December 22, the shortest day of the year. It's 3:30 and I'm on a train to the hospital.
My friend Kevin, in an almost stereotypical act of Middle-Age Crazy, decided some weeks ago to ditch the bicycle which features so greatly in his legend (he pursued his wife-to-be from Philadelphia to California on bicycle one summer when he was in college, since she was determined to make the trip on bike herself before moving back to Germany) in favor of something with a motor. In this case, a Vespa.
I'm still hazy on the details, but apparently he neglected to check the condition of the tires (or even properly learn how to ride it), and a tire blew, depositing him and scooter in traffic. The scooter was totalled, but Kevin survived with a broken leg and foot.
He went to the hospital, they stuck a pin in him somewhere, and they sent him home. It's not like this is a Really Difficult Operation, after all. Told him to stay off of his foot. So far, this is a sad, but unexceptional story, and if it's somewhat fuzzy in its details, it mirrors Kevin's fuzziness on the occasions we've spoken. They have good drugs here.
A couple of days later, complications set in. He went back to the hospital. There was an infection around where they'd inserted the pin. He'd have to be cut open, the infection controlled, and then he'd have to be sewn up again. He was in for a few days, minimum. They operated, and it was inconclusive. A few more days.
Then he got some awful news: his father, who'd been ailing for some time, had died in Philadelphia. He asked the doctors, and they said he wasn't going to be able to go to the hospital cafeteria, let alone Philadelphia, so he had to miss the funeral. He called his brother in Prague to find out what he was planning to do, and found his brother in shock at having just discovered his wife had left him.
You know how they say it's your Christian duty to visit the sick and afflicted? I'm no Christian, but a Satanist would feel sorry for this guy.
So this is why I found myself on the Ring S-Bahn on my way to the Westend station to walk to the Red Cross Center Hospital there. He seemed okay for someone having just come out of his third surgery when I talked to him on the phone, and I got the distinct impression he'd welcome a visitor.
And we rounded the bend towards Westend just as the sun was going down at 3:40. The Red Cross Center is a walled village of brick buildings built, I would guess, at the end of the 19th Century, each building intended to house a separate specialty, each with its own tower. The sun was golden, but the buildings themselves, the parts that show over the wall from afar, were in shadow. Only the top of each tower was showing, drenched in gold, making it look like a Burmese temple complex. The sky was blue, and far above the Center, dual contrails streamed from a jet, looking icy in the frigid air.
"I'm glad to see you," Kevin said, lounging in his hospital bed, his foot held rigid in a sort of box, covered with a cloth. A drip was feeding antibiotics into his arm, and he was clearly miserable. "Man, it could be worse," he said as his roommate donned some sweat pants and grabbed a couple of crutches and a box of cigarettes to head to the smoking room. "That guy had a motorcycle accident in September and he still doesn't know when he's going home. I got nothing to do here but watch TV and read. I've gone through a whole stack of books." I eyed the stack, which had some titles I'd wanted to read, and told him I'd happily take some off of his hands. I'm sort of short of reading matter these days.
We talked, and his cell phone rang a couple of times. One time it was his wife. "Hey, grab me some stuff before you head over," he told her. "Rent me a porno! I'm bored!" I thought, but didn't say, that a tap-dancing movie would be pretty pornographic in his condition. The nurse came in to take the drip off. He asked her exactly what his condition was, and she told him he was not to move his foot for 24 hours. If he had to pee, he had to pee in a bottle. If he had to take a crap, he had to do it in a pan. "Man," he said after she left, "that is the pits. I can't even go to that bathroom over there," and gestured to the door to the room's john.
After an hour or so, we were still talking when the door opened and his wife, her sister, and his youngest son came in. It was after 5, and I still had to go half-way across the city to get back home, so I started making my apologies and wishing him well. As I was putting on my coat, though, I remembered about the books. "Hey, Kevin, let me take some books off your hands," I said.
"Yeah," he said. "Let me see what I've got here," and he turned gingerly towards the stack. "Okay, I can let you have this one. It's pretty good. Someone brought it to me when they heard I was here." And he handed me a novel by someone named Paolo Coelho, an author I've never heard of.
It's title was Veronika Decides to Die. If that doesn't sum up Berlin, and Berliners, I don't know what does.