Would women die for a friend
One day in March, our author's wife dies. Eight hours later, his colleague's wife dies. Death is the beginning of their friendship. This resulted in two texts. You can read one here, the other appears in the “Magazin”.
Thomas and I meet on a Monday at the beginning of March in a café bar on Limmatplatz in Zurich. Bianca and Brigitte died three days earlier, eight hours between their deaths. Bianca was Thomas’s wife for 36 years. Brigitte and I were together for ten years, we got married last summer.
Thomas stands alone at a long bar, a large beer in front of him. I've never seen him like this before. Thomas is big and strong, I've always seen him as self-confident. Now he is leaning forward against the counter, his elbows bearing all his weight. There is a little hesitation, then we hug and start crying. A barmaid sees us and doesn't know what to do. Finally she pushes a couple of napkins into our hands.
We sit together all afternoon, drink beer and white wine, and sometimes we laugh too. It's strange: as much as we feel the need to talk about ourselves during these hours, we succeed in listening to the other. As we go, Thomas says: "You are a nice guy." Guy, he says that a lot.
Three days beforehand we are in the University Hospital Zurich, Thomas in the adjoining building, floor C, I in the main building, floor D. And I know: Brigitte will die today. She turned 50 last New Year's Eve. Brigitte suffered a cardiac arrest at the end of February, her brain was so badly damaged that there is no hope. She won't wake up from the coma, and if she does, all she will be able to do is open her eyes, nothing else. That's what the doctors say. The life support measures have been discontinued. Saying yes to that is the hardest decision of my life. And at the same time the only possible one.
Brigitte falls asleep on Friday, March 6th, at 5.45 p.m. Four good friends and I are with her. At this moment, Thomas doesn't know that Bianca will die a few hours later. After an epileptic seizure, there will be complications with the intestines. She is 72.
Thomas and I talked a lot on the phone in the days before Bianca and Brigitte died. He called me first and said: “I heard that Brigitte is in the intensive care unit in the university hospital. Where is it exactly? "
«Just in the intensive care unit. Are there several? "
"Yes, there are several."
"How do you know?"
"Bianca has been in one of these intensive care units for two weeks."
Since that conversation, I've been more confident that everything will be fine after all, and then again with Thomas. «A lot of strength», we say to ourselves every time before we hang up. I do anything for a little bit of hope. I go to a fortune teller who initially says that Brigitte will be back. But she's not coming back.
This is not the story of Brigitte, her death and me. She wouldn't have wanted me to write them down in detail, she didn't like the public, even if she worked as an art director for the public. And I don't want to tell the story here either. This is the story of Thomas and me, of the beginning of a friendship that only exists because we experience the same thing at the same time: grief, anger, fear and despair. Because our world collapsed on the same day and it cannot be fixed.
Had it been months or even years between Bianca's and Brigitte's deaths, Thomas and I would not have found each other. We feel connected today because at the same time the worst we can imagine happened. And because only we both believe we understand what that means for the other.
Without this coincidence everything would have stayed the same as before.
Thomas and I have known each other for 18 years. I have always read his articles in the “Tages-Anzeiger” before. He's the journalistic voice of Zurich football, and when we first met in the stands in the Hardturm in 2002, he didn't pay any attention to me. I was new to NZZ at the time, and I think I said "Grüezi" but got no answer. Thomas denies that he can't remember.
It doesn't matter for a long time. At some point later we got closer without being really close or even friends. When I wasn't feeling well a few years ago, he didn't know about it. And neither do I know whether he has felt badly in those many years. But when we were discussing a controversial text by his friends a long time ago, I said: "I just like Thomas." It stayed that way for years, an unspoken sympathy that has always been enough for us.
Thomas and I often travel together for football, and for a while I probably spent more time traveling abroad with him than with Brigitte. We ate fish in a small pub by the sea in Split and poured the terrible schnapps that was offered to us over a small wall into the sand. We took the train through southern Sweden, shared a house in Florida and drank Cabernet Sauvignon in South Africa. We felt comfortable together. And mostly we talked about football.
It didn't work better with anyone than with him. We sent each other text messages late in the evening, wrote messages to the new GC or FCZ trainer, or even just messed about. Brigitte often asked: «Who do you write to so late all the time? Sure, Schifferle. " After the games, we often stopped in front of the stadium for a long time and continued discussing. And we trusted each other in professional matters, much more than is usual among journalists in various newspapers.
That is the bottom of our friendship. We didn't have anything else. We haven't met privately beforehand. The fact that we are so close now is actually just a nasty whim of fate from which we are trying to save something good together.
And that in March, when Corona hit us, the strangest time we have ever experienced. At the moment of death one imagines that time has to stand still after all. It actually stops. Thomas ’and my world is no longer turning, and the world is also coming to a standstill because of Corona. Nothing is normal anymore. "That must be particularly bad for you," a friend tells me. I think the opposite is true, at least for now. Because actually for me it is inconceivable that life out there can simply go on as usual when I lose my loved one. Inside it looks the same as outside. Everything is out of joint. That feels bad, but at least consistent.
The days after the death of Bianca and Brigitte are also complicated because of Corona. There are no rituals, fewer mourners, no church, no restaurant for a funeral meal. Thomas invites me to Bianca's funeral. "I would think it would be nice if you came," he says, and at this moment I don't know if I can do it. On the morning of Bianca's funeral, Thomas calls me and says he's sick, he's got a fever, he's unloaded all the guests. He doesn't want to infect anyone. "I'll come anyway," I say.
A few hours later we are in the Sihlfeld cemetery in Zurich, Thomas, plus a man in a suit burying the urn and three mourners who have never seen each other before: a neighbor who helped with the care of Bianca, the son of a brother of Thomas. And me. Thomas told me a few days beforehand that he had prepared a little eulogy and that he was terribly nervous. He starts talking about Bianca, and it is only a little later that I realize that this is his address. There is never a speech less speech. It's a love story.
Three days later, Thomas comes to Brigitte's funeral. We are about fifteen friends and relatives, we are not allowed to be more because of Corona, we are back at the Sihlfeld cemetery. Thomas doesn't know any of them, at most from hearsay. A pastor speaks, a musician plays the guitar, and later we drink champagne and pour a glass of it over Brigitte's grave. She liked champagne. It's different from Bianca's funeral a few days earlier. Thomas and I experience the same thing, we know each other's pain and sometimes grieve differently.
We're different too, Thomas and me. We write differently, even if the former GC football coach Krassimir Balakow once complained that we always agree. Thomas is tougher and more direct, probably just like in his writing in life. Brigitte was sometimes upset when, in her opinion, he wrote too angrily about her FC Zurich. Thomas probably doesn't even know, but we have already called him “Buffalo” in the NZZ sports department. Thomas often sees things in black and white and is very clear in his announcements. Wherever he gives answers, I still look for the right questions.
Once, a few years ago, there was a chance we could have worked together for the same newspaper. It didn't come to that, and it's better that way. Our respect has always existed at a distance, we almost never praised or criticized one another. We don't have to. He is there and I am here. And we write what we want and what we think is right. He's with the Tagi, I'm with the NZZ.
I have never seen Thomas vulnerable or insecure. I thought he was someone who always had everything under control. But I didn't know him well enough then. There has always been the sensitive side. When he talked lovingly about his cats, for example. But only now do I feel his sensitivity. Thomas tells me that he was inspired by Brigitte's obituary notice when he had to write Bianca's one. Sometimes it is as if we were copying from each other in this grieving process, because there is no other way. We are not used to admitting this need to each other. But there are no longer any inhibitions.
“I'm just a typical Schifferle”, Thomas tells me, and I know what he means by that: A Schifferle is someone who makes things out for himself, someone who doesn't open up so easily. And with this Schifferle I now share an intimacy that couldn't be more natural. When we are at home with a couple of friends, Thomas also talks to them about Bianca's death. He doesn't know my friends. But he speaks openly and trusts them. Death changes us. Thomas maybe even more than me. At least when it comes to relationships with other people.
To be able to communicate means to share, to share the pain. Thomas has mentioned it again and again lately, as if something had become clear to him. Right from the start I couldn't help but confide in other people and especially my friends. It wasn't difficult for me. It is a need for me, perhaps more of an overcoming for Thomas. Thomas can be alone better than me for this. I think he can take it better. He likes to go to Bianca's grave alone and can sit there for hours. I can not do that.
Thomas also said goodbye to Bianca again when she was laid out for him in the Nordheim crematorium. He tells how nice it was to touch the cold, hard body, how beautiful Bianca looked thanks to the undertaker's work. As far as I am concerned, I have achieved more in this time than I thought myself would. To accompany Brigitte as she dies, for example. And to realize later that death, which I have always suppressed, has lost some of its horror because I have come so close to it. But saying goodbye to Brigitte's lifeless body was not possible.
It’s the first time I’m sitting in Thomas’s apartment. "Come to me for dinner at seven," he says when he invites me, "then it won't be that late either." At four in the morning I'll go again. It is an evening like a visit to a previously strange life. I see the pictures that Bianca has painted, her finches standing at the entrance, and the bed that also has her blanket on it. That's different for me. The cleaning lady put away Brigitte's blanket, I couldn't have done it.
