Hélène the Man

Hélène the Man
Artwork by Isa Genzken

I have known Hélène since university times. She was the star of the faculty, the unattainable beauty, who broke male hearts with her smile, her French and her breathtaking “décolleté”. After the graduation our paths separated and so, I lost sight of her. I met Hélène recently when she was enrolling her daughter Lisa into a jazz-school. It was a few weeks after the coronavirus lockdown was over. This time I hardly recognized Hélène, for she was no longer the person I used to know once. Her facial features, her voice, her posture, even her clothes – everything was changed radically. Was it because of the COVID-19? It turned out later that her story had been much more complicated.

Lisa

He caught her eye the first moment when she entered the room. It was impossible not to notice him. He was modestly standing there in the corner, forgotten by everybody, not much paid attention to. The very moment Lisa noticed him she knew they were meant for each other. Was he not waiting all this time for anybody like her to finally dare to approach him? And she did. He had this very special subtle smell. Something already very familiar to her. Can we have memories of smell? Lisa did not know. What was his spell? His solidity gave her the feeling of comfort. Comfort and security. One day she will touch him and then… Then she will never be the same again. She will never be alone any more.  Stuart… That was his name. “Stuart and Sons”: the engraved name of the manufacturers was still very distinguishable. How old was it, the piano of her grandfather?

 

Sonja

Her husband Stuart had been already dead  for a long time when her granddaughter first asked her about him. Before it happened, little Lisa ran with eyes wide open towards the old piano and hugged it like one hugs a human being that was not seen for a long time. It happened spontaneously. In one strong momentary impulse. Sonja understood right away what exactly  drew the teenage girl as a magnet there. It was not the instrument itself, it was its aura. It was about the person who played it. It was about Stuart. A jazz pianist. A child of an interracial marriage. A boy from a remote orphanage,  who came to Switzerland with nothing and conquered it with his music. Stuart: the legendary grandfather who Lisa has never met.

All these years Sonja had a very intensive sensation of Stuart’s presence in the house. Her husband was invisibly there, hiding his soul somewhere between the black and white keys of the piano. And so for some inexplicable reason, she did not allow anybody to touch her husband’s instrument. Nobody except Lisa. The moment the girl hugged the piano, Sonja defied the ban. That is how music returned back in her life. The life full of silence and solitude. Sadness and isolation. 

 

Frank 

The isolation started in January when he rolled into 2020 on a wheelchair. It was not the start Frank wanted. God knows, it was not. Everything was rolling so nice until the damned 1st of January!

On Christmas they moved into a new house. Old new house. The dear house of his childhood. The house that still smelt oatmeal biscuits. The house with his father’s old piano and oil paintings on the wall. Each painting was a memory of a different year of Frank’s childhood. Each one was purchased by his dad after another round trip with the orchestra. The house still kept the laugh of Frank’s sister and the secrets of his puberty. The house where his mother was now alone with the ghosts from the past.

 

Photo by Anna Butan

It felt as if after a long journey his ship could finally drop her anchor in the harbor where everything started. The life-tour was completed. Frank was so tired from all these life-tsunamis outside. He was deadly tired. Some long-expected peace at last.

What also came as a relief was that the three women who he loved were finally put into the conditions when they had to share the same space. For them there was no alternative but to learn how to interact. They had to stop  tearing him to pieces. Frank had only one heart and his heart belonged to  all of them. Sonja, Lisa and Hélène. Now he was relieved that finally he could bring his mother and his wife together under the same roof. No more unnecessary feeling of guilt because of love. Love is love. Love is never too much. And his love was like one warm big cloud that spread over three beloved ones. How could he exclude one of them? No, he won’t do it. They will get used to it.

They celebrated New Year very simply but cozy. Just as Frank always wanted: three generations of beloved women at one table: his daughter, his wife and his mother. How many times he was dreaming about this moment. He saw it in his mind clearly in details long before it happened: this table, this napkin, these chairs, these plates…. And these beloved people. Eating together. Sharing.

When Frank was preparing for his late night work shift on the 1st day of 2020 he did not feel anything extraordinary. His intuition was silent. The guardian angel was probably still having a post-New Year hangover. There was no explanation to what happened afterwards. Simply a wave of the irrational. Or was it fate?

