There is a gorgeous cake in our kitchen, complete with delicious icing and cherries on top. It is my grandfather's birthday cake. He turned eighty-eight two days ago, but since we decided to put off celebrating until Sunday the cake is still untouched.
My grandfather has been old for all my life. I cannot remember a time when his hair was not white as snow, but I've been told that it used to be red and gold, just like mine. I have never been able to talk to him easily because he has been heavily hearing impaired for years, and to be honest I was more than a little afraid of him when I was small because he did not understand what I said and, since he had no idea how to talk to a little child, I could not make anything of the strange things he said either.
But thankfully that has never stopped him from telling me stories of his life, from trying to connect with me despite all hopelessness of the attempt. And as soon as I was old enough not to be intimidated by his age anymore I learned to appreciate this; appreciate it very much indeed.
For most younger people the second World War is nothing but a collection of dates and names from history lessons, but not for me. For me it is a collection of stories. Born in 1925 my grandfather was recruited when he was barely a man. He was already lined up with dozens of other young men destined to go to Russia, to fight in what would be the battle of Stalingrad, when someone asked if any of the recruits could work as a tank driver. Without having any idea of panzers, my grandfather volunteered and was sent to Egypt instead. After only a few months in combat his division was captured and held in war captivity until the end of WWII. While many other soldiers tell nightmarish stories of captivity, my grandfather was once again saved by pure luck: the son of the British general commanding their detention centre had studied in Austria and on top of being naturally easy-going and well-meaning, the general was especially fond of Austrians. Therefore, the war stories I have heard contain quite a few light-hearted, even funny episodes between the dark, brutal ones. His sarcastic, almost black sense of humour is another thing I have inherited from my grandfather, or so they say. One story I have heard so often that I could not forget it even if I wanted to: His division was stationed just outside a city and while all the other young men went into the bars and clubs of the city at night, my grandfather drove his tank into a shallow river and spent the whole evening cleaning it - that is how much he loved his vehicle.
After the war ended he returned home and became a police officer, quickly rising through the ranks even though he had only been to primary school. My grandpa fighting against crime and injustice: that is one of the things which have always made me proud to be his graddaughter. The others are for example the fact that he was respected as the best shot in town or his incredible craftmanship; even though he was already so old he repaired everything and had his own professional workshop in the basement where he crafted toys for us children and a collection of beautiful metal objects such as gongs and little bells.
It was another characteristic of his that brought me really close to him in spirit, though: he has always been an insatiable reader, devouring books at an almost unearthly speed. It did not take his stories of how he - just like me - read at night under his blanket when he was a child to win my whole heart for him although we did not see each other very often.
Unfortunately the downside of having such an old grandfather is the shadow of illness and death always lurking in a corner. During the last few years he has had considerable trouble breathing because of a pulmonary emphysema, which came as no surprise since he used to be a heavy smoker. While we were always afraid that he would simply suffocate one day, it never happened. He was so often just an inch away from dying, beginning when he should have walked into doom at Stalingrad and ending at several hospitalisations with problems from which he theoretically should not have recovered.
My grandfather survived death for so long that I lived in the impression he was immortal.
I was wrong.
His lion's heart stopped beating today in his sleep, a few days after he was rushed to the hospital.
On February 28, when he was hospitalised with severe cardiac pain he apparently still asked the doctor jokingly if it had to be exactly that day, because it was his son's birthday. Nobody expected him to die now of all times.
I did not visit him in the hospital and my last words to my grandfather were actually spoken on the phone to my grandmother who promised to relay them to him. They were as mundane as "Happy Birthday" and she told me he would be so glad I had remembered.
This is the first time ever that somebody close to me has died. It feels utterly unreal as if my grandpa simply can't be gone because he has always survived everything.
He doesn't die.
At the same time I feel bad for every day I could have visited him and did not and ache for every conversation that will now never be held. But nothing hurts more than looking at the splendid birthday cake and knowing who will never eat it.