After eight years in Paris, our family was moving to Munich. A big move, a bit of a sad move, but not an impossible move, given that we were sending Parker off to college at exactly the same time, and this seemed like a practical juncture for turning in a fresh direction on our family’s ongoing international track. Besides, we couldn’t just keep on enjoying Paris without the one family member who loved Paris as much as or more than any of the rest of us.
You know by now what happened during that move.
It was a logistical tight rope for about two weeks as all six of us straddled continents: our goods had just landed from Paris in Munich where I had been setting up house; the three youngest we’d sent two weeks earlier to the States to be with relatives; Parker we’d sent ahead to something called Freshman Academy at college only a five-hour drive from my parents’. And Randall, who was setting up Internet and cell phones and getting traction in his new job, I had just left behind in Munich when I flew ahead to the western U.S. to rejoin our children and visit Parker on his campus. We all kept in touch every day with wildly flying texts, emails, and phone calls.
Randall and I were on the phone several times a day, in fact, plotting what was going to be his earlier-than-expected arrival that Saturday, July the 21st. We would show up at the door of this oldest son’s first college apartment, Randall and I snickered on the phone, all five of us, swim suits in hand, since there were all these “fun swimming holes” in the area, Parker had told us, places all the local kids had taken the newly-arrived students to.
A big family surprise on Saturday morning. That had been our plan.
We were all together that Saturday morning. That much was true to plan.
But under such circumstances as to make my fingers shake even today, five years later, when I try to type them.
So I won’t try to type them.
Only days after Parker’s funeral we found our family of five stepping off a Delta flight in Munich’s airport. New home. New world. Alien world. Cold world. Death-drenched world. The apartment we had chosen before major tragedy blew the floor and ceiling out of our universe, had been strategically situated for our planned needs. It was in the center of Munich. A short bike ride to Munich’s Univeristät. A block from the adjoining English Garden. Our plan had been that I enroll in a Ph.D. program and in December Parker would return to us for Christmas. He would wait the few weeks or months for his assignment as a missionary for our church. He would share a part of the apartment with Claire, his best friend and sister, who would be slaving away at the International Baccalaureate at high school. He could help her. He could also be close to student life at the nearby Universität. He could cross country ski with his little brothers across the vast English Garden. We could soak up being all together again before his two long years of missionary service. Those were our plans.
And by now you’re beginning to understand the relative uselessness of plans.
Plans. They can blow up in shrapnel and smoke, and underneath those plumes of dust and debris, you finger through ruins, making up something new.
But “fingering through” is misleading as a figure of speech, since what really happens is more of a bloody-knuckled scraping and bare-handed shoveling, which demands full body-and-spirit engagement. It saps you. And because it does, you spend a great deal of time lying down. And sitting.
Randall and I walked, when we could, throughout the English Gardens. And more often we sat. There were many dedicated benches throughout the garden — “Für Mutti, zum 70en Geburtstag”, “Helmuth und Brunhilde, Immer Liebe.” We sat on these tributes to the living, most of the time exhausted by sorrow and by the work of just breathing. The work of just sitting.
One day, I envisioned a bench in this park. For our Parker.
Randall and I found our way to a small yellowish converted home in the middle of the park, the office of the one and only gentleman whose job it is to oversee the installation of dedicated benches. Herr Barthlemes was lanky in his worn beige corduroy trousers and heavy rubberized walking shoes, his bony shoulders poking like the angles of a metal clothes hanger under an olive-green sweater with five dark leather buttons. As we walked the garden, this man, my husband and I, talking quietly about where to place a bench for our eldest son, Herr Barthlemes wrapped and tucked a plaid woolen shawl in orange and mustard around his neck, a neck as lean as the trunks of the trees that looked underfed and desolate as they shed their fall colors.
Fall. The dead season. To my grieving eyes, absolutely everything spoke death.
“Normally,” Herr Barthelmes explained as we walked slowly along the pathway that encircles a big open field smack dab in the garden’s heart, “we only put the dedication plaques on the backs of these green painted benches.” He pointed to six benches placed along the path we were walking.
“And if we understood correctly,” Randall said, “we have to choose a green bench that’s already standing in the garden, is that right?”
“Right,” the gentleman nodded. I thought then that if he spoke English he might make a good Jimmy Stewart from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“But. . .what if we’re thinking of a place other than where these green benches already stand?” I asked. I had thought of something maybe close to water, even next to the small canal-like river. A place by a waterfall? Was there a lagoon? Anything that looked like Idaho?
“It depends on when you want this finished, Frau Bradford. You mentioned February 20th? Is this your son’s birthday? You want to surprise him?” Barthlemes smiled softly and winked.
Randall and I looked at each other. We all kept strolling.
“Herr Barthlemes, you’re right. That’s our son’s birthday,” Randall said. “But it won’t really. . .it won’t be a surprise for him.”
The trees were dropping leaves –- ochre, burnt red, even some bright green ones — as I listened to my husband explain to this tall German stranger the story of our boy. I’d never noticed until that moment that green leaves fall, too.
As Randall finished, Herr Barthlemes stopped in his tracks. I looked at him. His face was different from the face of two minutes earlier. Melted. And his eyes seemed larger.
“Herr Bradford, das ist ja doch etwas ganz anderes.”
Now that’s something totally different, he said.
Very close to February 20th, Herr Jimmy Stewart Barthlemes, whom I never saw again and whom I have never thanked in person, hand made a handsome one-of-a-kind brown bench —an etwas anderes, or something different. He had told us he wanted to do this for our son. We ordered an inscribed bronze plaque, delivered it to his little office, and he had it affixed, the whole thing weatherproofed, then installed in an ideal spot as a gift for what would have been our child’s 19th Birthday.
I wrote this poem in increments sitting, at times, on that very bench. It is there right now awaiting others who are maybe crazy in love (I’ve seen them kissing there), weary from life (I’ve gathered the discarded cigarette butts myself), or exhausted by sorrow, a natural counterpart to love, a natural part of life.
Ezekiel 1: 4-7
Im Englischen Garten
München, November 2009, All Souls” Day
Für Christa B.
Go straight toward Himmelsreich,
turn right into Paradies
cross into the tunnel upholstered in
the gingered patina of brocaded taffeta.
Tread the suede elegance of fallen flames,
bind to your soles these hieroglyphs of silence
which draw you deep into muted fluorescence.
You are rapt.
You are in amber
Or Bernstein, burned stone born of
interior clefts in injured trees.
You are in resin,
that umber ooze of congealed spirit
spilling out of hurting hollows.
You are lured,
You are saved
as were nature’s relics 320 million years ago. . .
Two years ago
(same month, same trees, same branches and tunnel)
this was not the same. I saw only desolation.
Haggard branches scratching for air, cadaverous,
grisly. Gasping their last breath of death.
I walked this sodden altar piled with sacrificial scabs
in elegiac tones
(bruise, gash, decay, corpse)
as the dank air clung to my neck
like ashes and dust.
Since then, no whirlwind nor great cloud nor fire infolding itself.
Just this load of despair like moldering foliage
which has soaked my soil, seeped through sediment,
spread to root, been incorporated
a mineral swell compost
so that today
this All Souls’ Day
I have grown new ears for flamboyant hymn-singing trees
and eyes for upthrust birded limbs, celebrant and winking
throngs of happy timber
and out of the midst thereof
in the midst of voluptuous shade-fire
I could swear we are captured
every last living thing is enclosed
in this furtive moltenness the color of burnished brass
so that all things are present,
preserved in amber.
For a related post I wrote on this topic, please refer to:
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.