 

Sonja

Was it the sign of fate that for Christmas Sonja considered asking her son for a new wheelchair instead of this disgusting old Rolling Walker? A shameful support… Its disturbing squeaking and screeching constantly reminded her of how ugly her own voice became. It also reminded her of how dependent she was on this horrible devilish device. When you are 90 you have no alternative but to surrender  before it. You won’t be able to make a move without it.. You do need support.  If you fail to do so the space is against you and you risk to lose this battle. A conspiracy of corners, floor and walls. Everything around you wants to see you defeated. You are a slave of the “Rollator”. What a weird name, isn’t it? You don’t walk any more. You roll. Life rolls as usual but you are no longer its active participant. You are a passive contemplator. You roll with it but it could also roll without you.

Often Sonja had the feeling that it was not her holding a Rolling Walker but vice versa. It held her tightly to make sure that she was no more independent. How tired she was from its disquieting squeaking that sounded like a scream of a wounded animal!

How many times she wanted herself to scream in the middle of the night. To scream of desperation. To scream of loneliness. To scream of fear. In her dreams cancer was the demon who was hunting her flesh and patiently waiting: “So, have you survived this time? I can wait, do not rejoice!”.  Even though after the therapy her attending doctor confirmed “some improvement”, Sonja knew that it was only a temporary break. Demons were waiting for her somewhere in the dark corner of her room. She sensed it. She knew it.

Everything changed when her son moved in to live with his family together under the same roof. She will never be lonely any more. She is loved. Demons can wait.

Old Sonja had all kinds of Christmas in her life: a crazy one, a boring one, an adventurous one… But this one was the  quietest. And because it was the quietest she felt some peace finally.

 

Hélène  

Will there be any peace finally? Will they ever stop this childish stupid rivalry for Frank’s attention? Was it not ridiculous that she had to compete with a woman 50 years senior than she? This thought followed Hélène everywhere since they made their mind to move in and live with Frank’s mother. Does it mean that her fight is lost? Now the command will be in the hands of Sonja and she, Helen, will have to  give up…

Before she entered the house of Frank’s childhood Hélène envisioned the master of the house arrogantly meeting her at the door, staring at her judgmentally and pressing her with her absolute authority. Hélène expected to see Sonja as a matron, a proud adamant queen, who would remind her of her own insignificant role in this movie about Frank. She expected to see the powerful woman, who had been keeping all this time her husband’s will in her iron hands as tightly as a hellish vice. She expected anything but not a broken, fragile woman, trembling with eternal fatigue like a willow tree in the wind.

All that Hélène discovered was an age-worn extremely thin lady with very sad eyes. Sad but still very beautiful. How long is this woman left to live? Since Sonja had been diagnosed with cancer she was abandoned by all her relatives. Only Frank took care of her. Sonja was lonely. And depressed.

The wave of shame came as no surprise. How ridiculous it was: the wife and the mother spent years in absurdity, in tearing Frank apart. As if they were two foreign states fighting for the identity of no man’s land. All that was so infantile and so wrong. Frank was an autonomous territory. And he wanted neutrality. All those things were hitting him immensely. Especially now that they knew the diagnosis of his mother, it was immoral to continue this pointless childish rivalry. On Christmas Hélène promised herself to restore peace. At least for her own daughter’s sake.

That was the moment when everything started. The change. Hélène’s transformation into somebody else. But in the pre-Christmas routine she missed all the warning signals. Hélène made titanic efforts to arrange a cozy Christmas. Fortunately, Frank helped. Little Lisa was preparing surprise-postcards for everybody. They even mailed some of them to other family members living abroad. Isn’t Christmas the time when you forget and forgive? Is it not the time of hope? The miracle time.

 

Lisa

This Christmas a miracle happened finally. The miracle Lisa wished for a long time. Mom and dad stopped fighting that dad was spending so much time at his mom’s. Mom had nothing to worry any more. And granny was now there, living now with them. Grandma and mom even finally hugged! Oh, there was so much hugging these days!

Lisa couldn’t stop admiring those two when they were discussing books, recipes or decoration ideas. Sonja and Hélène looked like two chirping birds. They were so much alike! Did they realise it? If Lisa could put a mirror in front of her mom and show her herself in 50 years probably she would be surprised to discover a familiar face on the other side. How was it possible? Two women coming from completely different countries, grown in totally dissimilar circumstances… How can it be? Yet, when they both laughed there was some vague resemblance . Something universally feminine that knew no  diversity. It was amazing. As if somebody waved a magic wand and cloned her mother. Lisa could listen to this double laugh forever.

