too. Remembering a Christmas and other visits to Oregon with Peter stung. He loved Oregon. We had sat on the living room couch, opening Christmas presents together. Now I had to sleep alone in the same bed we both had slept in on our many trips to Oregon. Mornings, we would gaze together at Mount Hood, sometimes peeking through our bedroom window, sometimes hiding from view.
Together we discovered a popular Oregon activity – tide-pooling. On several vacations at the beach we would head for the rock pools formed at low tide, identification book in hand, identifying and marveling over the sea stars and anemones. Sometimes we would see little crabs climbing miniature rock cliffs. We had enjoyed the seagulls and pounding waves together. Sam and Naila’s home is our son’s American home, and Oregon became our home away from home, after my parents had both passed away and their house was sold.
But there is comfort in shared sorrow. There is healing in pain that is shared. I felt warm and secure, spending Christmas with my family. The warmth spread over the pain like a balsam.
I had asked Naila if there were any choral concerts in Portland during the Christmas season we could go to. I love the Christmas concerts in Germany, and was singing in several myself with my choir and vocal ensemble. It would be nice to partake in some of the lovely things of Germany in Oregon, I thought. “There’s the Festival of Lights,” my sister said. “For two weeks or so before Christmas, an abbey in Portland puts up loads of Christmas lights and choirs come from far away to sing in the chapel. We could do that.”
We did that. We went out in Portland drizzle to see the lights and hear some music. That was perhaps my first truly touristic American experience this trip. The abbey gardens were giddy with lights of every color and shape, everywhere you looked – overwhelming after years of pristine white lights in Germany. Almost all the Germans I know consider colored lights to be garish.
stations, like stations of the cross, with recordings recounting the Christmas
story. The choir we heard wasn’t very
good, in my estimation, but at least they were singing Christmas music. And I was doing something Christmasy with my
sister, who a month before this could not have left the house.
I baked their favorite Christmas cookies for them. We went to church together, and we watched TV together. We discussed politics. Here my sister and I were of kindred minds. Her entire family and I felt alienation from the current political situation in Washington. I discovered something in this alienation that I hadn’t expected. Naila and Sam, also evangelical Christians, feel alienated from the political attitudes of almost all the people in their church. They say this sense of alienation is not unique to them. Evangelicals all over America feel politically estranged from other evangelicals, something that never existed before the last election. The estrangement is so severe that people even feel unable to talk about their opinions with one another.
So Naila keeps company with Rachel Maddock. “Let’s watch Rachel Maddock,” she said. “She explains it all better than anyone else.” We watched Rachel Maddock and fretted together. Here, even on the political level, we were able to share our feelings.
I did get sick while in Oregon. I came down with sinusitis and by New Year’s Day really needed to be treated badly. “I’ll take you to urgent care,” Naila said. I had to ask what urgent care was. Another new development since I have lived in the States. A pretty cool thing, actually. You can go there at any time, even on New Year’s Day and be treated, generally by a nurse practitioner. There is no such thing as a nurse practitioner in Germany, nor are there urgent care clinics. Naila’s urgent care clinic accepted my German insurance card, so all was well on that front. And with medication, my sinuses were also soon healed.
I had booked an airline ticket I could change. Perhaps, if all worked well, I could also visit Miriam in Seattle at the end of my trip.
Things did work out, and I rode the Amtrak train to Seattle in the New Year. Miriam greeted me at the train station, just as I had greeted her at the Cologne train station just two months before.
Miriam lives on a island off of Seattle, which to me has always sounded very romantic. I was so curious to see how she lives! Of course,you have to ride a ferry boat every time you go to the mainland, but the ride is only fifteen minutes. Miriam tells me that the wait can be up to an hour and a half, however! This island is lush with majestic pine forests and huge ferns.
There are so many forests, human settlement feels like something of a rarity. On this island, Miriam and her husband live close to nature. I thrilled to see an everyday occurrence for them – deer grazing in their garden. Beautiful blue birds and squirrels came to feast on peanuts Miriam’s husband feeds them every day.
