Readings — From the March 2017 issue

Remains of the Day

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By Christa Wolf (1929–2011), from One Day a Year, a journal that she kept each September 27 from 1960 until her death. The most recent volume will be published next month by Seagull Books. Wolf was the author of The Quest for Christa T and numerous other novels. Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire.

friday, september 27, 2002, berlin–woserin

Following the usual morning rituals, the newspaper. Headlines: whether the United States will start a war in Iraq; eight killed in new Middle East violence; genocide indictment against Miloševic in The Hague; Israeli rocket attack on Hamas. In the Berlin supplement: 48,000 runners expected at Sunday’s marathon; moth-infested horse-chestnut leaves composted; literature night at the city baths. And so on, and so on.

saturday, september 27, 2003, berlin

After a glorious summer, yesterday was perhaps the last warm day. I notice as soon as I open the window that the air has gotten harsher. Another summer over. How many more will there be? That question is always present. We never say it out loud.

On television Gerd and I watch a Black Forest cake being made, with huge amounts of cream, and then a film in which a petulant countess with a heart condition is wooed by the senior doctor and objects to the young count wanting to marry the young housekeeper. Well, what is the world coming to! we say, but we know the answer. It’s certainly more comfortable to fret along with a countess over the staff’s bad manners than to consider the reasons that 4 million are out of work.

monday, september 27, 2004, berlin

Awake at five-thirty. Now the routine after getting up, showering, et cetera. The Innohep injection I have to give myself until the Falithrom tablets bring my blood-coagulation value below 2 — whatever that means. A slice of bread with vegetable spread from the organic-food store because I want to lose weight. A cup of tea. My various tablets.

Take the car to Buch. The sky is overcast, occasional showers, the thermometer shows thirteen degrees Celsius. We drive past the clinic, which was built for the big cheeses at the end of the G.D.R. years. Gerd remembers once seeing an ear specialist there after a dizzy spell. The parking lot is full and Gerd looks for a space while I go ahead to register us. I walk through the internal ward — where I’ve had several stays myself — to the lab on the third floor of the next building. A pretty assistant attempts to take blood from my left earlobe, which doesn’t work, eliciting humorous comments from her. My Quick value is only a tenth higher than on Friday — 1.25 — but apparently the tablets only take effect after three days. We’ll be seeing each other often, she says. So we shall. I notice I’ve gotten used to the idea.

Gerd is downstairs in the waiting area. I sit down outside the door for the EKG and he gets two cappuccinos from the vending machine so that I can take my Falithrom tablets. It makes quite a mess because of the foaming drink. The EKG nurse gives me a familiar reception. She wires me up and switches on the machine. It’s still there, the “fibrillating.” Does it sometimes go away on its own? Spontaneous recoveries do happen. But rarely.

Waiting outside Dr. Hohmuth’s door. It’s almost eleven now. We sit on folding chairs in the corridor, where patients parade past us. Almost all elderly and old people, not terribly attractive. Most of the women chunky to fat — like me. Unflatteringly dressed. And the old married couples — one has the feeling that they’re bored with each other and with life in general. How do the others see us?

tuesday, september 27, 2005, berlin

I look out the window from Gerd’s room while he’s down having a conversation with the property manager, Frau V. I like the way they’re standing there; she has her black dog with her, tugging on the red leash; the light falls on them from one side through the still-dense green roof of leaves.

Gerd, back from the market, waves a large, fragrant bouquet of fresh mint that he bought from his herb man — the man is always glad to see him coming, says Gerd. Just like the potato woman, from whom he bought other vegetables as well — you can’t buy only potatoes from her and then go to another stall for vegetables! Yes you can, I say. He says no. He hands me a wonderfully crunchy garlic-pickled gherkin and I sit at the kitchen table admiring all the magnificence from the market around me, eating my gherkin and feeling happy. There can be no better feeling than this. Shall I tell you something? I say. I love you. The feeling’s mutual, is his response.

I put three questions to him that came for me by fax this morning from the Courrier International:

1. What was the most important world event of the past fifteen years?

2. What was the most important event for you personally of the past fifteen years?

3. What will be the most important event in the coming years?

Gerd wants to say September 11 for question 1, but that’s expressly excluded. The fall of the Wall is before the time period; perhaps the Iraq War is the most important event, or the fact that Germany isn’t taking part in it. But it’s difficult to single out one event — in my personal life as well.

And in the future? I anticipate conflicts between rich and poor — individually and internationally, between rich and poor countries. Refugees and the increasing domestic poverty are only a prelude. We look for positive events but don’t find any.

As so often with visions of the future, I think: I won’t be here anymore. I fall asleep quickly.

wednesday, september 27, 2006, berlin

At seven-thirty, earlier than usual, I get up. Check my hair, postpone washing it until the next morning. Shower. Look in the calendar to see if my pain patch is due today — no. Not until Thursday. I remember what I’ve resolved to do at the beginning of every day, since I often wake up in a depressed or fearful mood. I tell myself several times a day, in a strong tone, I am doing well, I’m glad of this new day.

Breakfast. To begin with, my seven tablets as usual, plus one magnesium, one vitamin, one green-lipped mussel. (Crazy!) Porridge.

Gerd fetches the post. An invitation to a reading, which I won’t accept. A catalogue from Lands’ End. Advertising for an osteoarthritis remedy that promises miracles. I’m always hoping to find a remedy that enables me to walk again without pain, but then I read that people with thyroid problems shouldn’t take it. The antiracist Gesicht Zeigen! campaign has sent a reminder of outstanding membership fees.

