An encounter in the stairwell

Among Neighbors, we greet one another politely, during an encounter. That’s common in Germany. It’s usually done with a pleasing gesture, changing a few phrases, then everyone goes their way. Germans don’t like to appear “snooping.” Scuttlebutt in the stairwell is frowned upon around here.

Recently I met my neighbor – as often before – in the stairwell. His name is Franz. For some time now, we have been addressing each other on a first name base. I call him “Franz” and he calls me “Arthur.” When we see each other, we chat sometimes; but rather briefly. Our conversation is usually concise. I always talk more than he does. Franz prefers the silent way, he listens.

Franz and I – a typical door on door relationship

We’ve lived next door to each other for ten years. So far, I thought I knew a lot about Franz’s life. Things you know of when you live next door for ten years.  For example, that Franz is single. He spends a lot of his time at home. Oh, and he’s also little taciturn. He seems to have no life partner – no family. If you never have visitors at home, you probably don’t have a family. I often thought to myself: “Sure, a likable loner, one who has never sailed into the harbor of marriage.  It’s nothing special. These things happen all the time.

The usual short meeting in the staircase was different today, and it lasted a little longer. I felt that Franz was troubled by something he wanted to get off his heart. So, I decided to stop and listen to him. I did what we do far too little among ourselves; I gave my neighbor the gift of a bit of my time. Moreover, lo and behold, I learned something about him, which surprised me very much.

Family – if you have one hold them tight

“Family – that’s too small a word for such a big meaning. Duties – Joys – Cohesion. All for one – one for all. Till death do us part. These promises are not always easy to keep. Today, families have become more diverse, more difficult, but sometimes also a thing of the past. Indispensable? In most cases yes! Some crises are waiting around the corner. If you insist avoiding family crises and believe that everything is too complicated to cope with – if you are looking for distraction because you see the grass on the other side greener than at home, in your own stable, the plague already has you tight on your toes”.

Sounds like wisdom, I thought. My neighbor had made me ponder with his testimony. I wasn’t even aware that I was looking at him with questioning eyes. My looks must have seemed quite surprised. Why else did he approach me spontaneously with this topic on the fly? I was wondering what I was getting myself into?

The acoustics between the stairwells was terrible, and I couldn’t understand everything my neighbor was saying, because the sentences he was breathing in front of him had remained weak and infrequent. Before all his words could reach my ears, most of them reverberated in the stairwell.  Just a moment ago we said hello to each other, like friends passing by, only as always and then suddenly this: The plague, what did he mean by that? Now my attention was on him. I grabbed my chin and kept looking at him bewildered. He seemed to understand my body language, and it didn’t take long for him to answer: “The plague is that lust and passion that separates you from your family,” he muttered to himself as if he had guessed why I stood there in front of him in such amazement. He can read minds, a voice stirred in me, which was again interrupted by him: “Lust and passion are also a family,” he said. He looked me directly in the eyes and stepped a little closer. Suddenly his voice became very loud. I had to flinch involuntarily. His look – my God, how frightening – this look pierced me and struck me through bones and marrow. Also, this withered, right forefinger he instructed me with. Franz now came closer to me, swinging his finger up and down like a warning pendulum. How menacing that looked. Somehow this index finger reminded me of the pendulum of a metronome and its monotonically striking ticking beat; it had something potentially explosive, like a time bomb. While I became nervous, he turned out to be more emotional. What a performance. Franz had managed to transform our staircase into a surreal-looking backdrop. Intimidated and frightened I stood there and puzzled, what should I do?

“The family of the plague of lust and passion is unsustainable. Imagine, they even have children. Many,” he now shouted angrily: “Intoxication conceived the eldest child. It’s called “uninhibited.  She has a lot of brothers and sisters without restraint. They too were all impregnated in an emotional state of ecstasy under manic circumstances. Their names are: unstable, excitable, lustful, sensual, unrestrained, erotic and undisciplined. I can’t list them all here; there are so many of them. They always come when they are sure, that you don’t want them, but still secretly and silently lust for them. They’re the anti-family with the Lolita face that always ends up grimacing once you get in their clutches.”

What a one-sided dialogue. Now I did not want to listen anymore. However, something within me did not permit me to be rude. Franz continued insisting on persuading me: “I never held on and therefore lost – what should not have gone lost. I’ve thought about it a lot. I regret what I realized too late. Appreciating in old age what I have learned in essence – adapting to the changed reality of life. There is no point in arguing with what can no longer be changed.