This is America too, the America I love, just like the Oregon coast. Here I saw the Puget Sound, dotted with so many islands, so peaceful it reminded me of a lake in northern Minnesota. When I am out in nature in America, I feel in touch with myself, with my family, the animals and all the other people living in America. Peter had never been here before, so for the last part of my journey I felt less pain, enjoying this beautiful landscape with my friends.
Watching the Puget Sound in Washington with Miriam, I remembered also having stood a few days before on the Oregon Coast. There, in contrast to the still waters of the Sound, I had experienced the foaming, turbulent waves coming from the same ocean. Even more than the calm water, tamed by the many islands in the sound, it was the surf that touched me the most. The surf, pounding and crashing onto the rocks, transforming into dazzling waterfalls, calmed my soul.
I had gone for long walks along the beach each morning, allowing the constant movement of the waves to move my turbulent heart. I would stop and feast my eyes for minutes at a time, gazing at the powerful waves. I missed Peter, but also felt the peace of sensing that he was perhaps somehow standing there with me. Perhaps he was also able to see the perfect rainbow given to me one morning, a promise of happier days to come.
Peter had a few good days after that day in the ice cream café. We had a magical day when he awoke alert and full of energy. His speech therapy session was good, and he was still alert afterwards.
My practice was always to look for “good days” and then do something outside that would stimulate him, something that I would also enjoy. The “good days” were relative. On these days, he was alert enough to be active, but he also showed more confusion. On the days when he was able to speak and move, he believed he was in Italy and needed to get back to Germany, so could only focus on packing a suitcase and getting out of here, his true home, to return to what he believed was home.
A few days before, on another good day that also happened to be sunny and warm, I finally had an insight into what all this was about. “When you say you want to go back home, Peter, do you mean you want to go back to your old life? The life you had before the stroke?” I asked. Peter nodded. I asked, “What is it you most miss about your old life?”
“Relationships ,” was his answer.
I couldn’t give him much in that way. He was receiving occasional visitors, but the number of visits had dwindled down over the years into his recovery. It is exhausting spending time with someone who can’t converse anymore, someone whose motto used to be “would rather talk”. One of his friends told me it was even depressing, agonizing for him to visit his friend who was unable to give him the stimulating relationship he once had. So he didn’t come very often.
What I could give Peter was a nice day in Cologne. Hopefully he would recognize what he saw and accept that he was indeed home. On this day, July 18, Maciek, Peter’s live-in caregiver, took him downstairs on the Scalamobil. If anyone reading this has someone living at home who is unable to negotiate stairs, this is the thing to get. It revolutionized our lives. There were months when Peter was even able to climb stairs on his own, with help, but since the medication disaster in January, he wasn’t usually strong enough for that. But with the Scalamobil we were able to get down the 20 steps to the street level and roll to the wheelchair-friendly tram stop, board the tram and whisk over the Rhine River. “Do you see that?” I pointed. “Do you recognize that? That’s the Cologne cathedral. You see? We’re in Cologne, after all.” He nodded his head. I felt relieved. He knew where he was.
We disembarked at the cathedral/train station, where I was able to push his wheelchair all the way to the river, where we bought tickets for the Panorama Rhine boat trip, an hour-long ride up and down the river. We were very early, and hungry. It was lunch-time. “How about a Currywurst and some French fries?” Peter nodded, so off we went in search of a hot-dog stand selling hot dogs with curry sauce and French fries. We found one, and bought them, and also a diet Coke. He wasn’t supposed to drink anything without a thickening agent, but today was a good day – why not? The boat attendants showed us a spot on the boat where we could get a good view and still be able to eat and drink in peace. We shared the hot dog, French fries and Coke. Peter swallowed perfectly and didn’t cough, nor did we spill anything. He spoke during the cruise, asking me the names of buildings he used to identify for me. So I gave back to him what he had first shared with me.
He had another good day on his birthday, July 26, a gorgeous, sunny day. On Peter’s 63rd birthday, he was awake and able to eat breakfast with me out on our terrace. We ate the cake I had baked for him. He opened his presents. Then he wanted to go into the bedroom, which is now my room. I anticipated what was coming – he wanted to pack his suitcase. I was alone with him because the caregiver was in the hospital, where he had had surgery. I was nervous about this, but we went into the bedroom anyway, in the wheelchair. Peter wanted to stand, to look inside his closet. I allowed this. He reached for clothes – and fell. I somehow managed to get him back up and into the wheelchair.
