My friend Joachim, Josef and Marlies’ son, was diagnosed with cancer in October 2010. When his wife, Kristine, told me the news, I was struck dumb.
Joachim and I had been together as friends for over 25 years. He was, in many ways, my soul mate. He had prospered, a determined and sharp academic whose career shined among his colleagues. I had fallen into dissolution, drinking myself nearly to death. But he never let me down, never told me anything but the truth of my condition. I would fail at everything I tried, he said, unless I got the drinking under control.
When I sobered up, he cheered me on. We would go months without talking or E-mailing. But then we’d get together and within minutes, start finishing each other’s sentences. I knew Joachim like I knew and understood no one else. The same held true in reverse.
I made plans to go to Berlin as soon as I could. When I visited in January 2011, he was learning how to use the right side of his body and brain again. He had been through two surgeries. The first resulted in infection and swelling that left him unable to see, hear, or speak. For three weeks, his disease cut him off from the rest of the world. When the infection subsided and the swelling in the wound went down, he came out of his isolation. He believed, he told me, that the period of his incapacity was his death. Anything after was life, and he was glad to live it.
I stayed with him and Kristine in Berlin for five days. Joachim had physical and occupational rehabilitation every day from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. He worked on physical and motor skills, and then on intellectual development, the tumor having damaged the language and problem-solving parts of his brain. He worked in English and in German, English sometimes coming to him easier than his native tongue. The first evening found us talking about his various rehab strategies and how they treated him at the rehab facility. But, in a quiet moment, our discussion turned serious.
“Joachim,” I said, “I have to ask about what Americans call the elephant in the room. Can I ask you some serious questions?” We were speaking German. He spoke slowly and with determination.
“You want to know about how I feel about all this,” he said.
“What will happen if you receive your powers back, if you beat this thing?”
“I have received an offer from the University in Trier to join the faculty in the economics department. The Institute made me a counter offer to keep me here. I now have an academic appointment at the Berlin Technical University and can take graduate students to direct their theses and dissertations. They have offered me a greater salary. The position is not as prestigious as that in Trier. But I’ve had to ask myself whether I want to go to Trier from a city that I love.
“The most important thing is my family,” he continued. “The girls have their friends here. Kristine loves living in the city and she has a fine, permanent position in Pankow (A suburb of Berlin). In the end, it is a decision we all make, and I think, unless the terms of the Trier position changes, we will stay in Berlin.”
“What happens if you don’t get your abilities back, if you wind up permanently disabled?”
“We’ll have to see, won’t we?”
“What happens if you don’t make it? If the tumor comes back or new cancer spreads? God forbid. But I can’t help but think, in the back of my head, that I will lose you someday. What will happen to me?”
“Listen to me.” He looked at me with those eyes that always smiled. They twinkled in the soft light of the living room. Kristine had gone upstairs to let us talk, between friends, without any other interference. “After my first operation to remove the tumor, the swelling cut me off for three weeks. I couldn’t see, hear, or talk. I was alone and isolated. That was when I died. The isolation alone was hellish. I had no idea what went on around me. I couldn’t even feel if anyone was around. But I was conscious, fully awake. Do you know what that might be like?”
“I cannot even imagine.” I said.
“It was like death,” I think. “It was death. That was when I died for the first time. I consider myself lucky. It’s not often that a man gets to die twice in his lifetime.”
He laughed. He made me feel that my questions only passed between friends who had known and understood each other for a long time.
“Every day I have between now and the next time I die, well, each represents an entire lifetime. I want you to feel that, not just now, but every day you live. I only have what I know, and what I know right now is that tomorrow I will go to rehab and try to gain more strength. I will do the puzzles and my language exercises. I will come home and take a nap, as I did today, and then you and I will spend another evening talking. That’s what matters to me.
“As to your loss, Patrick, I understand. But we all have to die sometime. You must try to be with me on this. We have each other right now. Everything that’s happened to us in this life leads right to this conversation.”
For the next few days, we sat evenings and watched soccer matches. We sat in the living room eating chocolates and talking with Kristine and his daughter Katherina. His other daughter Anna was on exchange with a family in Uruguay. We looked at pictures from family vacations and from times he and I traveled together in the United States. We talked about his disease and what it might mean for his future, but his optimism never flagged. We went over his accomplishments at the German Institute for Economic Research, which were many. For me, I was happy to be with my friend, to talk frankly and in ways that we never had before. When he went to bed, I walked from his house into the broad parks surrounding his house. I walked miles through the streets of Alt-Reinickendorf, and then out along where the Wall once stood. The nights were bracing, but not as cold as the Midwest in the middle of the winter. The moon was up that week and I walked through the forests and parkways without help of a flashlight.
All the time, I could only think of my friend. I hoped the best for him but had to face the fact that only a small percentage of people with his kind of brain cancer survived more than a few months, even after surgeries and chemotherapy. Simultaneously, I was glad to be there, happy to be close to my friend and his family. During the day while Joachim was at rehab, Kristine showed me around Berlin. We went to the Berlin Wall Memorial, where I tried to imagine the terrible dictatorship that led to its construction. We went for coffee and took long walks.
Each evening, I sat with Joachim. The day I left Berlin was the last time I saw him. Over five years later, I think of my friend almost daily. I miss him. I admit, I was selfish. I didn’t want him to die, in part, because of what I would lack. I miss the phone calls and the E-mails. I’m still sad that I will never get one of his grand hugs.
Some of this will fade as the years go by. Joachim will become a good memory. But I always think about what he said. Everything we go through leads us to the conversation we are having right now.