The ride to Bonn wasn’t as long as we had expected. In just two hours, we found ourselves at yet another bus station, exiting the bus in a single file.
It was already seven in the afternoon, and the sun was already down. However, the lights of the city hadn’t been turned on yet, giving the impression that that German city was darker than all the rest.
We had our little notepad in hand, ready to ask for directions. We walked towards the ticket office in hopes that the person behind the counter could tell us where the hospital was, but it was closed. After all, it was almost dinner time and everyone was at home.
“Maybe we could ask the bus driver?” Harry asked. I nodded, confident that the skills of his job would help us in figuring out where to go.
We walked the two steps inside the bus. The man was still behind the wheel, drinking from a water bottle. When he saw us he said something in German we didn’t understand, but my imagination thought he asked us if we had left anything inside. Harry showed the notebook to the man and pointed to the sentence: “Could you tell us where Johannesburg Hospital is?“. He smiled, giving us a thumbs up at the idea of the notebook. Then, Harry pointed to another sentence: “We don’t speak German. We are English.”
With that, the bus driver took from his glove compartment a black pen. Then, he asked Harry if he could write on the notebook, to which Harry nodded. The man flipped through it until he found a blank page and he started drawing what looked like a map. First, he drew a straight line (although it wasn’t that straight since he wasn’t drawing on a flat surface), and wrote “100m” beside it. Then, at the end of that line, he drew another one to the right and wrote “15m”. Then, he drew a circle and wrote “3”. I didn’t quite understand that one, but because Harry looked confident I decided to trust him. Finally, the bus driver drew another straight line starting on the circle and wrote “50m”.
“Johannesburg Hospital,” he said in bad English. We thanked him and exited the bus, the little map he drew us in Harry’s hand as I walked beside him. It wasn’t raining like before, but it was still incredibly cold, especially now that the sun had set. I looped my left arm around Harry’s right arm, leaning close to him.
That was when street lights started to turn on. One after another, they flickered to life. It was like they were guiding the way, as if the city itself was insisting that we made it to our final destination.
“Okay, so I guess first we have to walk for one hundred meters and then turn right,” Harry said, studying our route.
We were the only two people on that street, and if I had been alone I would’ve been scared. The eerie silence was what struck me the most, for I thought Bonn would be a busy city. Maybe the streets were empty because of the cold and no dared to step foot out of their houses. Whatever the reason, I had a weird sensation we were not entirely alone, that someone was behind us, or watching us.
I looked back. No one was behind us except the bus.
“What is it?” Harry asked, looking behind him as well.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just thought I had heard something.”
We walked down the street until we reached a right turn. We looked back, assessing if we had walked the long distance or if it was the next turn.
“I think this is it,” Harry said, “The next on is too far away to be one hundred metres.”
So we turned right. Even without reaching the end of that street, we could see a roundabout.
“Oh, I know what that three means,” I said, relieved I had understood the instructions “It’s the third exit.”
Harry nodded. Again, we didn’t see a trace of a single soul. My mind started playing tricks on me: what if the bus driver was leading us to a trap? What if we were on the other side of town? What if we were going the wrong way and we were lost in a strange city?
That was when the massive edifice of the hospital came into view. I didn’t have to see the letters at the entrance gate to know it was a hospital. The stone wall building stood tall among the houses on the same street, and even despite its dark outside it was inviting us to go in.
Suddenly, Harry stopped walking, and because our arms were intertwined I was pulled back.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. I searched his face, looking for his emotions in order to understand what was going on, but he looked like a statue. It seemed like he was completely frozen and expressionless.
“Harry?” I called him, pulling him out of his trance. He closed both his eyes shut, taking his right hand and running it along his face, as if he had just woken up. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, totally fine,” he said, running his hand through his hair “It’s just, we’re here and I haven’t seen my mum in two years and... You understand, don’t you?”
My heart sank at his confession. How would I feel if I was in his shoes, if I was about to meet my mother after two years of not seeing her, not knowing the state I would find her in?
I wasn’t sure if whatever I said would be enough to lift his spirits, but I had to try.
“Hey, don’t think too much,” I said, placing both my hands on his cheeks, forcing him to look at me “I know this is going to be hard for you, but I also know that you are strong. You can do this! Just think of how happy your mum is going to be when she sees you... And besides, I’ll be there with you, you can count on me.”
I kissed his cheek, wanting him to know that I was there and that he wasn’t going to face it alone.
“Thank you,” he said, taking my hand as we resumed walking “I don’t now what I would do without you.”
We walked the remaining meters towards the gate of the hospital. The gate was guarded by maple trees, the red leaves covering the ground. My heart started to beat faster as we walked through the sliding doors of the edifice, the smell of medical gloves and disinfectant making me sneeze. I was hugged by a wave of heat, the bright white lights giving the sensation that it was daytime.
I looked at all the signs in the entrance hall, not understanding a single word. I was worried once we arrived at the hospital we wouldn’t know what to do, yet we found the reception easily. The entrance hall was dead silent, and I felt self-conscious about the sound of my footsteps.
We walked up to the reception. A lady with jet black hair tied up in a ponytail was sitting behind the high desk and only lifted her head when we rested our arms on the counter.
“Guten Abend, wie kann ich Ihnen helfen?” the lady said, smiling at us. I smiled in return, placing the notepad on top of the counter. She read the sentence I was pointing to which read “We don’t speak German”. Then I moved down my finger to the sentence “We are here to visit the patient Theresa Edwards.”
