Below is the epilogue from my new book, Ferment: A Memoir of Mental Illness, Redemption, and Winemaking in the Mosel
The most diabolical trick biology has played on us: When we are young, time passes so slowly. When we gain a little wisdom and experience, time flies by.
As soon as I blink, the week is over. It seems like it’s always Sunday and I’m getting ready for the work week. The thirty-four years since I first landed in Germany will pale next to the coming twenty, the good years I figure I have left if I don’t eat myself to death, if I can steer wide of the bottle and live a sober life, if I stay on my medication and avoid hanging myself.
It’s been easy lately. My doctor and I have landed on a medicine regimen that has ended the “breakthrough” episodes of depression and mania. I haven’t had a serious break for at least four years.
Being on the beam is nice. Big events, changes, and difficulties don’t spin me out of control anymore. I have never been more productive. One can never tell, however, when the chemistry of the brain will change and I’ll be thrown into the tortures of manic depression. Drug adjustments and readjustments, new coping skills will be necessary. But for now, I can say I’ve never in my life lived a steadier emotional, mental, and productive time.
I went back to Wawern, Germany, in May 2019 on the expressed purpose of staying with my good friends Josef and Marlies. I had not seen them in almost five years.
Time has been good to them. They remain remarkably healthy for their eighty-five and ninety years but note that they don’t do what they used to. Josef greatly reduced the size of his garden and sold his orchard because it was too much for him. We spent a good deal of time in the garden and he was glad to have a helper. When Marlies and I took her daily walks of several kilometers, we strolled at her best pace, which, unlike in years previous, I was able to keep up with.
Marlies had generously invited me to have friends come by to overnight. Udo came in his work van from Reutlingen. The American writer Eddy Harris came via bus and train from his home in the west of France. I was afraid three strapping men in their fifties and early sixties would be too much for Josef and Marlies. But they enjoyed their three days with Udo, Eddy, and me. Josef and Marlies told the stories of their youth, of their meeting and marriage over sixty-five years before, of their children and life in the old Weingut.
Between our long conversations with the Fricks, Eddy, Udo, and I had busy days. We walked up into the vineyard above the town, as I had done many times with Joachim and Josef and Marlies. I had to show my friends vistas that influenced my way of looking at the world. We talked of my time in Germany, life in the Saarstrasse, and of the opera singer.
One afternoon, we drove Udo’s van to Schengen, Luxemburg, to visit my winemaker friend Paul Legill and tour his small winery. Standing in his cozy tasting room, atmospheric with soft lighting and bottles illuminated in small arched openings in the walls, he shared some vintages with Eddy and Udo. Conversation flowed without hindrance as Paul and I caught up and Eddy and Udo got to know Paul a little. Languages flew about the space. Paul speaks French, German, and a little English; Eddy French; and Udo German, English, and some French. I had only written to Paul twice in the five years since I’d seen him last.
“The great thing about you, Patrick,” Paul said. “Every time we get together, even when it’s been years, we pick up exactly where we left off, like you were never gone.”
After Paul took us out to dinner, we drove back to Wawern, winding through lonely villages that had gone inside for the night, windows glowing, lone streetlights illuminating the darkness.
Udo, Eddy, and I went into Trier the next day. I’d thought I’d want some time to see corners and niches I had not seen in thirty-plus years. But walking through the Palastgarten and into the center of town with my two friends, I somehow lost that necessity. Everything was much smaller and more compact that I remembered.
We met our old friend from the Saarstrasse, Stephan Weinert, who worked near the cathedral for the church’s radio station. Udo and Stephan had not seen each other in almost thirty years. We sat around a table at an old restaurant near the center of Trier for a lively chat—catching up and exploring new avenues of friendship. Udo and Stephan didn’t leave Eddy out of the conversation. After two and a half hours, Stephan had to get back to work. On our way back to the car, Udo, Eddy, and I stopped in at the stained-glass restoration firm where Udo had done his apprenticeship and earned his Meister. He still knew people who worked there, including the director. One of Udo’s old workmates took us on a tour of the firm—the offices, workshop, and an attic that contained the rolled-up plans of every window the firm had restored in over a century of existence.