Could she imagine that her first day of the New Year would be filled with tears?

 

Frank

Could Frank imagine that his first day of the New Year would be filled with tears and pain? No, of course he couldn’t. Life is full of irrationality. You cannot expect or predict everything. No matter how hard you try, fate will always find ways to remind you that it’s her and not you who rules here. And so it did.

When he was falling, he felt as if an invisible hand pushed him violently towards a big metallic rim. He was thrown down as if beyond his will. The first thing that Frank could think of afterwards when he was lying on the floor was: “Why? Why me? Why did it happen now? Why couldn’t I foresee it? Why? Why?! Why!!!”

He couldn’t remember for how long he was lying on the cold floor until he tried to make an effort and move. Something sticky and liquid was sliding down his cheek. Was it blood or tears?  A salty taste. Probably it was both.

3 am. Isn’t it the time when our souls are most vulnerable? Isn’t it the time when devils hunt our flesh? Suddenly he remembered the article he had read once about old people dying between 3 am and 4 am. Why is he thinking about it now? He has to move. At any price.  Moaning Frank tried to crawl towards the staffroom. He knew there was always an ice-bucket there. Finally his mind started to return to reality. He fell down. His leg was hurt. Probably broken. He has to make it to the staff-room that was located within about 15 meters of the place where he fell. There’s an ice-basket, an emergency-kit and a telephone there. Crawl. Do not think. Crawl! Don’t stop! You are almost there!

Everything happened when video surveillance cameras were on but on January 1 security guards were not attentive enough. At least not to the back office. At  all accounts Frank was not counting on them.

Strangely enough, his memory  eliminated the details of what happened afterwards. When he opened his eyes  next time, all he could see was the brown color. A lot of brown. The ugly brown ceiling of the hospital. And his wife holding his hand.

 

Hélène

She couldn’t tell for how long he was sleeping and for how long she was holding his hand and silently crying. Why? Why did it happen to him? Why now? Why like this? Hélène could not find any answer. It was unfair. It was not what all of them needed now. Now, when everything started to come into place slowly! Who and why decided to send them this test of endurance? And how on earth could she tell all this her daughter and her mother-in-law?!

 

Sonja

How could she dare to tell her such things about her son?! She! This little arrogant French woman! Sonja couldn’t see Hélène’s face any more. The mind was reminding that her daughter-in-law had nothing to do with what happened to Frank but the heart was bleeding and needed a scapegoat to blame.

How could it happen? Why her son? Why not her?! She should have had this accident, not him! What will happen now? Thoughts did a devilish circle dance in Sonja’s head and she couldn’t catch any of them.

It was the first night when demons were not visiting her. They decided to come after her son instead. No, it was unfair! That wasn’t the agreement! That was really a foul play! Sonja was the one who was supposed to have an accident! She was supposed to be alone now on a cold hospital bed. “Do not take my son! Please do not take my son!”  – She was whispering that night and the night after and the night when Frank was having an operation.

 

Lisa

Daddy will have an operation. Mom said, we could visit him two days after. What is it really: an operation? How is it possible that some stranger can just expose you in front of him like a wounded animal and intervene in your innermost? Is it not strange? Disgusting? Unnatural?

Mom said that doctors knew for sure what they were doing. They were people with a college degree. They were trained to save lives. We should trust them.

Can’t she not understand that it’s her dad?! Her one and only. How can she trust him in the hands of some strangers? It is such an insane idea! They will see him weak, they will see him naked, they will do things to him when he is sleeping.

“Daddy, be strong! Daddy, please feel my love!” – Lisa was whispering to her pillow. Maybe if she closes her eyes and tries to think about dad very thoroughly, he could feel her love? Can her thoughts transform in a big invisible cloud independent from time and space? Can this cloud reach that hospital room where her father is spending a sleepless night of pain and loneliness? Next two days  went on and an. Mom was on the telephone. Grandma was roaming around the house twice more intensely. Her rollator was squeaking and screeching louder than usually. It was a terrifying sound. Lisa could hear it also by night but she couldn’t tell if it was only in her dream.

 

Frank

Frank wished it would be only one bad dream. He wished he could wake up. But he was already awake. The doctor said the operation had gone as previewed. Hélène was on her way to the hospital. Lisa called him and said that the other day his mother and his wife had hugged each other and cried. Is the accident the price that Frank had to pay for the peace between these two?

