My neighbour’s story

Our neighbour was an old lady, a veritable cat lover. She lived in an old wooden house with stag’s antlers over the entrance. She was an original and sometimes not nice at all. But when everything was in order, she could be very funny and tell exciting stories, which were so old that one could read about them in history books.

She had once been an opera singer and travelled the whole world, had seen and experienced a lot, had met many famous people of her time. Once she told me that when she had pain, and unfortunately that happened ever more frequently, she hated everybody, herself included.

If I met her at such a time, I should not expect her to return my greeting. She said that the magic limit was about 70. Until then the body could keep pace with the head. Then the head develops a will of its own and pulls away from the body. In her head she was still 30 years old with dreams, wishes and ideas, but her body was wasting and letting her down. She wasn’t particularly sad when she had told me this, but somehow my throat narrowed and I felt quite dejected.

Then one day she fell down in her house on the wooden staircase and broke her hip and had to go into hospital. I visited her there and found a different woman. Not only a bone was broken. She held my hand with both of hers, tears stood in her eyes and she said repeatedly that she wanted to go home and not into a nursing home. I enquired of the nurse what was wrong and she told me that my neighbour would probably never walk again and be confined to a wheelchair. My neighbour’s house was old and not at all wheelchair-friendly. Even if she had enough money, how could this old, helpless lady convert her house from her sickbed, so that she had any chance at all of returning home. And even if everything could work, could she live alone in a wheelchair, remote as we are? I understood the hopelessness of the situation. And I too could not help.

What she was so afraid of happened and she was moved to a nursing home. The nursing home is not far away from us, so that I could visit her occasionally. She had also recovered a little, but her will to live didn’t really recover. It was a sad spectacle to see her so broken. Her granddaughter moved into her house. That was the first time that I discovered that she must also have children. Until then I had had no idea of her family, because she never spoke about it. The house awoke to new life. Coloured lamps were hung up in the garden and on the balcony, music sounded out of the open windows and in the morning one could see the remains of a garden party.

Then my neighbour died and as I was not a relative, I never discovered why. When it happened, I was on holiday and on my return she had already been buried. I learned that her daughter inherited the house. After a short while the excavators moved in and all that was left of the old wooden house was a heap of rubble. Instead a multi-family house with several apartments was built. No-one from the family moved in. All the apartments were let, although it took a relatively long time. I wondered why and looked at the rental platform. When I saw the monthly rent, I was almost struck dead. My God! they were exorbitant. Now it was also clear why some of the apartments were still empty. But after nine months they had all eventually found a tenant.

We would all like to die at home, when one day the time comes. Fall asleep in the evening and never wake up. For only very few is this dream fulfilled. It worked with my grandfather, all my other grandparents died in hospital. Somewhere, where, like my neighbour, they never wanted to be and although I and my parents made every effort, we couldn’t change it.

When I think of the inevitable, of what remains of each of us, it is less the matter, but the intangible values  we have created and passed on. But how one can communicate this insight credibly to a 20-year old, I don’t know either.

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