My parents still live in the house we moved into when I was five. Or six? Something like that. It does not matter because every time I come home, I have the instant feeling of comfort. And so many memories of my childhood. Hanging out with friends, playing Polly Pocket (kid of the 80s), building mazes in the field, then running away from the farmer. Life was good. Easy. There were no problems.
Then, there was school. I always loved studying and learning new things. And (plateau) shoes, lunch boxes, and sharp pencils. There were birthday- and Halloween parties, and hours of talks with my friend L. from our bedroom windows across the street. I roller-skated in my driveway and on the street in front of the house that leads to a dead-end. I walked to and back home from the bus stop on my own. No need to lock the back door when we played out front. I thought (and of course still do) my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world and my father is/was a strong man who could build awesome things and always protects me. A dad who could snore on the couch as we all stood around and teased him loudly. I wish this comfortable feeling for every child on earth.
Currently, I am aware of two children who are not afforded that luxury and it hurts me badly to watch this. Many others also had houses filled with chaos and abuse, and they learned to keep their mouths shut and to stay out of trouble. I was dealt with two loving parents who encouraged me to be curious. This safety net combined with the small rebel inside of me meant I did a lot of silly things to try to make life seem exciting. Our little town of Coburg, Bavaria, is quiet and homogenous, with many small communities around, small ranch houses and farms on tree-lined streets littered with pine needles. The only thing we feared was the neighbor’s dog. Coburg is sleepy, and to a restless young girl like me, it often felt like a ghost town. I yearned for adventure and spent a lot of my youth in my own head, creating elaborate fantasies that felt grown-up. Fantasies to move as far away as possible.
Otherwise, the streets and woods around my house were a perfect setting for fake mischief. My friends and I would spend all afternoon pretending we had run away and had to live on our own. We tried to make a fire in the park. L. and I smoked one cigarette someone gave us and swore to never smoke again. We also would sneak out at dusk with a pair of binoculars and search the streets for murderers.
After school, I would do a bit of homework, eat ravenously, and then hop on my bike and coast down the streets. Riding fast and helmetless just because. I would pedal furiously up to the edge of the woods and jump off my bike to hide in the bushes imagining how ridiculous my friends would feel when they realized they had walked right past me. Again, life was good.
On long car trips up to Northern Germany (St. Peter Ording) for our yearly camping trips at the ocean, I would make my siblings pretend they were deaf while we sat in the backseat. The car was our playground while my dad drove for hours with this weird nervous eye-twitch of annoyance. We would communicate in made-up sign language as we sped down the Autobahn, in the hope that a passing car would see us and feel pity for the beautiful family with three deaf children. When you have a comfortable and loving family, sometimes you yearn for a dance on the edge. This can lead to an overactive imagination, but it is also the reason why some kids in Coburg do drugs these days. And probably even way back when but we had no clue what we were looking at.
And then, there was V. We met in kindergarten and our mothers instantly became very close friends, too. In kindergarten, she was usually dressed in a princess dress and cried all day. I was dressed in a homemade sweater (possibly even knitted), corduroys, and short brown hair (“because it is easier to maintain”). Remember, this was still the 80s, which says more about my mother’s wonderful acceptance and creativity and a bit of my weirdness and less about my fashion choices at that time. Actually, not much has changed in all these years, except my hair is long now. So, V. and I hit it off instantly and are super close to this day. We had and have each other’s backs even when other’s were talking behind them. We had the right balance of humor and pathos mixed with a pinch of weird -and craziness.
As we grew up, V. remained my comfort zone even though our ways parted for some time. This is life. Everybody did their own thing for a while, but we were always connected and updated about each other through our moms who hung out quite frequently. And then V’s mother got sick. Suddenly, the world was small and tight. “Our parents never die or get sick”, we used to say. The inevitability of death became a new nightmare. I don’t remember when I first heard of V’s mom getting seriously sick, but it was in that way young children receive news, a watered-down version that is a combination of investigating and straight-up eavesdropping. I remember speaking to V. on the phone several times and she seemed very lost but also very strong. I also remember my incredible paralysis throughout the whole thing. I wanted the whole thing to go away. I wanted us to be kids again sitting in my kitchen and eat cake while V’s mom tells us stories and takes us to the movies after.
I lived in Canada when V.’s mom passed away and I didn’t do a very good job of being there for her. I knew she was not alone and I did that classic thing of thinking I should just leave everyone alone and wait for the sad parties to reach out when they need help. I remember I felt so sad and it unlocked deep feelings and cut through my numbness that our parents will get older and eventually pass away; hopefully just of old age.
But let’s not end on this sad note. Let’s end by pointing out positive ways to feel alive. You can tell someone you are there for them and love them. You can help people who need help with real bad guys. Or you can do one of these Ironman things. Or ask for help. Or write. Because writing is more than content. More than the stories told. It is healing.