What will be with all of them now? “Please wake me up, I am in a wrong dream. Give me back mine! Everything must be different there!”

 

“Are you ok?”,  – his wife was caressing Frank’s hair.

“More or less”.

“You were whispering something in your sleep”.

“Since when are you there?”

“I think since more than an hour…”

 

It felt as if time stopped. And it stopped at the wrong moment. That day Hélène asked him something he couldn’t understand. All he could focus on was an ugly brown ceiling. All this shit that was about to fall on his head after he will return home and will be stuck in bed on invalidity. All what he loved  his car, his gym, his morning run – everything will be on hold now. God knows for how long. Frank wouldn’t be surprised if this ceiling would one day just crawl down. He  let his eye dwell on it to make sure it won’t fall on his head. The invasion of brown. Ugly inevitable brown. Who on earth decided to paint the hospital ceiling in this disgusting color?

 

Lisa

“Who decided to color the ceiling of the hospital in brown?”

“I don’t know Lisa… You also noticed it!”

“Yes! It is so…”

“Ugly?”

“Unusual!”

“I know. It looks like one big…”

“Chocolate! It looks like dark chocolate! You know, like the one you always buy to me! Daddy if you look at it for a long time, maybe you can start feeling the taste of chocolate! You should try. I can look with you”.

“That’s my girl!”

“Why are you crying?”

 

Sonja

“Why are you crying?”

Sonja’s granddaughter was repeating it again and again until she saw her putting the head on the chest of her mom. Then Lisa said:

“You know, I don’t mind that you cry. Both of you look so beautiful now… You look like two sisters”.

And then Sonja started to cry even more.

It was already more than ten years that her sister didn’t call her any more. Her one and only younger sister.  A stupid  conflict… Sonja wouldn’t even remember now what the reason was. The saddest thing was that her sister was still alive. She simply expunged her from memory  as if she never existed.

And now Sonja was sitting here in this room with a woman from another country, a woman speaking a different language, a woman who took her son from her. Yet, the company of this woman suddenly happened to be very soothing.

 

Hélène

Suddenly Hélène felt the comfort she lacked since such a long time. In pain and suffering they lent a hand to each other. They lent a hand over the distance of 50 years, over the prejudices, over the  linguistic divide and over the years of misunderstanding. Their hands met and made a bridge. They crossed it and let their tears run.

In pain we are the same. When we are happy we are careless egoists. We bath in our joy alone. But in pain we seek for a hand to hold. In pain we wake up.

 

Lisa

“Mommy, wake up! We are bringing dad home today!”

Lisa was dancing around her impatiently.

“Sweety, we still have time. Go ask if your grandma wants a coffee”.

“Mommy, she was screaming yesterday night! I could hear from my room! Something about demons. I am scared!”

“Do not worry, Lisa! Your granny had a bad dream. We will make her coffee and all the demons will go away”.

 

Frank

If only this pain could go away! Frank was sipping his morning coffee. The last coffee in the hospital. And suddenly he  realized that that this very ceiling that he couldn’t stand from the first day he came here was actually also the color of coffee. It didn’t seem ugly anymore. Coffee and chocolate. Chocolate and coffee.

 

Hélène

Lisa wanted to absolutely bring three chocolates with her. Frank’s favorite ones. Why three?

 

“Daddy, I want to give those two to the doctors! One to the surgeon and one to the other guy. Who was he exactly?”

“Anesthesiologist”.

“Sounds  like Antichrist”

“Not so demonic though…”

“He was sleeping you down?”

“Yes”.

“And were you not scared?”

“Of course I was”.

“Didn’t you mind that they saw how scared you were?”

“No, I didn’t mind. It’s ok to be scared. Even the strongest ones can feel scared”.

“Did you see demons?”

“No”.

“What did you see when you were sleeping?”

“Nothing. I saw nothing”.

“Nothing at all?”

“Yes”.

“Maybe if you try to remember…”

“I am sorry, Lisa, I wish I could see dreams but I really saw nothing. One black hole”.

“And even no demons?”

“And even no demons”.

 

Sonja

Demons came again the night before her Franky was back home after the operation. They were making strange faces and laughing. “The medical cast on the leg is a piece of cake! We have something else in mind!”

Sonja was yelling at them but they were only invisibly laughing from their dark corner. That’s when she realised that Frank’s accident was just a beginning. A preface to a bigger drama that was about to start. This time she was warned about it.

