If you were to stumble your way into Oberfranken (Northern Franconia), Germany, and found a small town called Kirchenlamitz, drive right through until you come to the foot of the Kornberg. There you will find a tiny village called Niederlamitz and as you drive further up, past the railroad tracks, along the street named after the mountain, you will see a large, white house.
If you come at the right time, you will see a man sitting by the window on the second floor. He might look at you and wave, but he likely won’t notice you, his eyes fixed on a newspaper, or closed as he takes an afternoon nap.
That man is my Opa. This year, he turned 90.
It’s been four years since I was last in Niederlamitz. Even though I had seen my Opa briefly in Canada since, I was so excited to be back to spend 10 days with him alone. Over the past few years, his dementia has progressed to a point where he can no longer be alone. For 90, he is still quite healthy and lively, but without someone living with him, he would simply be lost.
I have four brothers, and the five of us are his only grandchildren. Our mother is his only living child. The obvious distance between Germany and Canada has opened the doors for some important care-giving opportunities. Until a more permanent solution can be found, we are taking turns taking care of our Opa.
As I showed up at the door a bit over a week ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried that he wouldn’t know who I was, that something would happen and I wouldn’t know what to do, or that we would be so bored that I would just want to go home. So I came prepared with books and my laptop to keep me occupied.
As it turned out, I brought way too much. Although I had many chances to sit with my Opa and read as he read the newspaper, we quickly filled the days with all sorts of activities together with my Uncle. The days flew by, and as I now prepare to go back home, it feels like I just arrived.
Yes, I think my Opa knows who I am. I think. He’s always had a little trouble remembering his grandkids by name, but so have many other people in our family. I think he knew me as his grandson, but I had to remind him what my name was more than once a day. I had to remind him that I was married, where I live, and what I do. But on one of our last days together, as we looked through a photo album of his trip to Canada, I was pleasantly surprised when he pointed me out in a picture.
We spent a lot of time driving somewhere, going to eat, or going to a cafe. We also spent some time visiting other relatives and friends in the area. Most of our time, however, we spent at home, sitting together and enjoying each other’s company.
Dementia aside, my Opa is a funny man. He has countless sayings and rhymes about life, love, and naughty things. He’s a joker, who likes to poke fun and tries to make you laugh. With the ladies, he’s a flirt, and a pretty good one at that. But mostly, he’s a storyteller.
As a barber in his earlier days, he had to keep people’s attention and show them a good time to make good business. I think that’s where a lot of his saying, rhymes, and stories come from. When we were younger, he would tell us all sorts of stories of the adventures he had. As the years went on, and the dementia got worse, the stories repeated themselves more often and the selection became less and less.
During my time with him now, his stories focused on only one thing - the war.
Before, his stories of World War II were long and detailed. But now, he only spoke of a few experiences, and once he was finished telling them, he would start all over again, not remembering what he just told me. His lack of memory was not only evident with his storytelling, but with everything else as well. My brother warned me to be prepared to answer the same question 50 times a day, and he wasn’t exaggerating.
As we sat down to eat, read, or watch tv, we somehow got on the topic of the war and the small portion of experiences he still remembers. At 17, he volunteered to join the German army, and he celebrated his 18th birthday in captivity in Siberia. When he finally was released, he went home to a mother who at first did not recognize him and to the reality that his older brother didn't come home.
I’ve listened to these stories hundreds of times, and I couldn't help but want to change the subject. But on this trip, I realized something that I never did before - the reason why my Opa shares these stories.
My Opa experienced horrendous things in the war, and he had his part to play like any soldier who was given orders to follow. He shares these stories not because he is proud of the war, or because he wants to re-live the thrill, but because he’s so thankful to still be alive.
I never noticed this before, but his stories all begin with, “I can’t even imagine what I went through,” and end with “And so I must always say that God has protected me.” When my Opa shares his stories, I can see the joy he has to still be alive at 90 after all the things he endured.
My Opa’s life experience is far bigger, richer, darker, and brighter that I can even fathom. I look up to him because he never gives himself credit for making it this far. He never says that he had the strength to pull through years of captivity, or that he was so hard working that he was able to build a house and provide for his family, or that his discipline in sports is what kept him healthy.
My Opa shifts all the credit on God, a God who always held his hand over my Opa, a God who was with him through it all. He is thankful to be alive, and that’s why he shares his stories. And as soon as I realized the reason, I thought, “Keep telling them, Opa. One hundred or a thousand times more, it doesn’t matter. Keep telling your story.”