This is fiction.
My grandmother’s stroke destroyed most of Nuremberg and all of Wurzburg. She was sailing down the Danube on a boat when it happened. I won’t tell you who she was with and what they were doing at the time, because you’ll think less of her for it, and anyway it’s not relevant to the story. But she was in the boat, and she was alive and happy, and then the next thing you know, she was unhappy and barely breathing. They were so far out in the water that she would have been dead if the other person she was with had had to row all the way back. So a medical helicopter was sent out, and they strapped her to the sky with hooks and carried her to the hospital dangling sixty feet below a tangle of blades.
All of her life, my grandmother was afraid of heights. She never got on a plane; never even went up a high-rise viewing deck to see the city unfold below her like a tourist map. “No amount of money or gratitude you could give me is worth the vertigo that I’d get when I felt my life rushing away below me,” she told me once. She was very melodramatic, my grandmother. It figures that the one time her feet actually refused gravity long enough for it to count, she was out like a light. That her life started to rush away from her not in an airplane over the sea, as she’d always feared, but in a boat on the water. That it took a trip into the same sky she loathed so much just to keep her alive.
* * *
Bavaria occupies the southeast corner of Germany; by area, it makes up one-fifth of the country. It’s the largest state, and pretty densely populated, but for all that, I don’t remember there being very much to do there. As a child, we used to visit my grandmother in Nuremberg in the summers. I remember the front of her brown and white house, coated in green vines, gently hugging the street the way the houses do in Europe. In America, we place our homes a modest distance away from the road, safely detached in their own little fiefdoms. I’ll just be back here, doing my own thing, our houses say. You just keep walking along there, sir—and don’t try to look through my windows. When Columbus discovered all that land, what he was really discovering was the driveway.
When we visited my grandmother, I’d slam the car door shut, run up to the steps, and knock repeatedly until she answered. She’d open the door, look all around, and then, finally seeing me, ask, “Who is this? Who are you?” That was the joke when I was very young. Who Are You was the joke, and after I yelled “grandma, it’s me!” several times, she’d always suddenly remember me, and invite me in to feed me schnitzel. “Why didn’t you say it was you,” she’d say. “Are you trying to give an old lady a heart attack? Do you think that’s funny?”
After her stroke, Who Are You was no longer funny. The words had a different meaning, and when I said, “grandma, it’s me,” she’d look at me sadly, with no recognition, as if she was wondering what could have happened to her beloved Bavaria; how the world could have gotten so bad that every person who knocked on her door now was a scoundrel claiming to be her grandson, lying to an old lady just so he could get inside and steal all of her valuable belongings.
Not that she really had any. Those last few years of her life, the inside of her house changed, until it was all newspapers and gift wrap, wooden soldiers and plastic souvenir cups, spent batteries and change from other countries. She never threw anything away, but there was nothing in there you would have wanted except memories. And by the end, I couldn’t even find the memories for all of the junk. So I just stopped going. Eventually, all of the burglars stopped coming by.
* * *
When my grandfather got to the hospital, he was beside himself. He kept running from doctor to doctor, asking them all the same two questions:
“Who was she with,” he asked, “and what were they doing on that boat?”
All the doctors all calmly told him the same thing: it’s not really relevant to her condition, and anyway, you’d think less of her. Just go sit in the waiting room. We’ll tell you when you can see her.
Inside the operating room, they weren’t so calm.
“She’s still hemorrhaging,” a doctor said over the din of scalpels and foam alcohol. They unfolded her cortex like a map, laid tangles of blood clot and old memories down to soak against fresh bandages. But there was no stopping the flood.
“We need to save Wurzburg,” said another doctor, tracing his cold finger through the cortical geography on the table. He moved delicately, as if folding and unfolding a series of very small, very fragile secrets; a surgical scalpel carefully traced a path through gyri and sulci, the hills and valleys of my grandmother’s mnemonic Bavaria. Behind it, red blood crashed through arteries to fill new cavities, like flood water racing through inundated forest spillways, desperately looking for some exit, any exit, its urgent crossing shattering windows and homes, obliterating impressions of people and towns that took decades to form, entire histories vanishing from memory in a single cataclysmic moment on the river.
* * *
They moved around a lot. My grandfather had trouble holding down a job. The Wurzburg years were the hardest. We stopped visiting my grandmother for a while; she wouldn’t let anyone see her. My grandfather had started out a decent man, but he drank frequently. He suffered his alcohol poorly, and when he became violent, he wouldn’t stop until everyone around him suffered with him. Often, my grandmother was the only person around him.
I remember once—I think it was the only time we saw them in Wurzburg—when we visited, and my grandmother was sporting a black eye she’d inherited from somewhere. “I got it playing tennis,” she said, winking at me. “Your grandfather went for the ball, and accidentally threw the racket. Went right over the net; hit me right in the eye. Tach, just like that.”
My grandmother could always make the best of the worst situation. I used to think that kind of optimism was a good trait—as long as she had a twinkle in her eye, how bad could things be? But after her stroke, I decided that maybe that was exactly the thing that had kept her from leaving him for so many years. A less optimistic person would have long ago lost hope that he would ever change; a less happy person might have run down to the courthouse and annulled him forever. But not her; she kept her good humor, a racket on the wall, and always had that long-running excuse for the black eyes and bruised arms.
Years later, I found out from my mother that she’d never even played tennis.
* * *
My grandfather never found out who my grandmother was with on the boat, or what they were doing out on the river. A week after she was admitted, a doctor finally offered to tell him—if you think it’ll make you feel better to have closure. But by then, my grandfather had decided he didn’t want to know. What was the point? There was no one to blame any more, nowhere to point the finger. He wouldn’t be able to yell at her and make her feel guilty about what she’d done, yell at her until she agreed she’d do better next time, and then they could get into bed and read newspapers together, pretending it was all suddenly alright. After my grandmother came home, my grandfather stopped talking to anyone at all, including my grandmother.
I never told my grandfather that I knew what had happened on the boat. I’d found out almost immediately. A friend of mine from the army was a paramedic, and he knew the guy on the chopper who strapped my grandmother to the sky that night. He said the circumstances were such that the chopper had had to come down much closer to the water than it was supposed to, and even then, there was some uncertainty about whether they’d actually be able to lift my grandmother out of the boat. They guy who was on the chopper had been scared. “It was like she had an anvil in her chest,” he told my friend. “And for a moment, I thought it would take us all down into the water with it. But then gravity let go, and we lifted her up above the river.”
* * *
In the winter, parts of the Danube freeze, but the current keeps most of the water going. It rushes from the Black Forest in the West to the Ukraine in the East, with temporary stops in Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade. If the waters ever rise too high, they’ll flood a large part of Europe, a large part of Germany. Ingolstadt, Regensburg, Passau; they’d all be underwater. It would be St. Mary Magdalene all over again, and it would tear away beautiful places, places full of memories and laughter. All the places that I visited as a kid, where my grandmother lived, before the stroke that took away her Bavaria.