Nathaniel and I arrived at the Vienna airport on Thursday March 11th and met my brother Stephen there. I like taking public transit in Vienna, so we all took the City Airport Train together. The route home to Huschkagasse from the airport goes right past Rudolfinerhaus on Billrothstrasse. This time, we didn’t go home, Oma lay in Rudolfinerhaus and we wanted to see her first thing.
Back in February of 2010 I got a call while I was traveling to Code4Lib. Dagmar was very concerned because she had just spoken with Oma and Oma seemed very disconnected, she wanted me to call Oma and see what I thought. So while I waited for my plane I gave Oma a ring and said hello. We’d talked at least once every few weeks for the past few years. She always was complaining of being dizzy and not feeling particularly well. Her life sounded unimaginably lonely to me, and Dagmar and I had been asking her to consider moving to a nursing home just to be around more people. On this Monday (2/22) in February she had lost consciousness for a bit, she was lying down on her couch not feeling well at all, she was mad that her cleaning lady had been gone and unable to help. She sounded a bit off, but her wits were gathering around her. She was going to head to the hospital and was waiting for the taxi.
I was very concerned, talked with Dagmar again, and decided to fly to Vienna to see Oma in March. We assumed Oma would be out of the hospital by then, but we wanted to have a difficult conversation with her about the future, about a nursing home, or at least about home care that went beyond unreasonable expectations of cleaning ladies. Mary and I decided that Nathaniel could miss two weeks of school and join me on this trip. We began to make arrangement that same day.
Oma did improve at the hospital after what was determined to likely have been a stroke. She was in Rudolfinerhaus, a very nice private clinic only a few blocks from home. Her doctor, Dr. Djavan, practiced Urology there and had cared from her husband, my grandfather. Her case was not particularly up his alley, but they were fast friends, she trusted him, he cared for her, and Rudolfinerhaus was always her her destination when a medical crisis called her away from home. I talked with her often during those weeks, and she always expected to head home in another week or two. She was very excited that I was visiting with Nathaniel, she looked forward to hearing him play cello. But something else always came up, another bad spell, another poor test result, another procedure to be done, so the date of her return home kept receding into the future.
The day Nathaniel and I left Minnesota was the same day that she experienced another, more severe, stroke. Dr. Djavan told us to hurry, Dagmar and my sister Natalie decided to get on the next plane to Vienna. There was no question for Stephen and Nathaniel and I that Rudolfinerhaus would be our first stop, all that awaited us at Huschkagasse, after all, was a spooky silence. We stepped off the streetcar and walked into the hospital in our scruffy travel clothes pulling our bags behind us. We found Oma in a quiet single room on the second floor.
It was a shock. She was asleep, but looked incredibly worn. She had not been responding to the nursing care since her stroke the day before. We bent close, we held her hand, we let her know we were there. We didn’t really get words back, but we did get a response. That room in Rudolfinerhaus became the center of our universe.
I can hardly express how much it meant to me to share this experience with Nathaniel. I could not cry that morning, but Nathaniel wept in the hall. I needed his tears and I needed the future he represented. We had lived with Oma for six months in 2007, and I was so glad he knew her enough to feel the pain of this moment so keenly. She was not the person we had known so well, and yet, there she was, still with us and needing us. It was awful, but it was also an amazing gift. I had space in my life that let me be with Oma, be with Nathaniel, and be with my mother and sister who would gather together the next day.
Although Rudolfinerhaus became the center of the universe, it was not the whole universe. Having Nathaniel along helped ensure that. He had become a cellist in his school orchestra, and he needed to stay in practice. We found that Vienna is full of cellos for rent, and got one the next day from a little shop tucked into the block with the Musikverein. Excursions like this, or to get ice cream or go shopping balanced the intensity of Oma’s room. It was wonderful to be in Vienna!
Dagmar and Natalie arrived, and we all started to take shifts with Oma, pulling her back to us with our care and presence. One year ago today was one of the victorious milestones of this journey: Oma sat up in her bed. She had outlasted Dr. Djavan’s worst fears, but it was unclear what that meant. Could there be a fate worse than death? As Dagmar wrote a year ago on this day:
living in limbo may be worse? i wish oma could trust the universe enough to just give her power, whats left of it, to tommy her lawyer or her only child….but i am afraid thats asking for more than is possible. i honestly don’t believe she understands the full implications of her stubborn refusal to trust us.
meanwhile she was doing much worse last night.
she has difficulty breathing even with oxygen, is in pain from a back injury she suffered when she fell during her last stroke, won’t eat and drinks very little. all together not a great recipe for recovering?
then again….”with god all things are possible”.
We bought some supplies to pack up everything in her dining room. The mission for the next week and a half became clear: we were going to bring Oma home.