“George, my boy, if you could invent anything- anything in the whole world, what would it be?” Grandfather sat next to me at the wooden in the old cottage that smelled of pine and sap, his grey wrinkled eyes smiling, long white beard tickling the surface of the stained wood, his trousers, too short held up by suspenders over his big belly. His hair was wavy like mine, but overrun by wiry grey and white. I looked up at him, at seven years old already dreaming up the world.
“Something that can fly granddaddy, like the birds you taught me how to hunt.” He nodded, the chuckle rumbling deep in his chest.
“Good, George my boy, good.” He took another sip of his freshly ground coffee, only slightly burnt as grandmother restocked the fireplace with wood so that we wouldn’t freeze in the below zero temperatures. The outside smelt cold, like frostbite nipping at your cheeks, warm scarves wrapped snug around your neck. Those were the good old days now. No matter what they tell me, those were still the good old days. In that cabin on the edge of the forest just a little away from the town where grandmother would bring me on New Year's Eve to shop with her for the fabrics to make new clothes, a Christmas gift for grandfather. She’d always get me a candy cane to suck on at the general store. Yes, those were the days.
My back ached at now twenty-five years old as I bent over the prototype, tinkering with the last details of the work. I adjusted my collar, stood up from my crouched position on the floor, folded my hands behind my back, tried to shake off the sudden wave of nostalgia as I turned my head to peek out the window of the workshop at the snow drifting peacefully to the ground amidst the war. Men don’t cry. I straightened up taller, head held high. It was New Year’s Eve that day, as the head came in, inspecting every crevice of the machinery.
“Good George my boy.” He nodded in approval. “Bring it over to the main base and we’ll load it up. Soon it’ll be ready for flight. The newest model. You’re going places George, soon you could expect a raise.” He smiled, like the frostbite the soldiers were suffering from out on the field. Or, that is how I imagine it now. Then, I was probably flattered that someone of his power approved of me. Of my work. I probably smiled back at him, and nodded.
The rattling of the engine. Forty years old that day as the plane shot down the runway. Except for once I wasn’t in the cockpit. No, I sat in the first class section, reclining in a passenger seat. My wife, Leah sat to me, our son, Christian- named after my grandfather, off at college in America. Where I moved after the war. And here we were returning to Austria. Where I was brought up by my loving parents in the countryside. Over Germany, where I was brought at fourteen years old to live with an abusive uncle in the capital. Where bombs dropped, people feared their lives as I flew, like now, high above it all. Watching. Doing nothing. Doing only what I had to do to survive. Or at least that's what I remember now. Or want to remember. It would be better than the truth. Complying better than agreeing. Leading better than following. That’s why when my son told me he’d be a doctor, he’d help people, I’d said,
‘’Good my boy, good.’’ Because at least he wouldn’t flee to the air when he wouldn’t be harmed, at least he’d be doing something.
I was seventy years old that day and the memories were worse than ever as I looked at myself reflected in the mirror over the bathroom sink. The wrinkles around my eyes. I ran a finger over the frown lines on my forehead. My heart ached for that life again of carefree wistfulness as a young child, playing in the piles of snow, in the trees around our house. So far away. The cabin smelling like oak and burnt coffee. I ran a finger over the shrapnel scar on my cheek, running from the corner of my liquid blue eye to the top of my lip. My eyes were always so pale, that’s how I could pass. And my hair used to be almost see-through blond, short cropped. I ran a hand through my now wiry grey hair. A tear slipped down my cheek into, dripping down into the white plaster sink. But I held my hand high, pressed a finger lightly over the badge of my veteran’s uniform. I cradled the pill in the palm of my hand, raised the glass of cold water to my lips, let them slip down my throat.
‘’Good George my boy.
I remember back on that day now, the wailing sirens, the starch, crisp white sheets, the smell of antibiotics and bleach. The confusion. The nausea. My son sitting in the chair next to my hospital bed, eyes worried, stressed. I felt bad for making him pay the hospital bills, but he wouldn’t let me pay him back. I knew he was struggling, but he’s always been so strong. So stoic. So loyal. I guess that’s what I was too at his age. But to the wrong people. He has a son now, and a daughter, as I lie back in the bed that didn’t smell like home. In the hospital again. I can’t stand it. I want to get up and run, but I know I can’t. He’s busy now, with his clinic. He hasn’t come to visit me. His daughter was named after Leah. She passed away five years ago now. As I lie here, about to turn eighty five years old. Five minutes to go. I look back down at the papers lying in my lap.
I reread the words again, they struggle to register even if it’s been two days. My grandparents had never told me. They must have figured it was safer that way. Maybe it was. Maybe they planned to tell me, but after the fire, it was too late. They were gone. I had felt helpless. Like now.
Esther Zimmerman. My mother. They had told me her name was Paula Schmidt. They’d lied, and now my world was crashing down. Everything I knew was a lie. They were my father’s parents. They didn’t approve of her. When my dad had died, they’d taken me from her. I thought I was orphaned. All my life. But the whole time, she’d been three hours away. In an apartment smelling like smoke and booze. She’d died when I was twelve. She’d killed herself.
Four minutes to go.
I closed my eyes. Breathed, tried not to let the memories take control.
I looked to the door. Was he coming? Did he really not care? Did anybody?
A nurse came and took my blood pressure. Scribbled something down on a notepad.
I wrapped my hand around the breathing tube inserted into my nostrils. Yanked with all the force I had left.