The woman in very bad English said yes, getting up and moving to a side desk which contained many files. I guessed she was looking for Theresa’s name so she could tell us in which room we could find her. Harry took a deep breath, tapping his fingers on the wooden reception table impatiently.
I noticed she read all the names of the files until the last one and then started again from the top. I decided not to think too much of it. It was late and the woman looked tired, maybe she had skipped the name and didn’t notice it.
That was when she turned around and raised a finger at us, indicating us to wait. She left through a door behind the counter and moments later came back with a much older woman. They came whispering to each other, which immediately put me on edge.
“Good evening,” the older woman said in a calm, contained voice. I was surprised she spoke in English, and I understood immediately the first lady had called her to translate, “It seems that the patient you are looking for is not here.”
My heart fell on the floor. I couldn’t believe what she had said. Did she mean Harry’s mum was not in the building or here here?
“That is impossible,” Harry said, placing both his hands flat on the counter.
“I’m sorry, but we have no register of a Theresa Edwards.”
I felt like someone had snatched by breath. This couldn’t be possible.
I looked at Harry, covering my mouth in disbelief. His emotions mirrored mine, if not worse. The colour was fading from his face, and I feared he would faint.
“Ma’am, I beg your pardon but we are in a very delicate situation here. We have travelled all the way from England to see this patient and we are one hundred percent sure she is at this hospital. Just a week ago we received a letter saying that her treatments were being stopped because of the severity of her illness. It had the name of this hospital on the letter, she has to be here.”
I tried to keep a respectful tone but to keep my urgency at bay was too much to ask. The woman clearly caught up on my distress, and I could sense she was deep in thought after listening to my words.
“You said her treatment stopped. Could you specify what treatment she was receiving exactly?”
“She was being treated for a Lymphoma,” Harry said, gripping the edge of the counter now. He was breathless, and his rush equalled mine “By doctor Newmann.”
The woman snapped her fingers, turning to the lady with the black hair who stood behind her.
“There is only one place she could be,” the woman said. Then, she pulled a box from under the reception desk, revealing more files.
“These are the files of the patients who are sent to special palliative care...” she said, running her finger down the files “Ah! Here it is.”
Harry exhaled deeply, taking both his hands and covering his face as he lowered his head. I could feel the overpowering tension leaving his body with every shaky breath he took, and I was more than happy that he was relieved.
“Where is she then?” I asked, knowing that we couldn’t celebrate without knowing where she was exactly. After all, she could be on the opposite side of that town, or in a completely different city altogether.
“She is just around the corner,” the woman said, opening the file “At Doctor Newmann’s private palliative care home. If you walk down the street you came from you will see it immediately. It’s an old five-floor building with a big dark green door with doctor Newmann’s name on it.”
That for me were even better news. I gave a genuine smile at the lady and the one behind her.
“Thank you so much for your time,” Harry was still too much in shock to say goodbye to the two women, so I took his hand and dragged him out of there.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” Harry said, looking back at the reception while the automatic sliding doors opened our way, the harsh cold wind hitting us and a shiver running down my whole body “For some moments I thought we had arrived too late.”
I noticed the choice of his euphemism, and I realised how he hadn’t used once any words related to death during those four days of our journey.
“Me too,” I confessed, pushing that thought aside. I knew this was going to be incredibly hard for him, and now that we were closer than ever I doubted if he was ready.
We walked fast-paced down the deserted street. To our right, the iron wall of the hospital stood high with trees covering our sight from the building. We turned the corner, Johannesburg Hospital still to our right, but we were presented to new homes. I spotted almost instantly the building we were looking for just by counting five windows vertically, indicating the building had five floors. It was the tallest house in the street, although it was not too wide. The dark green door was easy to identify as well, and as we got closer we read the sign “Dr Newmann’s Palliativpflege”.
“This is it,” I said, staring at the door. The old house imposed respect, and I felt rather awkward because I had the feeling I was standing in front of a wealthy family’s home.
“It is,” Harry answered. I reached for the doorbell with my index finger, but Harry called me.
“Wait Summer,” he said, touching my upper arm “Before we do this, I just want to say that I had absolutely no idea how we are going to find my mum, but I am sure it will not be the woman I remember. Please intervene if you notice I don’t know what to say.”
I looked at him, tenderness and empathy filling my heart.
“Of course, don’t worry.”
I rang the bell, a soft cling going off inside the house. Moments later a woman spoke through the intercom.
“Guten Abend, wer ist das?” I exchanged looks with Harry. Again, the woman spoke in German and we didn’t have a clue what she was saying. Since she couldn’t see our notepad and attempting to read a sentence in German was out of the question, I simply spoke in English, hoping the woman would understanding.
“Good evening. We are, uh... We are English and we are here to visit Theresa Edwards.” I spoke nervously. Beside me, Harry had started pacing back and forth, biting his fingernails as he did so.
We heard the woman say something in German through the intercom, but her words weren’t clear. It seemed she had whispered to someone beside her and forgot to turn off the intercom.
“Someone will be at the door for you,” she said with a thick German accent. I raised an eyebrow, wondering why she suddenly switches languages and why she hadn’t asked us more questions.
We stayed silent, white fume leaving our mouths when we exhaled. It was getting colder as the hours of the night progressed, and I wondered if it was still possible for it to snow in Germany at that time of the year.
Suddenly, the door opened slowly, creaking as the relaxing yellow light from inside illuminated our faces.
“Finally! I was worried you might’ve gotten lost on the way!”