 

Hélène

Nobody warned her that Frank’s accident was just a beginning. But before the demons put the shade on the earth there was a moment of stillness. Time stopped. Days became monotonous. Hélène felt as if she became the head of the house. She was the Mother. The real one. She had to take care of these three helpless children. Out of all three Lisa was the most conscious one. She suddenly became more mature. She was helping. And what was more surprising, she was never sad again. “Daddy is at home with us. Granny is also there. We are all together. Everything will be fine!”. The girl was repeating this like a prayer, like a mantra, like a magic spell until Hélène herself started to believe that everything would be fine.

 

Frank

“Everything will be fine if we stay home and remain prudent. We are anyway most of the time in our house. The coronavirus is dangerous for old people but our granny is not going out for years!”

“But daddy, me and mom, we are still going out!”

“If it would be so dangerous, they would tell us. They would take measures. You don’t have to worry. As long as schools are not closed, there’s no reason to panic”.

 

Hélène

“Today they closed Lisa’s school. Two teachers felt unusually weak, they took them to have them tested. Nobody knows when the school will open again.”, – wrote Hélène in her diary. Just the day after the state officially closed all the schools. The coronavirus era officially started.

 

Lisa

They call it the “coronavirus”. What a strange foreign name! An artificial word that meant nothing to her. The school was closed. Lisa couldn’t say if she was happy or sad about the news. She only started to get used to the new place and now just like everything else that she was getting accustomed to it had to vanish. Did the coronavirus mean sudden holidays? Would she have homework to do? Could she still see her friends? Friendship is not contagious, is  it? What about granny? They say, younger ones should not be too close with old people. What an absurdity! How can she distance herself from her own grandma? Questions were piling in her little fourteen-year-old head and making her almost dizzy.

The Internet was flooded with pictures of doctors and nurses. Their faces were exhausted, some of them even horrified. Lisa remembered how a few weeks ago she was asking herself if she could trust her dad in the hands of these strangers.  Doctors with a college degree as mom said. What if they are tired? What if they make a mistake? How can the whole world be dependent on them? Only on them and nobody else!Lisa remembered the chocolate she was buying for the anesthesiologist. Anesthesiologist: the antipode of Antichrist. If the Covid19 was the  Antichrist, then Anesthesiologist and his team were the knights of light. Who will win? In her mind it was all like a computer game: a wrong move and the main hero will be gone.

Lisa wanted to believe that there at home they were safe. It could not be any other way. Their home was their castle. The place she could feel herself at ease.

In fact, she felt very tired of all the trials that life put her on recently. First they changed the apartment, than dad had an accident, afterwards they suddenly announced that school would close for more than a month… If there was something stable she could hold on, it was this new house where four people were more than ever united before the coming uncertainty.

 

Frank

Before the coming uncertainty Frank felt like a wounded captain of the drifting boat.  His damned leg was in the cast, he was limited in his freedom of movement and on top of it they called from his work to announce that he was transferred on the “Kurzarbeit”. Isn’t the insurance supposed to cover costs? But no, it will be less on his card now and with this sum he is supposed to support his family and his mother. Frank was not even able to withdraw money. His baby, his muscle-car will be standing many months covered with dust in the darkness of the garage. He was no more able to do fitness. Able to do nothing. Just roll on the wheelchair all day long. The same helpless way as his mother did.

 

Hélène

Now two of them, Frank and Sonja, were squeaking and cheering around all the day long. On top of it, Sonja was now making her tours also by night. Secretly Hélène put some oil on her rolling walker. Otherwise she would wake up Lisa. Her daughter became very silent recently. What was going through her little head?

But Frank preoccupied Hélène the most. She was not used for her husband to being suddenly weak, sensitive, dependent, passive and quiet. Her fortress of a man suddenly became a defeated wounded animal. This feeling was new and uncomfortable. It was not the man she met twenty years  ago. The charismatic devil who seduced her soul with his sense of humour before he could seduce her body.

It was not her Frank. It was a different man lying there on the bad, weeks after weeks, not able to move  but in a wheel chair. It was somebody else. Somebody she was not ready to meet. A pale shadow of the Frank she knew.