A flint without a detonator

My body language seemed to stimulate him further. He now left everything that was dammed up inside of him bubbling like a waterfall. How paralyzed I was, listened to him until his voice had become softer and weaker again. He was almost seventy. His gaze seemed a little distant. Sad and a little petrified. Deep wrinkles marked his atrophied face. I had never seen him like that before. Francis the unfortunate bachelor? That he had gotten married previously, had a young family and left them one day, I learned for the first time at that moment. The scraps of words touched me in his newly weakening voice. Again, I had a hard time understanding him. Empathy stimulates the imagination. That’s when I started to paint a picture in my head about the state of my neighbor’s soul. Suddenly a flashing thought signaled to me the word “longing.”

My neighbor slope trapped in a painful rift of longing for warmth, that unique warmth that knows nothing else but benevolent cordiality and friendship, missing the effect of a flint-stone that ignites the spark, from which the feeling of a supportive community arouses. Its igniter is called “family.” Moreover, that’s what my neighbor missed. He had become a “fiery stone without a detonator.” Franz had no family!

Now I knew a lot. These are strong emotions, I thought. While touching my head, I had to swallow. Nobody can improvise such drama. Suddenly everything was clear. My neighbor is not only an emotional, intelligent person; he also has two hearts beating in his chest. One heart love uninhibited freedom and the other longs for warmth and security. At the merging of these two elements, his life broke apart.  Even though he said that he had come to terms with his destiny and did not want to quarrel, his gestures were not convincing.

I was glad that I had not become rude and took the time, to give my ear for a moment to my neighbor on the staircase. Patiently I continued to listen, thinking of an experience I had many years ago. It still touches me, because it is about family, mothers and sons and the incredible longing for benevolent warmth – the love that emanates from mothers. It is also about how much we must recognize and appreciate what we still have, what can be lost at any time, often much too late identified.

Just like it happened to my neighbor, who took the stoniest path of all, to learn from it much too late. Before that happens, we always have a chance to decide for or against something. Sometimes, however, we are not asked, and fate abruptly takes something particularly valuable away from us. A child, a mother, a person we love especially.

Can you live uninhibited freedom at all if you risk the warmth and security of your family? Alternatively, is family happiness also possible under conditions of limited freedom? If so, then real happiness lived in the community of a family is in and of itself a rare double delight, that surpasses by far the biggest lottery prize of all times.

Perhaps we find the answer in a quote by Albert Schweitzer, who once said: “Happiness is the only thing that doubles when you share it.” I ask you, dear readers, where else do we share more (and yes – even argue about it) than in a family? Nevertheless – if we have them, we should think carefully before putting the family’s existence at risk. Don’t we know when we could lose it forever?

In the following lines, I tell about two events, from real life. They show us why it is important to pay our full attention to family and fellow human beings.

An experience in Lourdes

It was in May 2008, and I was once again in Lourdes. This time the city presented itself differently than usual: hectic, full and excited. No wonder, because they celebrated the 150th anniversary of Our Lady, as she had once appeared to Saint Bernadette. My American pilgrim group, which I had taken over the day before, consisted mainly of older women and only a few men, as usual. They had had an arduous journey behind them and were tired. Only a few people could hear each other talking and talking. Two of them, however, did not seem to have bothered the exertions of the journey. They were a strange couple. She, a well-groomed elderly lady, spoke with a calm voice and a never-ending smile, full of kindness. He, however, her son, as I learned later, was a discussion-joyful, even belligerent person. He was tall and dark-haired, and his grey temples shone. He was lean, his nose pointed, and his silver rim glasses made an intellectual impression. He was estimated to be in his mid-forties, smiled little and had a sharp verbal foil with his mother. They constantly talked – at least that’s what it seemed to me – albeit quietly and discreetly. Mostly Jim, so he was called, involved his mother again and again in lengthy discussions, so that they had already attracted the attention of the whole group after a few hours. Jim, a professor of literature, as I heard later, seemed to keep arguing with his mother. Sometimes they whispered, sometimes they gestured violently – one way or another, it made a disagreeable impression on me. For two days I looked at these tête-à-têtes before I decided to talk to them. As we stood in front of the Rosary Basilica and I tried to explain what this was all about, they fell into another argument. I took them both gently by the arms and asked them in a whisper: “You are mother and son, aren’t you?” “Yes, why?” they both asked a little annoyed. “Excuse me, it’s none of my business, but I’ve been watching you argue a lot since yesterday.” “Can’t we?” asked the son, slightly irritated. “Of course, but you should think about how lucky you two are to be together still.” They looked at me a little uncomprehendingly. “You know, there are other mother-son relationships.” “So-so, what are you thinking about?” “Oh, just two days ago I experienced something I’d best tell you so you’d understand what I mean. Hold on a second.” After visiting the basilica, we had a short break in which we sat down for a chat in a café. “How do I start? So it’s two people like you, mother and son, but let me tell you from the beginning. It was the day before yesterday, Friday, when I left for the airport early in the morning. I was up very early. Soon after five o’clock in the morning I turned off the beeping alarm clock and swung myself tiredly out of bed. At 7:00 o’clock my plane was to leave for Paris, and I still had a few things to arrange. I could have breakfast later on the plane, but now answer a few e-mails and complete packing my travel bag. While I was standing and drinking a cup of coffee, I could already see the taxi ordered for 5:45 am stopping almost silently in front of my window. I waved to the driver, closed my front door, went down, and we left. Shortly after 6:00 o’clock I entered the departure hall in Frankfurt, checked in, went to the gate and saw that the boarding was already in full swing. I didn’t have to hurry, because my seat, a window seat of all places, was right at the front this time, in the fifth row. As one of the last passengers, I entered the plane and saw from afar that someone was sitting in my row. It was an elderly noble lady. She was sitting in the aisle, so I had to ask her to get up and let me take my place. “Excuse me,’ I said, ‘may I offer you my window seat?’ She lifted her head, and now I saw her dark, full hair, which she had brought into a very noble form. However, I also saw the look on her face and eyes. Pain and sorrow I read in it, rapture and the desire to be left alone. It took a moment for her to answer: ‘Thank you very much’, she said sluggishly,’but I’d rather sit here in the hallway.’ “As I was squeezing past her, I could see her more closely. She may have been about 75 years old; her clothes were of timeless elegance, distinguished but not necessarily expensive. All in all, a phenomenon that is rarely seen on airplanes these days, where there are so many young people and business travelers. So I took a seat at the window and – yes, I have to admit it – it was a little sad to see, that the hope of a conversation satisfying my curiosity had thwarted. We started, had breakfast and were silent. The space between us seemed to be a kilometer wide. No look on her part, no attempted connection on my part. After about an hour the landing approach to Charles de Gaulle’ began, and I got already busy with my connecting flight to Lourdes, where I wanted to take over you, i.e., your American group of pilgrims, around noon. The plane still rolled to its stop position, where most of the passengers were already standing and opened the storage boxes to take out their bags and coats. When I also made arrangements to get up, she looked at me briefly and gave me the passageway. I had my little bag in my hand and was standing next to her. We waited like everyone else for the doors to open and each of us to fall out to move forward. I had long since given up hope of talking to her and casually said: ‘I’m in a bit of a hurry. I can’t miss my connecting flight. I have to be at Lourdes in two hours.’ And then I added a sentence that set the ball rolling: ‘Do you still have to fly’? She looked at me with a petrified face and then said,’Yes, I still have to go to South America, to Bogotá, to my son.’ She took a short break while I looked right into her eyes. ‘My son is dying. It is my last journey to him.’ Spontaneously I grabbed her hands, pressed them firmly and said to her:’You must be strong now. You want to tell me about your son?’ Moreover, now, in the next five minutes, it took so long until the disembarkation began, it bubbled out of her as if a dam had broken. She comes from Mainz, and in 1982 one of her two sons emigrated to Colombia. At that time, he was determined to become a pilot but saw no chance of doing so in Germany. A fellow student of her husband had already established a foothold in Bogotá in the 1950s, and he was said to be able to establish contact with AVIANCA Airlines, Colombia’s largest airline. However, everything turned out very differently. His plan to become a pilot soon disintegrated, and instead, he founded an electronics store that quickly flourished. He married, had children and soon became a respected and prosperous businessman. Our son visited us as often as he could. Sometimes he came alone; sometimes he brought his family. We had the feeling that he was doing well and leading a happy family life. That’s the way it was. He was tall, sporty and healthy. Everything was going well until…’ Here she took a break, but now she wanted to finish her story, I noticed, and so she went on: ‘During a routine examination a doctor diagnosed him with lymphoma, seven months ago.’

Lymphoma is a collective term for a disease of the lymph gland tissue. There are almost ten different variants of this disease, from harmless to fatal. However, his doctors gave the all-clear-sign’, she now quickly continued. It is not malignant, and with a tablet treatment, he can quickly recover. My son relied on the doctors’ assessment and took the disease less seriously. However,’ – and here she stopped for a moment, ‘he had unfortunately caught a very malignant form of this insidious disease.’ She now let her head hang again. She said what she wanted to say, and now it was out. She was silent, very moved inside. At this moment I could not keep silent anymore and I reached for her hands again: `You have a difficult task ahead of you’, I said. ‘Maybe the hardest one of your life. See it as a privilege to accompany your son in his most important, his most difficult hour. Your son needs you now!’ I hugged her and continued: ‘I’m sure when it’s all over when you’re home and mourned, your son will get back to you in some way. From this grief, I am quite sure, something beautiful will develop. I don’t know if you are a believer but go with God in confidence’. I still don’t know where I got this inspiration from, but it sounded so convincing, not only for me but also for her. Her eyes suddenly lost their dull rapture. She had returned to reality. She now pressed both my hands and thanked me exuberantly for my sympathy. All this happened, I swear, in less than five minutes. They had just passed, and we started to exit the plane.

