I never made it to the farmers market to photograph the heaps of white asparagus and strawberries.
I did not sit at the workshop café on the Kramerbrücke for rich hot chocolate in the rain.
I did not return for tiny storefront rhubarb eis, or to find exquisite chocolate souvenirs.
I did not buy artisan mustard for my dad.
Instead, I had an appendectomy. Arriving at the HELIOS Klinikum in Erfurt in early evening, every step a wince, armed with one concerned boyfriend and a tiny Deutsch dictionary to explain my pain—and did they have a doctor who spoke English? The Unfallstation secretary shook her head, but trotted off to find someone to help.
Ten minutes later, having peed into a cup, I was whisked past triage into a dark room with an ultrasound machine. Your appendice? the kindly translator said, it wants to exit from your body. He was making alien jokes. Surely this was wrong. You see? He said, applying pressure to my left gut, that hurts? I said not terribly. He let go. Ow! I said. He smiled and shared a glance with his hot-blonde surgeon colleague. Blinddarmentzündung. Appendizitis.
They let B. past Brunhilda at the desk. The nurse came to take some blood, just to confirm. She spoke very little English, but was beside herself that we would holiday to Erfurt from New York. She scribbled down her address so we could send a postcard from the States.
B. and the surgeon wheeled me up to Allgemeinchirurgie. The chief came by to make double sure the diagnosis. One prod of my lower right hand tummy and: appendizitis. Here was a pamphlet of risks to understand, please sign. Here are some compression stockings and a johnny, change. Here’s an incomprehensible telephone card to call your parents, (which our lovely nurse Maria fiddled with until it worked). Your boyfriend, he will have to go now.
Then came the silver elevator down to anesthesia. B. was left behind, though he refused to leave. I don’t remember much except a team of women that clucked and whistled when Maria said something something Englisch, spricht nicht Deutsch. And then to me, beaming, All is good—which is pretty much the same in German (alles ist gut), and would become my catchphrase on the ward. She wrote my name on duct tape at the bottom of my gurney, then was gone. The anesthesiologists explained some things in broken English. They spoke on cell phones, brought me an antique silver bed pan, then heaved wide the sliding doors into a darkened operating room.
From here it’s pretty standard: patient placed on tablet. Patient hooked to heart wires. Just before they knocked me out, they had a problem with my blood pressure, three or four cuffs gone through before they got a read. Germans technologie? They quipped, which didn’t add much confidence for laparoscopy.
I managed somehow to insult the Russian nurse while going under, oxygen mask clamped over my mouth. She said she was from Moscow; I said, ooh, good tango dancing! She looked perplexed. The anesthesiologist attempted a translation. She says table dance. I struggled to correct her, holding out the universal symbol for “this is my dance frame, this is yours,” as my limbs went leaden.
I vaguely remember coming to, freaking out, and jerking my restraints. It was dark; my head was draped. Someone rested a hand on my forearm and jabbed another vial into my IV drip.
Then I was in recovery—the poor table-dancing Russian lady asking where it hurt, B. striding over with his beleaguered army backpack on, a blissful shot of morphine, then another, a plastic cup of fizzy water with a straw. Your throat will hurt, they tell you, from the intubation. This I understood in Germany or in English. All I know is B. was there. He held my hand. He hadn’t left.
That first night I slept still on my back, stomach muscles wheezing and contracting as if I had been punched while running, and woke to a team of doctors standing over me—each more good looking than the last. They looked me over, my staple sutures, three incisions, iodine-yellow belly bloated up with Co2. Alles ist gut! they said, and smiled. The chief patted my foot.
The Erfurt klinikum is a lovely place in which to find oneself waylaid: stylish halls, city views, chirping birds each morning. Vases full of flowers. By eight am, I’d been visited by surgeons cracking jokes and changing bandages, the blood draw nurse, the sponge bath nurse (who stripped me naked, handed me two polyester washing mitts to put over my hands, and shut the bathroom door), the nurse who gives the thigh shots to prevent thrombosis, plus Maria, daily pills, and breakfast. It was a well-staffed, well-oiled machine.
I received a tray of spongey German bread slices, butter, pflaumenmus, and jam—and underneath the covered plate, one shiny slice of fleisch. Ich bin vegetarisch? My roommate had to translate. They don’t see many vegetarians in Thüringen. The next two days brought trays of bread and cheese and yogurt, sometimes a shredded carrot salad or a jar of applesauce. I drank endless cups of kräuter tea through a straw.
I find myself wholly touched by the experience. The kindness of the staff. Learning to need B. and knowing he’d be there. Sitting with him on the balcony at the end of the ward, the quiet green of suburban Erfurt interrupted now and then by exhibits in the countryside museum of the former DDR. Walking and wincing. Wincing and walking. Trying not to laugh because it hurts to laugh.
Now we’re in Berlin. We’d already rented an apartment for the week, which turns out to be idyllic (after the four-train journey of course). We’ve four airy and pleasant rooms all to ourselves, and another leafy balcony onto the courtyard. B. and our mothers have forbidden me to work, so I lay on the white leather couches watching Mad Men, drinking kräuter tea (of which I’ve become quite fond). In the afternoons and evenings, we go for very timid strolls.