He was alert one more day, again ranting about “getting back to Cologne”. And then, on August 3, he came down with a high fever. I took him to the emergency room in our local hospital. The doctor wanted to talk about his living will. Should he be resuscitated if he should stop breathing? What was this, anyway? He was only in the hospital because his fever wouldn’t go down. Surely it wasn’t coming to this!
I told the doctor we had specified in the living will that there should be no precautions if he was unable to live on his own. “I want oxygen,” Peter said clearly.
They thought he may have a gall bladder attack. “I don’t want surgery,” Peter said. They did find a blockage in his urinary tract and did a minor procedure, placing a stent in his bladder.
The fever went down, and then skyrocketed, peaking at over 105°F. Only cold packs could get the temperature down to about 100°, when it would shoot up again. On August 10, I received a phone call from his doctor.
“Your husband went into cardiac arrest this morning,” He said. I screamed.
“Please don’t panic. He is still alive. We were able to resuscitate him.”
So he had received the treatment he had asked for, after all. The doctor had ignored the living will.
“I know you had told us not to do this,” he said. “But we did this in order to save his life.”
I phoned Jon, our son living in Korea. “I think you’d better come home now,” I said. He and Dayeong were with Peter in his room in the intensive care unit the very next day.
But Peter’s brain damage was so massive, there was no way to keep him alive without life-support equipment. We had to let him go. He died, while Jon, Dayeong and I sat at his bedside, talking, praying, reading Bible passages, and thanking him for his life with us. We said our final good-byes to him on my mother’s birthday, August 15.
I wonder if there is such a thing as returning to a “normal” life. What is a normal life? All I can say is, life hasn’t been the same since the day that disaster struck. But then again, what is disaster? Disaster is things that go differently than according to our plans, and when these times hit, we incur loss. We suffer. I suffered more, and incurred more loss than had even before, when Peter first had his stroke.
On December 29, my beloved sister Laurie died. I got a phone call that morning when I was in the shower. One of my sisters was trying to call me. I had to call her back after drying off. I was devastated to hear the news. I hadn’t spoken to Laurie yet during the holidays, and I was always concerned about her, who lived a very solitary life. She died of natural causes, the coroner said. But we don’t know what caused her death, only that she couldn’t catch her breath and called 911. By the time they arrived, seven minutes later, she was already gone. All of us remaining six siblings flew from our respective homes to Minnesota to plan a funeral and to pay Laurie our last respects.
I returned two weeks later, sad and exhausted, only to find that more disaster had struck. The nursing agency that administered Peter’s meds had failed to give him two of his epilepsy medications the entire two weeks I was gone. Peter regressed into seizures several times a day, and the rest of the time, apathy and sleep. He wasn’t talking anymore, and was rarely conscious. All that work, all the progress over the past year of Peter’s being home, gone down the drain in a matter of two weeks!
Slowly, and excruciatingly gradually, the neurologist increased Peter’s meds. Now he is getting a new medication and is almost back to the previous levels of another. It has taken five months, but the seizures seem to have stopped almost completely. But maybe it is from the new medication, or maybe the damage from all those seizures, but Peter hardly talks anymore. When he says something, it is hardly ever an audible voice anymore, just the slightest whisper. It is as though his lungs no longer have the capacity to even whisper, most of the time. He is normally not mentally present, and in that state, swallows worse than ever. We experience fits of desperate coughing, Peter’s face red as a tomato as he struggles to extricate all the food and saliva that has started to trickle down his windpipe. We can go through a box of Kleenex in a day, trying to clean up all the saliva that dribbles down his shirt or explodes into a Kleenex, if we’re lucky, and it doesn’t spatter onto the furniture. He can hardly walk from one room to the next. He only rarely reads the newspaper, and falls asleep while watching television, or falls into a trance. He hardly ever smiles. All his previous spark, his enthusiasm, is gone. Most of the time, he is a crippled zombie. All of this is very sad to watch. This, I tell myself, is what tragedy feels like.