When we had left the gangway and were to part ways, I gave her my card and said at the end: ‘I will pray for your son and you at the Apparition Grotto in Lourdes and light a candle there. Farewell and greet your son’. So we parted. “That’s terrible.” It was Jim’s mother who first found her language again. “I’d like to know what happened to her. You should contact her when you return to Germany,” she said to me. Jim, the eloquent intellectual, fell into silence. I had achieved what I wanted. Both behaved completely differently in the following days. They were reserved and friendly and made every effort to revise the impression they had given of themselves. However, as it is, once you get to know each other, you are somehow more familiar with each other, and so it did not surprise me at all that I often talked to Jim and his mother in the following days. They told me about their home and Jim about his work. I told them what I spent the summer months on, so we got to know each other. When we had to split up after a week, we felt a bid sad, so we arranged to stay in touch. When Jim said goodbye to me he said, “Arthur, as soon as you know what happened to the woman and her son in Colombia, you must send me an e-mail.” Moreover, with this, he gave me his card. We said goodbye, and I promised them I’d get back to them. I flew back to Frankfurt and had a lot to do in the next few days, but I kept thinking about this trip to Lourdes. On June 15th, three weeks later, I received an e-mail from the woman from the plane. Her name is Marlies K., and she wrote this:

Dear Mr. Pahl, thank you once again for the important conversation on the plane and for lighting a candle for us in Lourdes. The meeting with you was as good as a conversation with a priest that I would have wished for that day. I’ve only been back in Germany for a few hours now, and my first e-mail is for you. Yes, my son is dead! It’s painful to say. He died the night of Sunday to Monday, June 9th. His last words were “Hello, Mummy.” It was not easy for me, but your kind words helped me a lot for the most laborious task a mother has to accomplish in life. My husband could not be there, which made him very sad, but he has cancer himself and is still in rehab. I don’t know how much our son’s death will affect the healing process of my husband, but I fear for the bad. Of course, my grief is great, sometimes unbearable, and I always ask myself: Dear God, why me? Three days after my arrival in Bogota, my younger son managed to come to Bogotá to. With combined forces, we succeeded in bringing Achim home from the hospital, terminally ill. We wanted him to spend his last days with his family. Day and night I didn’t leave his side, but it didn’t help. After all, he died peacefully. Three days later, we buried him. Goodbye, and if you have time, give me a call in Mainz. Your Marlies K.

Meanwhile, I have already called her, and we have agreed that I will visit her and her husband in autumn when I have more time, and she has already overcome a little bit of her grief. The very same day I received this email from Mrs. Köhler, I kept my promise and sent this email with a few descriptive words from me to Jim, who answered just a few hours later.

Dear Arthur, thank you very much for keeping your promise so quickly, but I must confess that, given its content, I would have liked you not to have received it. We were very, very sad. My mom and I, believe me, were paralyzed. We sat together for hours, drank tea, remained silent, looked at each other and tried to process what had already emerged in Lourdes: the fact that we had become aware of what it means for a son to have his mother with on his side and for her to experience her son healthy and a live next to her. We have become different people through our encounter with you. It may not mean anything special to you, but a lot has changed for us. Thank you very much for that. We won’t forget this.

In the meantime, ten years have passed, and I am on the road again almost without a break. However, from every journey, a little memory remains back in my heart. Usually, it’s people I’ve met and their fates they tell me. Now and then God is kind enough to give me some of them as friends. Just like my neighbor Franz. Since that conversation in the stairwell, things have changed between us. We’ve gotten closer. When I see him, I no longer walk past him with a familiar phrase on my lips, no, I stop, stretch out my hand and smile at him. I ask him if he has time for a cup of coffee and invite him.  If he agrees and says yes, then I go ahead, open my apartment door, ask him to come in and sit down in the living room chair. It happens a lot now. Yes, Franz and I have become friends. It struck me that he is not as much of a loner as I always thought.

Friends are like family, just as valuable and vital. Sometimes, like now with my neighbor and me, friendship can become a useful substitute for the family that you don’t have for whatever reason. What counts is the will to do what is right, so that we help each other to share happiness, that we all strive to share among ourselves.

How beautiful life can be, I think now and then, when one facilitates some-ones grief with a conversation in the right place, with a small gesture to your fellow friend or neighbor. It is something, that makes them realize, how beautiful it is not to be alone in this world.

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