When Thomas freshly moves into the bed, he is not sure whether everything will go together in terms of color. He and Bianca lived here for 34 years, it's an apartment that you can see from the time you spent together, maybe that's why it now seems so empty. On the table in the room there are books that Thomas does not really like to read. The unread newspapers are piled up. Otherwise he always knows every article.
I try to read Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking," a friend gave it to me after Brigitte's death. Didion writes about the death of her husband, she circles his death in the book from all sides, about literature, science, psychology. It does what we try to do: not just feel the grief, but understand what is happening to us. To find help like that.
I recently sent Thomas a video in which a philosopher and a psychologist talk about grief. I want to know everything about it and I notice: What the two say only confirms what I already suspect. Maybe there is not so much you can do wrong with grief. We actually know how to do that. If we allow it. But it's not easy. I want to feel the pain, very consciously. By looking at old photos. But I also suffer from seeing them. And again and again the question: How much should I distract myself? Can I be fine if something makes me laugh, can I feel good when someone is close to me? Is it okay to forget about grief then?
And is it just a coincidence that the rock musicians Brigitte admired most, Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell, died early like Brigitte after an intense life? It is more likely my helpless attempt to get something right that is not right.
Thomas and I send each other songs even though we don't like the same music. I send him “Strong as Two” by Udo Lindenberg. He sings: "Death is a mistake / I can't get it at all / They call right away and say / It's not true." We talk about how we mourn and with whom. Who we want around us and who we can't stand, although these people actually mean well with us. And we tell ourselves how careful we have to be not to confuse condolences that seem impersonal with indifference. Everyone does it the way they can.
When we are once in the cemetery and drink a bottle of white wine first at Bianca's and then at Brigitte's grave, Thomas says goodbye, "Bye, Brigitte" and touches the wooden cross with his hand. And whenever he visits Bianca, he also goes to Brigitte's. Sometimes he also brings her flowers. It moves me every time. Brigitte and Thomas did not know each other. And I only spoke to Bianca once on the phone, that was over ten years ago. She wanted to invite me to Thomas's 50th birthday, I couldn't go.
I have never met anyone after they die. I think I have guessed by now, who Bianca was, I see her in photos, a woman with very special eyes. There is a picture of Thomas and Bianca together, glasses and a wine bottle are on the table. She smokes, and Thomas looks with his glasses, beard and long hair as if he belongs to the RAF. And that's when I realize how long the two have been together. Thomas tells a lot about Bianca, anecdotes, beautiful things and painful things. And he often talks about his love for her, his first real love.
At the NZZ's last Christmas dinner, a colleague asked me why I wanted to get married. I say: "Because I knew that Brigitte was my wife."
Thomas says our women would now have a glass of wine together in heaven. “Bianca was always stronger than me,” he says. Brigitte was also stronger than me. Sometimes he wonders, says Thomas, why Bianca wanted him, a "little Winterthur boy", to be her husband. And I say that Brigitte would probably have found me boring as a young woman. This is no longer the case later. But Brigitte is a guide in my life, more than the other way around.
Have Thomas and I done enough right in all our years of our relationship with Bianca and Brigitte? We keep asking ourselves the question, one can despair of it because more and more would have been possible. More hugs, more openness, more listening.
Thomas and I talk about it when we are sitting in a pizzeria in District 5. It's about feelings of guilt, they plague us differently, but they plague both of us. One bad word at the wrong time, one inattention too much, an untold story that can no longer be told. And whether we might not have been able to prevent death after all. We try to help each other and take away our doubts. But at the end Thomas says: "If I turn off the light in the evening, I'll be lonely." And I talk to Brigitte in bed before going to sleep and sometimes I don't know whether I'm really talking to her or to myself.
In the meantime, Thomas and I say to each other that we have been able to give Bianca and Brigitte something over the years that made them happy and gave them support.«Quite sure», says Thomas. And I want to believe him. “We have a good life,” Brigitte and I often said to each other. Brigitte died when she and us were fine. And I don't know if that should comfort me. Or crush it even more because so much more good should have come.
And now what's next? Thomas says he won't change anything in his apartment, “maybe I'll live in a museum, then that's the way it is”. The future is unwritten, sings the German musician Thees Uhlmann in a song. Therein lies the promise of a life that will be new and different. If we manage to get involved.
"Maybe you can get over it, maybe I, maybe none of us," says Thomas.
You can read Thomas Schifferle's text here: "Bianca and Brigitte"
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