June 2023

Vox

The professor’s last lesson

By Helen Garner
Sudden clarity during and after the final days in aged care of a neighbour with dementia

My German neighbour, a retired professor of literature, was very old. His wife, and the few friends they’d had, were dead. I drove across town every Saturday to see him in his aged-care home. His son kept an eye on his clothes and brought him everything he needed, and his daughter, who had made her life on the other side of the world, called him often. Otherwise, I was his only visitor.

He was dementing fast. Some days he would be bewildered, incoherent, raving about the four sinister government agents who would not meet his eye in the dining room: had someone betrayed him? For a week or two he was obsessed with the whereabouts of his wife: “Do you think it would be worth looking in the upstairs rooms of this… college?” One day he listed in full detail, in the most coolly pragmatic terms but never mentioning the words “death” or “kill”, all his fantasies of an end to it: towers, cliffs, railway tracks. Most often he would slump in his armchair, smile blurrily at me – “Schön, dass du da bist!” – and have no more to say.

As the months passed, his body weakened and his dementia got a stronger grip. He could still tie his shoelaces, and would often be holding a German magazine when I arrived, but by the last stages of COVID lockdown the give-and-take of conversation was beyond him. If I took his arm and hauled him out into the open air, he would sag onto a garden bench and gaze straight ahead in silence.

In his room one Saturday, trying to think of a way to pass the hour, I took from the shelf his biography (in German) of Heinrich von Kleist, the writer who died in a suicide pact in 1811, at the age of 34, with his young lover who had terminal cancer.

“Can you read to me?”

His dull face brightened. “Me? Read?” He flustered the pages and, meaning to relieve his anxiety, I said, in the patronising tone one takes to the dementing, “Start at page one.”

“No.” He hit me with a fully focused teacher’s look. “No. I will read a letter.” He sat up straight, held the book open on his flat palms, and took a breath.

Oh God, I thought, I won’t be able to understand this, I’ll have to fake it. But he read so slowly, and with such eloquence, that the shards of my high-school German floated up from the depths. It seemed to be a letter that Kleist had written to a dear friend, setting forth in a calm and beautiful way the thoughts that he had been having about death: he did not believe in an afterlife, in judgement or punishment; he was not afraid to die. Whenever the professor came to a phrase or a word I was unlikely to understand he would pause and look right at me, smiling, with his eyebrows raised in gentle challenge. If I shook my head he would translate, with ease, into perfect English. I stepped from one stone to the next on a path he laid out for me. We got to the end, he closed the book, and we sat together quietly in the overheated room.

It was the last coherent exchange we ever had.

He didn’t need his suicide list. In the spring, COVID came for him: a fall, a fracture, and, with his son beside him, he died.

I wanted to write about him, to tell the story of my peculiar friendship with him and his wife, my old Germans: their rigid formal customs, their deep foreignness, their pigheadedness about doctors that made me frantic, the way their affection and kindness had filled for 10 years the parent-shaped hole in me. I tried it this way, I tried it that, but it was too loose and baggy, I couldn’t find a form for it, and after a while I gave up.

Duty drew its claws out of my shoulders and flapped away. I had my Saturday mornings back. I stopped walking past their empty house. Ordinary life flowed on, with its small dramas and responsibilities. My sadness lost its edge and began to fade.

Then one evening I went on my own to a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise. I thought I knew it well enough. I took my seat like any ageing culture buff, and waited to be entertained. The piano, the solemn introductory passage, and the tenor sang the opening lines: “Fremd bin ich eingezogen / Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.” A stranger I came here, a stranger I depart.

A gush of tears slid under my mask and into my shirt. This wasn’t ordinary crying, the sort with sobs and choking. These tears streamed in sheets, steady and silent, of their own accord. The woman played the huge piano, and the man poured out the wanderer’s story, and the tears flowed and flowed. And when I walked home beside the railway line in the dark, I knew that I wouldn’t need to write about the old man after all. A heavy thing had been lifted from me by the music, and carried away. I was clean, and empty. The songs had already done the work.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and How To End a Story.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Cover of ‘Anam’

André Dao’s ‘Anam’

The author’s debut novel considers how fiction might intersect with memoir to best tell the story of his grandfather’s imprisonment in Vietnam

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Reading the mushroom

A walk with ecologist Alison Pouliot exploring the ways fungi up-end our understanding of the natural world

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

‘O remember / In your narrowing dark hours / That more things move / Than blood in the heart’

The poetry that delivered perspective when the author came face to face with a grizzly bear in the wilds of Alaska

Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney

The year of living cautiously

What do the first 12 months of the Albanese government tell us about its aims, and how should we assess its success?


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality