June 2023


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.

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