Our midday nap, urgently longed for; we’re both always very tired by noon. I read the Berliner Zeitung. Headlines: French want many children; Mohammed and the freedom of art; Tony Blair’s departure approaching; poorly educated teenagers more often pregnant; Bulgaria and Romania allowed to join E.U. in 2007, but with unprecedented prior conditions. Music lessons encourage brain development; the debate on the anti-doping law is being fought harder than the battle against doping itself; a café disrupted by two cyclists, one belching loudly, the other shouting, “Heil Hitler!” New Orleans football played again in the Superdome after flooding. Every day, the newspaper brings home that we are drifting toward self-destruction. I am astounded that so few people notice it and that we who do notice it have grown accustomed.

I sleep for three quarters of an hour and wake with a clear memory of a strange dream. I’m with Gerd in a neutral room; he raises a cup to his lips and tries to drink, but I see that he doesn’t manage it and is sinking slowly to one side. I watch this movement with horror and then he collapses. A doctor comes past, I call him Dr. Waldeyer — that was the name of my gynecologist in Karlshorst in the Fifties — but he keeps going with a shrug. I don’t tell Gerd about the dream; I’m not quite sure why not.

thursday, september 27, 2007, berlin

At eight I get up and go to the bathroom before Gerd; it’s usually the other way around. I skip the hair washing that’s due and put on the clothes I’ve been wearing for days, all out of laziness. I open the window. Fresh, cool air, overcast sky, rain. Autumn. Isolated sections of the green trees are beginning to yellow. There are a good few dry leaves on the ground. The opposite side of Amalien Park is still concealed by leaves; that’s always my test.

Off to breakfast. Gerd has made soft-boiled eggs chopped up in glasses, which I love. He’s already engrossed in the newspaper. I have to pop all my pills out of their packaging, shake them out of the plastic pots. Seven for my basic care, all sorts as nutritional supplements, which have no effect, either on my osteoarthritis pain or for losing weight, and yet I keep ordering new ones whenever a new blurb comes in the post.

Gerd reads in the Berliner Blatt that thirteen cyclists have been killed so far this year by cars turning right. It’s his worst nightmare. A few headlines: protesters killed in Burma; the world in phonetic spelling (which is written into Bush’s speeches because he can’t pronounce foreign names otherwise); Christian Democratic Union against minimum wage for mail carriers; inheritance-tax reform delayed; 5.7 billion euros against AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis; Iran’s president intends to ignore U.N. resolution; every fourth child feels ill frequently; blue-tongue disease puts zoos at risk; Hollywood banned from filming in Sachsenhausen concentration camp; Stone Age farmers irrigated their fields; balm for sick joints.

I walk around the apartment, make the beds, open all the windows. From the living-room window I see a young blond woman walking past in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I console myself: when I was her age I could do that, too.

It is half past eleven. I am overcome; how can anyone be so tired at this time of day? I slump down into my desk chair, fall asleep — perhaps for ten minutes. Awake with a start when Gerd comes in and asks, What’s the formal word for spelling? “Orthography!” I stutter with sudden presence of mind. And Gerd, distrustful, “Orthography?”

All this goes through my mind as I lie in bed. It is after midnight by now. This day, too, has passed.

saturday, september 27, 2008

The months in the hospital seemed uneventful, unstructured. I can barely summon a memory of the separate nurses — although they were each important to me. I observed how one becomes dependent on them and how one loses one’s sense of shame.

Interest in outside events waned as well. I registered everything to do with the financial crisis precisely, read the newspaper every day, was amazed and very much understood the significance of the events, yet I could not relate them to myself. If I had to put that feeling into words, I’d probably say: none of it affects me anymore. My time is up.

In the corridors, I came across other patients, on crutches like me, who seemed older and more helpless until I called myself to order and said, They’re only just as old as I am.

Once something remarkable happened. I heard, in my mind, a voice that said, Now you’re going to get well. It was midnight. I believed the voice straightaway and I called my daughter Tinka, thinking she was likely to be awake. She wasn’t. I left a message on her answering machine. The next morning she called, very agitated, to ask what I’d wanted in the middle of the night.

I was aware that this time was a caesura. I am often not in a very good mental state. The thought of death is omnipresent, and the awareness that the years are now heading toward it. The drive for new work is nearly extinguished. Above all the question — what for?

sunday, september 27, 2009, woserin

I couldn’t get to sleep and then, reluctantly, took half a Stilnox. (They’re addictive! say the doctors, but what’s going to happen if you get a bit addicted at the age of eighty?) There’s probably a dash of autosuggestion in it if I can really sleep after this half a tablet. Then I wake at seven and fight to fall asleep again. The one or two hours until I get up are torturous, occupied by oppressive thoughts — death, every day death — against which listing all the positive things of which my life actually consists has little effect. I try out mantras to help me fall asleep but they don’t work. Hours I am afraid of.

tuesday, september 27, 2011

Headline in the Berliner Zeitung: Wowereit votes Green. Coalition has only a one-vote majority in Berlin city parliament.

Wake from a dream at three in the morning — before me lie three dead bodies, all foreigners, one of them is me, unrecognizable. Have the feeling I’ve been shot in the temple. Have to get used to being alone in the bedroom every time; the second bed is missing.

Find the right position for sleeping; that takes time and strategy. There’s one position in which I’m not in pain. Decide not to go to the toilet chair yet, which I then do an hour later, shortly before five — a sensitive operation. Take the second Stilnox half-tablet. Manage to sleep until almost eight.

This life between bed and chair has now endured two weeks . . . in between terrible pain. Great doubts about how it is to go on.

Toilet, washing, dressing in the bathroom. One gets used to this child’s status, albeit with difficulty. But — the other person is a nurse . . .

Breakfast. Egg on bread. Since they increased the pain patches my appetite seems to be waning. Ate a very few peas.

Berliner Zeitung: “It’s going to be noisy over the Müggelsee.”

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