He remembers the last time he spoke to his Oma. It was 1991, or maybe 1992, the actual year lost to memories faded even as the words they spoke remain vivid.
The phone he held in his hand that day was echoing and burning with words of love from the other side of the world. They hadn’t spoken in 15 years.
In his halting German and her broken English, they spoke of their time spent together and the years spent apart, reminiscences of childhood and old age.
He still remembers the feel of her calloused hands in his, hands that had once foraged for scraps of food in a shamed country overrun by the shameless.
He can imagine her on her knees in the rubble, a baby (his father?) strapped to her back in a makeshift papoose, her hands clawing amongst the bricks and the concrete, the charred timber frames that once graced a thousand postcards, and the unexploded mortar shells hoping to find something – anything – to eat.
He imagines her crying over her dead husband, his Opa, as she digs through the rubble and wonders if the last thought he had before he died in Stalingrad was of her. The thought brings new tears.
Later, he imagines her wiping the dirt and the grime and the ash and the dust from the faces of her children. Dignity costs nothing, he thinks. She did that for him, too, long after her own children had left or died.
Now, as her voice casts its echo from the other side of the world, he tries to remember her face, kind and warm despite her past. It’s framed by a wave of hair, once black, now fading to grey. Like his memories of her.
Her eyes are set deep and they too are framed by ringlets, streaks of black against a sea of grey, a year’s sadness written into every deepening circle.
He thinks of happier times, of chasing rabbits and eating ice creams together from the little kiosk on the corner, the scent of real vanilla; of building snowmen with dirty snow and two lumps of dirtier coal for eyes.
He remembers fetching coal from the cellar, a small tin bucket filled with the small bricks that would warm the flat during the day and long into the night.
He remembers being scared of the monsters under his bed and how she would come to him at the sound of his startled cry and stroke him back to sleep with her worn out hands, a comfort he craved so much, he sometimes pretended the monsters were there, even when they weren’t.
He remembers returning to his childhood bedroom in 1997, the first time in over 20 years, and was surprised to see it unchanged, shelves lined with yellow books filled with pictures of other countries and strange-looking animals.
His desk is still there too, its top covered in a map of the world – outdated now (Germany remains cleaved in two and the USSR hulks over eastern Europe) – that he would spend hours and days and weeks and months and years poring over, dreaming impossible dreams.
The room is still life of memories and kindness. Instinctively, he checks under the bed. There are no monsters there, never were. The real monsters came later and by then he was too far away for her to protect him.
Now, the phone in his hand is his final connection to her, and he knows with a certainty that could cast memories in bronze, this is the last time they’ll talk.
‘Ich liebe dich,’ are the last words she ever says to him.
‘Mich auch,’ are his.
She died two weeks later and in his mind, he imagines she died with his voice still echoing inside her, a last dance of love that knew no limits.