There were moments of weakness when Hélène felt irritation: why should she carry on everything on her shoulders like a mule that drags an overloaded carriage? No, she did not want it! She wanted to feel herself fragile again, to seek male protection, to wear skirts and heels, cook biscuits when she has a mood to do it and not planning instead how to feed four mouths with a minimum budget. No, no, no, she did not want all that! But if not she, who else? Sonja was too old, Frank was too weak, and Lisa was too much absorbed in her music. The only thing Hélène did not want was to teach Lisa the household and all these boring stereotypical female duties. Lisa did not deserve it and it was obviously not her thing. Hélène could clearly see that her daughter would be a rebel; she would follow her own path. She won’t fall into the trap of public opinion. If she chooses music, let it be music. If she decides never to marry or to be childfree – whatever her choice would be, Hélène would accept it.

 

Frank

Would Hélène accept him the way he was now? Frank’s thoughts were spinning again and again around the same painful topic. Would his wife be happy with a disabled husband? Would she accept his weakness? His passivity? His fragility and uselessness? He knew that the cast on his leg was temporary and so was his immobility. But nobody could tell him for sure for how long this state would last.

The feeling of being a burden was so strong that somewhere in the corner of Frank’s mind some very dark thoughts started to pile like a contagious seed. But Frank was chasing them away. No, he won’t! Do not even think about it! He has Lisa. Hélène still loves him. And his mother needs him. She won’t survive if he  passes away before her. That will be too much.

But too much was also this never-ending lying in the damn cast. At times Frank felt like a captured tiger, wounded by a hunter and trapped in a cage. Every move caused pain. Frank was observing for hours trained muscles on his legs. What for they are now if he cannot use them? The only painless state was the state of lying down and doing nothing. He had to watch Hélène working for two of them. Waking up at six o’clock, preparing breakfast, taking a protecting mask and a trolley to go on foot to the nearest farm. The word “nearest” was obviously an exaggeration because the farm was at least three kilometers one way (they agreed to avoid supermarkets). It was really a pity that Hélène had never made a driving license but now it was too late to think about it.

When Hélène was back, she was tired and sweaty, looking as if she ran a marathon. But then she had to cook again, wash the dishes, clean the house, help Sonja, check his leg, go out again, this time in the pharmacy or to the post-office, sometimes for a walk with Lisa. Hélène never had a moment of rest, never a time for herself. In the evening again: cooking, cleaning, helping him with the shower, giving a medicine, helping Sonja and finally, falling down to bed exhausted just to be in several hours ready for the whole cycle to repeat. Or was she working at night? Hélène said she had started to write again her articles. Her freelance writing could pay off their food or perhaps medicines. Frank was scared that one day his wife would break down. That she would fell down somewhere in the middle of it all in exhaustion.

His little Hélène, his cute lovely French princess… She was no longer wearing skirts. She was putting her most comfortable one-size-fits-all jeans and old dusty sneakers. No time for a haircut. Makeup was out of question. Anyway, who needed a makeup at the time of corona? Hélène became as stiff as a string. Her chin started to look somehow masculine and playful seductive smile disappeared. All her facial features became harsher, abrupter. As if somebody took a chunk of stone and cut off all the unnecessary details. Hélène became more emotionally neutral. Frank could hardly remember when he saw his wife last time laughing. Was it all that because of him? Or because of the corona?

Picture by Anna Butan

 

Most of their neighbours were treating the quarantine with some overrated joy as if it was just another holiday. They seemed not to notice it. People were grilling on the terrace, drinking wine, socialising and even letting their kids mingle. General mood was very relaxed and laid-back. Frank could not understand how and when were these people managing their presumed home-office duties. He was pretty sure that with the virus many lost their jobs or were transferred on reduced shifts. But if that was the case, what was the source of this general elevated mood of carelessness? Was it a mask to camouflage existential fear?

At least Hélène was not wearing any masks (except for a surgical one). She was authentic. And she was acknowledging the existence of Covid19. No, she was not scared of it. For this she had no time. And she was not hiding that she was becoming harsher, stronger, more resistant. As if her body and her mind were getting the immunity against all the possible life-hardships. Frank’s accident was the catalyst for it.

 

Lisa

Because of the dad’s accident  all things were topsy-turned in the house. As if her parents  swapped their roles. Frank had to give up his responsibilities of the man of the house.  Hélène had to exchange her fragility and sensibility for strength and robustness. Dad was now the weakest member of the family.

