The following is the first chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.
I was on the U-Bahn when the call came, somewhere between work at a refurbished factory space on the Spree and a gym in Mitte near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. I knew this call would be coming any day now over the past couple of weeks––any hour, really––and the stress was building up. A colleague of mine was teaching a spinning class and it sounded like a healthier remedy for blasting some of the stress out of my body than slurping down a few drams of whiskey. I could hide in the dark corner with my bike, put a pause on the outside world, and sweat out a healthy supply of anxiety for a brief reprieve before those inevitable reserves replenished with a fresh batch.
First, there was a text from my father. October 23, 2019 at 5:20 p.m. “Please call me.” Sent in a group chat I had started in early September with my brother so we’d all be on the same page. I glanced at the message popping up on the home screen of my phone. My heart sunk and my breath stopped. Whatever podcast I was listening to faded away. Fortunately, I was already sitting, which in retrospect, is odd since I usually prefer standing on the subway since I spend most of the day sitting in front of a computer.
Dave, my brother, was quick to reply with a three-person call. I didn’t want to take this call on the subway. Plus there were buskers on the train and I knew that’d make a difficult call even more challenging. I didn’t want to have to ask my dad to repeat this terrible news because some subway interlopers were drowning him out with covers of pop classics. Though I suppose I wouldn’t have needed him to repeat anything. I already knew why he wanted us to call.
“I’m on the subway and there are buskers playing,” I wrote to my brother. “Will get off ASAP.”
My transfer was coming up anyhow, so I hopped off. But I was underground and there was no way I’d get a clear signal. I could’ve run up the stairs to get above ground and take the call, but I instead made the selfish decision to take my connecting train to continue heading toward spin class. I justified it knowing that I’d only be taking the train for a couple of stops and that I’d really need the chance to disappear and punish my body after this call. See, we Baurs don’t really know what to do with emotions. They’re a pesky nuisance that none of us want to talk about. I’d sooner eat radish off the root than talk about how I feel.
At Kochstraße, I ran up the stairs and into a private inlet between a restaurant and a Rossmann store. It was off the sidewalk, so I wasn’t blocking the busy rush hour pedestrians or the tourists taking in the sights of Checkpoint Charlie where the Berlin Wall once split the city in two.
I put the phone to my ear, gripping my gym bag in my other hand, and joined the ongoing call.
“Mom’s gone,” my dad said.
There was a slight, controlled quiver in his voice. He’d been saying “one day at a time” for the past three years since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. At first, it was a coping mechanism, assuming that “one day” they’d be out of the woods and onward with their golden years. But in the last year, the reality shifted as we learned that the cancer we thought she was beating had actually spread. “One day” was no longer a goal but instead accepting the inevitable.
Mom had been knowingly sick for nearly the entirety of my time in Germany. I never once considered moving back. Writing that out makes me feel and probably sound awful. But she would’ve been doubly pissed at me if I stopped chasing my dream to go fuss over her. “I’m the mom,” she’d always say. That was her way of saying that she takes care of me, not the other way around. And she maintained that stubborn attitude up until my last visit with her.
Although I never considered moving back, it is something my wife Melanie and I discussed. But I knew I didn’t want to leave Germany. The thought made me feel nauseous. Still does. Because it’s not like we could just move back when we were ready. If it were just managing the logistics of an international move a second time, then maybe. (Though my heart aches whenever I close my eyes and see the way Moses, our rescue dog from Cleveland, looked at us through his air carrier when the gate agents took him away to load onto the plane during our original move to Düsseldorf.)
But it’s never lost on me how absurdly lucky I was to find a job in Germany with a company willing to sponsor my visa. They say money doesn’t grow on trees. You know what else doesn’t grow on trees? Visas.
It had been my dream to live in Europe since I started tracing my surname back to Central Europe in college. We had only been in Germany for a few months before Mom told us she had breast cancer. If we would’ve moved back right away, I’m not so sure we would’ve ever come back. I assume this because I’ve heard countless people say they’d like to move to Europe someday and never do for an assortment of perfectly valid reasons. But the point is, it doesn’t happen.
This, I realize with the benefit of retrospect, is nothing new to the immigrant story, least of all to the story of my immigrant ancestors who left the old country for the United States. Chasing after a dream abroad comes with painful sacrifices, both for you and your loved ones. You have to make decisions and do things that others can’t and won’t be able to understand. But you do it because you know it’s right for you.
And that’s what Germany has become for me. We fit together like a couple of newly printed puzzle pieces, coming together with a satisfying snap. Of course there are days when I want a break from Germany, from German culture. But that’s to be expected. I could be surrounded by hiking trails, cobblestone streets, and bagel shops under a temperate sun and get sick of it eventually. My chemical balance only allows for so much happiness before I start to get suspicious and need to take a step back.
In this stage of my life, Germany is right for me, and Mom knew that. She’d playfully throw around a few German words and phrases she remembered from high school and admired the work-life balance I was able to find here. Even as her memory started to fade, she’d ask me about life in Germany and about moving to Berlin. I know she was prouder of me going after my dream than she would’ve been had I dropped everything at her expense. The eye roll I would’ve been in for if I told her I was moving back to help take care of her would’ve thrown the planet off its axis. Her selflessness empowered me to be selfish and go after what I wanted.