Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Dead, Dying, and Just Hanging On

When my mother turned up in a hospital near my cousin Mara's home, she went to visit her and brought a digital recorder with her because she felt it was important to capture some of the memories that were stored inside her. I haven't seen nor spoken to her since 1979. Most of the time she doesn't want to be found, but this time she had injured herself on a greyhound bus going who the hell knows where and ended up in the hospital.

Mara brought the recording with her when she came to visit. My mother is a stranger to me, someone I vaguely knew once upon a time. I rarely think about her, and  the times I do, it's in a strange sort of historical context because of the life she lived, the events she survived. For most of the disc she spoke in her heavily accented English that's a blend of so many teachers and cultures it's sometimes hard to understand her. But I grew up with it and it was like a jarring music, a bad recording that was scratchy and skipped in places, but I had no trouble understanding it.

I realized as I listened that while she had absolute clarity and recollection of events that took place during the war, she probably couldn't remember what she had for breakfast that morning. She's in her 80's and has numerous health problems, yet every few months she convinces the staff at whatever nursing home my sister puts her in, to turn over the social security check to her instead of keeping it to pay her expenses.

We never know what she tells them to make the staff set aside all common sense and give in to her, but give in they do and she's off again on some bus to some place until the reality of her body's age and weakness once again brings her to the attention of some authority and they call my sister to come and deal with her once more.

So today while I was trying to clean behind a bookshelf I found the disc that had fallen behind it after we listened to it several months ago. I was also listening to the news and heard a story about some old Nazi that had cheated justice by hiding out in Egypt and had died without ever having to account for what he did.

In the hour long conversation my cousin had with her, there's the familiar family story of how she escaped from the camp after the Nazis rounded up all the women in town because they lied and told them the men were gone instead of hidden in attics, closets, mountain villages. She talked about how little she knew about what was happening to her and how they were all so hungry they were glad at first to be arrested because it meant they would get to eat, that the Germans would have to feed them.

She skipped over the part about what caused reality to set in and instead talked about how she escaped, about the young man who had adored her as a teenager and she had dismissed as silly love, and how the Germans had forced him and other men from a neighboring village to be the camp guards. He walked her out of there arm and arm with the Germans all making complimentary remarks about the pretty girlfriend he had. He left her at the boarded up shop of a relative and told her she had to hide behind a row of cabinets and not come out at all for at least thirty days.

No one knew she was there, no one knows how she managed to survive. We always thought her "boyfriend" brought her food and water but on the recording she says that after he left her there she never saw him again, and no matter who she asked after the war, no one knew anything. She said all this in English without messing up any of the words, without even acting as if she were speaking in a language that she learned last after she learned all the other ones.

Until my cousin asked her if she was scared. There was a pause, a very long pause, and then she described the fear that ate at her every second, how the days dragged on, how every sound brought new terror, new certainty that she was about to be discovered and shot on sight. And as I listened, it took me a few minutes to realize she had quit speaking English, as if the memory was so awful that somewhere inside her she reverted back to that time and spoke in the language that was most familiar to her then.

And as I listened to the story of that Nazi's cheating of death today, I thought of the fear she had, the fear that so many had, the number of people who died for reasons that never made sense to me and I hope they never do. I never want to understand how one human can so demonize and dehumanize another that killing them becomes easy, as simple as swatting a fly.

I thought of how close we came in this country to letting the door to that path swing open enough to swallow our humanity once again. The people this time weren't Jews or Gypsies or Homosexuals or Communists. This time they were Arab, Muslim, and sometimes they were guilty of nothing but not being white church going Republicans. Our country did this to people again, just as it did to the Japanese during the second World War. Once again a whole new generation of children will grow up like me listening to horrible stories of what human beings can do to each other to further an ideology, an agenda, a sick and twisted vision.

It depressed me for several hours until I talked myself into believing once more that the paradigm has again shifted and hate is offensive to many of us now, it doesn't work as well as it did a few years ago, it doesn't make us look away and pretend we have nothing to do with the evil done in our names.

And like many times when I try and convince myself we are better than our actions reveal us to be, I found myself briefly hoping that this time that believe will last a few more days longer until finally it joins together and becomes a consistent truth.

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1 comment:

Windyridge said...

This was an excellent story.