 

Picture by Anna Butan

Even grandma made Herculean efforts to gather the remains of her energy in order to take care of Frank and help Hélène to manage the household. After all, it was a big six-room house that needed cleaning and maintenance on a regular basis. Far from everything was sorted out after they moved in. Hélène had no time to check all the heavy boxes that were nested in the farthest room. Sonja had no strength. And she, Lisa, had no wish.

Everything she wished now was to bury herself in her grandfather’s music scores. The coronavirus was something intangible, something remote, something that did not exist in this house. In fact, at some moment, Lisa even forgot about it. The only medicine she could arm herself with was music.

Lisa embarked on careful studying of her grandfather’s notes. Days and especially long nights passed before she finally dared to approach the piano. Her quarantine was filled with jazz. A lot of jazz self-prescribed on a daily basis. Lisa could not say whether it was the circumstances that motivated her to finally open the cover of the piano or her own inner impulse. But once she did it, nothing could stop her. She was practicing and practicing until one day Sonja came into the room, silently took her hand and started to cry. “If only Stuart could hear you!”.

 

Sonja

“If only your dad could be there, Franky, he would tell you that your worries are for nothing!”

“No, my dad has never been weak or defeated. He was always taking care of you. Of me.  Of all of us”.

“You are so wrong, my dear! There were years and years when I was earning more than him. The watch industry was booming, I made  an adequate career choice. But Stuart was stubborn with his music. His wages were more than modest in comparison with mine. My parents forecast us misery, they tried to pull us apart. But not a second was your dad feeling intimidated by the fact that I was financially or physically stronger than him. Your dad  has never doubted my love either. And I trusted him as well. One day Stuart came with the signed contract with the Stadttheater. That was the day when everything changed”.

Sonja initiated the conversation by herself. She observed Frank for a while before she could understand the real reasons of his suffering. It was not only physical pain. It was not the dread of the Covid19. It was the feeling of helplessness. Guilt. Discomfort. The feeling of embarrassment  before his mother and his wife.  But if this French woman loved her son, she must have had enough wisdom to treat the situation adequately. Since Frank’s wife moved in her house, Sonja changed her mind.

It was before she saw her that Sonja was thinking about Hélène as about a capricious spoilt girl wishing to parasitize on her son’s good feelings. But when she got to know her better she discovered that real Helen had nothing to do with the image created by her wild imagination.

Now her task was not to let Frank, her tiger, to fall into the hole of self-doubt and depression. If those two really loved each other they had no choice but to accept that one of them became weaker and the other one had to be strong.

“Nobody said that you and Hélène should be stuck in these stupid gender roles. When your dad was penniless and I was feeding the family, he was the one cooking, cleaning the house or doing the shopping. Imagine, it was back in the seventies when gender stereotypes were much stronger! However,  we managed. There were months when he had no concerts and no students. We were living only on my salary. I still believed in him. I knew he would become famous one day. And he has never felt like a parasite. I’ve never felt irritation”.

 

Hélène

“Does Sonja feel irritation as well? Her son is lying here weak and defeated and I am running in all directions, commanding the house like a man.” The thought stroke her as a flash. Indeed she was acquiring male qualities. She had to be strong, courageous, fearless, counting and analyzing. No time to fear the coronavirus: she had to plan her family budget, to think how to feed everybody, to put her beloved one again on the feet.

The actual physical strength became a must as every two or three days Hélène had to take a trolley and do the shopping. Dragging a heavily charged trolley three kilometers on foot was no pleasure. She also had to help Frank with washing. Even though her husband lost weight, he was immensely heavy.

“Do I want to become like a man? And do I have a choice?” – Hélène had no answer.

 

Photo by Anna Butan

Frank

Did he have a choice? How could he regain his status? And should he? News about the deadly virus marching the globe were worrying him less than the slow disappearance of his own masculinity. For all his life he was the boss, the man of character, the one in charge. But this time fate sent him circumstances he could not control. Damn accident! It did not broke his leg. It broke his will.  It broke his mind. It broke him.

But as the days of the quarantine were passing, Frank was sensing that their bonds with Hélène were not weakening. On the contrary, they were feeling somehow more and more attached to each other as if in misery they were rediscovering each other, now in a new role. He did not know if it would be the same without Lisa and Sonja. The youngest and the oldest members of the family became best friends  and their friendship, their laugh, their care  set the main tone for everybody.