How do I deal with this? Well, I would say, if there is a place called hell, a place of constant torment, that is where I spent January until May. My concept of what or who God is was thrown up like a crystal Christmas ornament, and came crashing down, broken into smithereens. I had thought God was the one who answered our prayers. God was supposed to be our healer. Our comforter. Our peace. All of my prayers had been for naught, it seemed. I saw a mind disintegrated, not healing. I was constantly distraught, and my sleep was restless.
I went in May to the people I always go to for spiritual help, to Rapha, in England, to a workshop on “unfailing peace”. Just the thing I didn’t have. I can’t say exactly what happened while I was there. I did hear some things that have helped. One was that I have believed a lie all my life. It is now time for me to know the truth, this person said. The truth that would set me free.
I know now my concept of God was wrong, or only partially true. I have been looking Suffering in the face, allowing this unwelcome presence to speak to me. This is where I am finding my comfort, my liberation.
One thought that has sustained me in these past months is the idea that anything that I call good has a pool it originates from. A pool of goodness which contains all the goodness there is. A pool of beauty is the source of all beauty. Even in the bleak winter months, I held onto the concept of Ur-Goodness, Ur-beauty. It didn’t alleviate my misery, but it was something to hold onto when I experienced nothing otherwise of what I would call God.
After returning from this workshop, I looked at my view of God. My habitual view was of a Being who withheld, who was grudging with gifts, grumpy and who for some reason disapproved of me. I saw God as unfair and unfeeling, someone who didn’t care about my suffering. I could see where this view came from – from the god of my upbringing. So I renounced that view again, and said I was sorry to a God I could not see or feel. And I looked more at Suffering, reading the book of Job again.
Here, I found a man who, like me, had expected God to be someone who would reward him for his efforts to do everything right. I’m conscientious. I’m honest. I try to do the right thing all the time. So why should I have to suffer? There is a mathematical equation here. Honesty + hard work + fairness should equal well-being, material comfort and security, I thought. Success. But it seems that honesty + hard work + fairness equals – perhaps – a smoother life for oneself and others than otherwise, but not comfort or security. Success? It depends upon what success is. If success is material comfort and the absence of suffering, the equation doesn’t add up. Somehow, in Job’s struggle, he finally saw who God really is. He saw the majesty, the power of God, and his own utter ignorance and powerlessness. He was left speechless. In the end, all he could say was, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
And that is where I was, with the awareness that I had actually no idea who God is or what God’s purposes are with Peter or with me. I let my anguish and anger at God fall into God’s lap. I said, “I don’t understand this. I don’t like it either. But I’m letting you know this. And I want you to be my friend, God.”
Since then I have felt at peace again, even when I am sad. I know I am living in love, and have been loving Peter all along, in all of this. What more can I do? What greater gift could I give? And where is the pool that love comes from? From Love. God is the pool of love. I have been living in God all this time, even in my anguish.
Now my view of God has to include Suffering. Without allowing Suffering to be part of your life, there is no end to suffering. The only way out is through. And the only way through is to wade in it, sometimes be stuck in it, even to drown in it. We can’t lift ourselves out of Suffering. And Suffering belongs to life just as much as comfort and well-being. Suffering, the thing we all run away from, is one of life’s greatest teachers.
I continue to suffer, probably more than Peter. In his semi-lucid moments he tells me he is content. Yesterday I took him out for ice cream at an Italian ice cream café. He ate it greedily, smearing ice cream over his shorts, his mouth, and the napkins I had spread over his shirt. He ended up coughing half of the strawberries and ice cream up, having a fit in the restaurant that lasted over fifteen minutes. I had wanted to take him on a walk along the Rhine River afterwards. But he was so spent from his coughing fit I took him home after a few minutes. He fell sound asleep in his wheelchair long before we got home. Was it a mistake to give him ice cream and strawberries? He could die if it goes down his windpipe. But a year after a dire warning from the speech diagnostician, that I must not give him solid food, he is still with us. Peter’s eagerness to eat this ice cream shows me he still wants the pleasure of food, even if it should kill him.
This morning, I asked Peter what he wanted to do. Did he want to read the newspaper? Or perhaps play a game on his tablet? Barely able to whisper, he said, “I just want to be with you.” A few seconds later, “I love you, Reenie.”
All questions disappeared. Peter had received my love, and that was all that was needed.