Understanding What Matters

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Hello from JFK,

For the second time in 5 months, after not being out of the country in almost a quarter century, I am leaving for another country. This time Germany and Poland. I am hoping to get some research done on George’s background and the places he lived. I am actually in Berlin and it is Tuesday, December 30th. It is about 3:15 a.m. Pennsylvania time and I have not yet slept. The flight was an hour late getting out of NY and I knew my connection was tight; so, of course, I missed my connecting flight to Kraków by literally three minutes. So I am sitting in the Berlin Tegel Flughafen für die nächsten sieben Stunden. I have gotten some walking in around the airport, but I am starting to fade. It is about 6:05 Pennsylvania time and I did not sleep. Though I would love to close my eyes, I am afraid I would sleep through the only remaining flight of the day. . . .

Good morning on December 31st, the last day of the year from Kraków, a historic city in Southern Poland. I remember the first day in Europe in late 1980. I was a much younger man, and I knew a little German, but I felt so isolated because I knew so little of the language. At least in other place, I could look at signs and get some idea of what I might have been considering, but it is certainly not as easy. Then there is the punctuation issue and the different letters with little tails or lines through them, which means they are pronounced differently. I wish I could merely absorb languages and know them immediately. As I walked around the city center, where I have a small studio apartment for the week, it was so interesting to listen to the people and try to make out even a little bit of what they were saying. I did hear people speaking English and some others speaking German, so that was a bit of a bright spot. Robert and I made plans for Katarzyna, his significant other person, him and I to spent New Year’s Eve at a really cool pub just close to the main square. The people are out in mass getting ready to celebrate the turning of the calendar and there were markets and marathon runners and a wide variety of people. We did run into Maria and some of the other people here in the Polish Winterterm class. It was really a treat to meet one of my favorite students in her home town. While walking around, I saw the window where Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, and later Pope John Paul II, used to give his homily or greetings. I also saw in a cathedral close by where he gave his confessions. The city center is a spectacular place and being back in Europe after almost a quarter of a century is one of the best decisions I have made in a long time.

It is now New Year’s Day and there are still some fireworks going off even though it is about 10:30 at night. I spent most of the day, the remainder of the the last day of the year, with Robert and Katarzyna as we went to the place called Dobry Kumpel (which is translated Good Friends), for our New Year’s Eve. It was a wonderful time. It was a small underground sort of a pub and there were not a lot of people there, though the town was packed. The other nice thing was no one was drunk, stupid, or loud. Today, January 1st, we went out to eat at a wonderful Italian Restaurant. It was sort of fun to have both a Polish and an English menu and try to compare. I worked on my Polish pronunciation skills. They are pretty sad, but both Katazyna and Robert are kind. Otherwise it was a pretty quiet day and I worked on my syllabi.  . . .

I have been awake since about 3:05 this morning, though I might have fallen asleep somewhere around 7:30-8:00 for a bit. It is now about 9:30 in the morning and while I should begin with a greeting of Happy New Year’s and so there you have it, I received the call I have been expecting each day since I left Lydia’s bedside last Friday night. She passed away last night around 8:00 p.m., but she died peacefully and Nathan was there with her (I will put the time of publication for this at the time Lydia passed). I am grateful for both things. What an amazing woman she was. If you have been reading the blog as of the past month or so, you have learned something of her. It was ironic that on New Year’s Eve, I was in the church where the former Polish Pope John Paul II actually went for confession when he would return to his homeland. I lit a votive candle for Lydia and prayed that she might finally find peace and that George might come to take her home. It is also ironic that I did it in his homeland. Perhaps that all helped. While one cannot be sure of such things, and I am well aware that some might dismiss such things, it was something that I felt compelled to do on her behalf. There were phone calls, what’sapp messages and other texts to try to get things managed from 6,000 miles away. I spoke with Carissa this morning around 6:00 and she also filled me in on her last couple of days. It sounds like the last day and a half she was in that in between state of this world and the next. Nathan told me that he was holding her hand as she passed and that is really a wonderful thing. I am glad he has been with me on this journey. He is a good man.

What an amazing life she and George lived and what tremendous things they accomplished together. While I am glad that she was so aware of things and how she planned and orchestrated things in her life is an entirely separate story. I think she was in charge of things up to the very end. She made it into the new year, and while she did not pass on Christmas, she passed on the first day of the new year. That will be something to remember and something hard to forget, just as she herself is. It is now my goal to get the story written. It is something I need to do to give back for what she has given. What is it she has given . . .  there are all the things that one might see, but what she actually gave was something of much greater value. She allowed me to see her when she was actually vulnerable; she allowed me to see her heart and the love she was capable of giving. She had learned to be protective of her heart because she was afraid because of her small stature and her accent. The fact that I could speak German with her broke down one of those barriers and the fact that I could always understand her when she spoke meant a great deal to her. The fact that I let her have her way more often than I perhaps should have also did something. I remember people being angry with me because she had become such a central part of my life. There is truth to the fact that I let her control more than I perhaps should have, but I had become her family. What was important is she realized that I loved her. I remember the day I left to move to Pennsylvania and she and Erica stood at the top of the drive way. I had to pull over a couple of blocks away because I was crying. Each time I would pull out of the driveway she would wave goodbye to me. When I returned from any trip or even from school that day, she was there to greet me and her smile was infectious. Even though she always argued she took terrible pictures, she had the most radiant smile and amazing blue eyes. When I left her a week ago this evening, I told her as I cried on her shoulder that she was my mother and that I loved her so much. I was sobbing and she was rubbing my head. She opened her eyes and whispered, “I know.” As I am writing this, I have to stop because I cannot see through my glasses or more correctly, through the tears.

What matters one might ask? What matters is that God saw fit to allow me to be given yet another parent. What matters is that we loved each other and that I have been so blessed to have her in my life. What matters is that she passed peacefully, without pain, and yet still on her terms. She made me promise that there would be no IVs, tubes, or other measures and that is how it was. What matters now is that I live a life that might make her proud of me and that I will work to complete the dream of writing a novel about George and her, which, though fictional, will provide some sense of the phenomenal group of people they represent, those people who were displaced by the atrocities that were, and are, a significant part of 20th century Europe. A story that depicts the work ethic and spirit they had as they came to America hoping to create a new life. The irony that I write this sitting in Poland, George’s homeland, is not lost on me. The irony that I am visiting Auschwitz on Sunday is also not lost on me because George had escaped from one of the other notorious camps, Dachau.

As I continue to write, the sun has broken through after a day and a half of clouds and is streaming into my little apartment where I am writing away and preparing for yet another semester. I believe the sun is a reminder that more than merely feeling sadness, I need to rejoice when I think of her amazing life. Lydia, did this same sort of preparation, though not on the computer. There are boxes of her notes on her study. She was a brilliant professor and she cared passionately about other people learning. She is sort of like Sr. Galan in that way. She wanted people to think and ponder. She never tired of learning. It is unfair and tragic that she had to be afflicted with the terrible disease of dementia. She knew four languages. She understood so much about the world. She actually knew what mattered and she taught me.

Lydia,

Mit meinem ganzen Herzen liebe ich dich, und ich danke dich. Du bist jetzt mein Schutzengel, und ich verspreche mein Bestes zu tun, deinen Job zu schwierig nicht zu machen.

To the rest of you, thank you for reading.

Michael (the grateful son)

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