 

Lisa

She was not supposed to be in a good mood but, she was, nevertheless. Mom and dad were both there, grandma was truly an angel who became her best friend. Lisa could practice her music and nobody opposed her. What more could one ask for?

If there was anything she did not care about at all that was the much discussed COVID-19. They were asked to stay home and she knew, many accepted it as a punishment. But for her staying home was everything she wanted. To be there with beloved ones. Practice the piano. Talk to grandma. Watch the flowers on the terrace growing and hope that everything will change for the better. Was it fate that sent them this situation?

 

Sonja

When fate decides to take you in her hands, she gives you no warning  signs. No signs and no symbols. Nothing at all. Fate is a capricious, impulsive and irrational lady. She always hits when you expect her least of all. The uncrowned queen, she just makes her resolution that is neither to be questioned, nor objected to. You simply have no time for it. You have all the time in the world to make plans but no time at all to deal with your fate.

Sonja had no time to think or react when fate took her husband. One day Stuart was just gone. The end of story. Only the sounds of John Coltrane’s music were frozen in the air forever. And the smell of Stuart’s pipe. Nothing else.

There was no time to understand what happened when her son Frank was thrown on a wheelchair. Again this lady! The fate. The queen. As much Sonja tried to understand it, she could not find an explanation. No answer to the question why it happened to him and why exactly at  that moment.

It was Her Majesty the Fate who decided to crown humans with the mysterious virus. Little arrogant beings who dared to think that they can manipulate the fate. They got her ultimate slap. Some got it stronger, some hardly noticed but nobody was left aside.

And it was also the joke of fate that the imposed quarantine was the time when Sonja’s family could unite eventually. Four people were supposed to experience the enormous discomfort from being locked in the old house during the long months of the lockdown but strangely enough they did not. Four souls seemed to find some peace at last. Their isolation started long before the COVID-19. But the months of the quarantine were filled with jazz, smell of oatmeal biscuits and cozy long evenings in the salon.

Before she passed away, Sonja could realize that her granddaughter would keep Stuart alive. Lisa will become a pianist as well. Now she could see it clearly. This girl will have Stuart’s magic on top of her fingers. She will carry on his spell. A young woman with a grip of a man. Stuart in a skirt. His female copy. Finally Sonja could die in peace.

 

Lisa 

A few days before her grandmother passed away, she could finally ask her about Stuart. In her head, the grandfather was a legend, a mythological figure like a glossy actor from one of these old stylish black-and-white Hollywood films. A romantic image of a jazz pianist able to gather crowds in a city hall was her own invention. Sonja told her the truth. It was years and years of hard work and misery that their marriage had to undergo before fame finally knocked at the Stuart’s door. He could enjoy success only for three years before chronic disease took him away.

What is three years compared with the whole life? How did her grandfather spend them? Did he realise that it was the climax of his life? Did he enjoy these last three years? Nobody knew the answer.

The last thing that Lisa could ask Sonja before she was gone was the question about the piano. Did Stuart choose it on purpose? Did he pick “Stuart and Sons” because it was similar to his own name? No, said Sonja, the funniest thing is that it was not intentional. The city hall was selling away old instruments for almost nothing and somebody asked Stuart if he would be interested. Struggling at that moment in financial not, he agreed on a purchase even before he saw an instrument. And when the piano was already brought in the house, he discovered that it was “Stuart and Sons”. The grin of fate.

 

Hélène

What a grin of fate: old Sonja passed away not from the mysterious virus and not because of the cancer. Doctors said she died peacefully. It was just her time. Now it was too late to ask questions, admit mistakes or regret anything. But everything that could be said or done was said or done already. It was the  terminus ad quem that was expected.

Sonja was gone. The сoronavirus was gone. Frank’s cast on the leg was gone a few weeks after Sonja’s funeral. And the old Hélène was gone too. Even after Frank was back to his daily routine, gaining back his physical strength, Hélène was still feeling the force she once gained. The force able to move mountains. She was strong. She was made of iron. Hélène the man. And the woman.

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Written by
Anna speaks French, German, English and Russian. She obtained a Master Degree at the University of Bern (Cultural Studies) and a Bachelor at the Lomonosov Moscow State University (Philology). Anna has big interest in such themes as: identity, cultural hybridity, music, and raising children in multicultural context. She is convinced that our children can teach us a lot. They are not born with stereotypes but they risk to acquire them later under external circumstances. Our task as parents is to help them grow as conscious and culture-aware humans.

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