The day Udo and Eddy had to leave, we moved slowly, dreading goodbyes. Udo was reflective and quiet. As time neared for him to leave that afternoon, he had tears in his eyes, his voice cracking and halting. We stood in the street waving after him until he turned the corner. Marlies gave me a hug and told me how great my friends were. Later that evening, Josef drove Eddy to the Kanzem train stop. As I put him on the train, he, too, teared up. Whether from having to depart the Fricks’ unending hospitality or not knowing when we would see each other again, I sent Udo and Eddy off to their own lives, where we would be connected with e-mails and telephone calls. Who knows but when we meet again in person, we will be old men.
I spent the rest of the week, another five days, being domestic with Josef and Marlies—doing laundry, mowing grass, taking walks, going into town for shopping and for Josef’s visit to a doctor. We reveled in each other’s company and spent long evenings at the coffee table where Marlies had shown Eddy and Udo photos and told stories of the long past. This is what I had come for, to spend time, quiet moments in their company. When it came time for me to take the train to Koblenz to visit Ivo, Josef, in a moment uncharacteristic of him, turned to me in the living room and hugged me.
“This is probably the last time we’ll see each other,” he said. “Be good to your family. Be happy in your home.” I didn’t want to leave. I never want to leave.
On the train to Koblenz, I again looked through the years and thought of my friends. I was melancholy but not morose or sad. I had made good friends, drawn fantastic people into my orbit. They made me and, in some small way, I had helped them to make themselves.
Two days with my friend Ivo was not enough. I met Lena, Ivo’s mate (who he married recently) and her daughter Mascha. They are both lively and personable people with whom conversations were intense and personal. It was as if I had always known them.
Ivo took me out on the Rhein in his little boat. The great stream washed up against the hull and Ivo looked as if he was in his element. Giant freight haulers and hotel ships passed by us as if we were standing still. He pulled the boat around the Deutsches Eck and into the mouth of Mosel, where we tied up to a pier and spent the afternoon talking.
“I have found a life’s mate in Lena,” he said. The water was calm and we could see the tourists walking the riverfront up to the Deutsches Eck. The air smelled of vaguely of fish and wetland.
He said he often remembered Andrea, his wife of over 20 years who died in 2011 of cancer. “I loved her more than anything and though I feel sad at her passing, I do not want to lose that connection with her. I remember the good days we had and also the difficult ones at the end of her life. They are all a part of the experience of Andrea.”
Ivo drove us one afternoon to Cologne to see Martin, our friend of many years. Ivo and I first walked through the pedestrian zone at the center of town, taking in sights, touring a small church, and stuffing ourselves with currywurst and fries. We met Martin in a gallery space not far off the pedestrian zone, where he had just hung some of his pieces, those ethereal expressions of his inner turmoil and peace. He had us back to his apartment in a busy street near the center of town. We spent the afternoon catching up and talking of new things, the projects he had before him and the things I wanted to do. It was as if we had never been absent from one another.
Ivo and I spent evenings sitting out on the patio looking out into the growing darkness and watching a bat that visits the air between his hedges every night. Conversation came without effort. I felt at home again. His cigars were excellent.
I miss my friends now that I’ve returned, and already seven months have flown by. Soon enough, it will be seven years and then a whole lifetime. I call Josef and Marlies every week. Udo calls for long, deep conversations. Ivo rings sometimes, he says, just to hear my voice. Martin and I e-mail, and Paul composes dreamy, impressive letters that must come at a cost, as he must write them evenings after long days in the vineyard.
I dream sometimes about Joachim, Josef’s Marlies’ son, to whom I was closer than my own brother. I’m always aware he is gone but relish seeing him again. I tell him so. We walk through the woods, drive down lonely roads. When I wake, I go through a book of photos I have of him.
Random events of the last three and a half decades come to me. They rush through the brooks of my mind. They merge and become a sea of memory into and from which everything flows. I am twenty-two again, eyes fresh, everything new. Ivo, Martin, and Udo are apprentices at the stained-glass restoration firm, and we are spending the weekend together in the Saarstrasse. I relive the first time I introduced Virginia to Marlies. I remember when Sydney and Nick entered my world, the run of our lives together, and the things they have accomplished and the growth they still have to do.
In the quiet moments, I find myself lucky to have been afflicted. Without my ups and downs and the impulsiveness that comes with alcoholism and mental illness, I would not have known any of the people in this tale, my story. I’m glad it’s mine.
If you have questions or comments, please call me at 816-896-4746