When people asked why I was going to Germany for five days in late November, I had a few standard replies: I’m going to see where I used to live; I just want to go to a country where I speak the language; cheap tickets. I only told a select few the truth: I was going to find my dead father.
Three years ago, during the wake after my father’s funeral, a family friend said she felt my dad’s presence. She’d been standing at the kitchen sink, washing some glasses as more people arrived. “I felt like he was standing right behind me,” she said. “Like I could turn around and he would be there.” A few hours later, another family friend said something similar. The next day, my sister said he visited her in a dream. I asked my sister when would I get to feel the presence or have a dream visitation.
I have never been a spiritual person, but I also don’t discount the possibility of an afterlife (growing up in the Bible Belt starts to rub off on you after a while). I hoped maybe I’d feel something–an inexplicable breeze beside me, a fuzzy aura, a dream with Dad that feels so real that I have to convince myself it wasn’t upon waking. My sister said I was too overcome with shock and grief to allow anything to happen. “You have a wall up right now,” she said. “When the wall comes down, he’ll come.” My therapist also suggested that I would be one of the last people Dad would want to say goodbye to.
A year following my father’s death, my mother said he visited her in a dream. I threw my hands in the air. My mother is less spiritual than I am, so if either one of us would be “open” enough to have a spiritual visit, I thought it would be me. Even if the whole ‘he doesn’t want to say goodbye to you’ thing was true, wouldn’t he come at some point? Why everyone else and not me? Would I ever get a visit?
If you’ve been following this blog, the rest you already know: a little over a year after my father’s passing I left the US and moved to Thailand. Then I moved to Portugal. As I near one year of living in Portugal, I’m taking more opportunities to travel throughout Europe. A few months ago, I realized I needed to use up some vacation days before the end of the year. I am not even sure what led to my decision, but after a week of looking up flights to Prague and Malta, I suddenly saw tickets to Frankfurt and thought: I can find Dad there.
My father was an art teacher for the US Department of Defense. His job is what led to me living part of my childhood in Cuba and Germany. In Germany, Dad and I lived in a small town about an hour and a half outside of Frankfurt. The town had just one gas station, a train stop, and nary an English speaker in sight. When I played with the kid who lived across the street, all we did was name objects in our different languages.
When I think of my childhood, I think of Cuba and Germany. I think about spending whole days with my dad because he taught at my school, so we’d ride the train into the city together, he’d drop me off at my class, and I’d spend my free time and after school time in his art room. Even speaking German was something Dad and I shared as well as a continued love for German food and culture even after we moved back to the US to be with my mum.
As I typed my information into the RyanAir site, I kept shaking my head. I’d been back in Europe for over six months. How had I not thought about this before? If I were to ever feel my father’s spirit, I was sure it would be in Germany, specifically in the small village where we used to live.
When I landed in Germany, I was surprised at how much it felt like home. Anytime I arrive in a new country, even if it is one I have been to before, there is that feeling of “this is different.” Whether or not it’s an English-speaking country, signs are still written a bit different than how they are in the US; there are different brands, different foods, different ways of dress, etc. Obviously, whenever I fly back to the US I don’t get this feeling because it’s my country, my people, my culture, and just all around my familiar. In Germany, I felt the same as if I’d landed in the US: like this is my home.
I spent the afternoon in Frankfurt and then took a train up to a town called Lollar. The town where Dad and I lived, Kleinstadt*, is so small that I couldn’t find a hotel or AirBnB. Lollar, about 7 km south, was the closest town I could find. I figured I could walk to Kleinstadt.
The next morning I set out for Kleinstadt. My walk led me across the river from Lollar, through some farmland, beside a small highway, and into another town. I walked for over an hour before realizing I’d somehow walked in a full circle and was back on the path to Lollar. I turned around, chose a different direction at a fork-in-the-road, wove my way through quiet neighborhoods, and accidentally followed a teenage girl for about twenty minutes.
The neighborhood streets suddenly disappeared as I crested a hill. I looked down and gasped. Just beyond the hill, through a wall of trees, and across a highway, was a small, open field. The field was bare except for grass, making it look perfect for a football pitch. Bordering the field were trees and a quiet river. Across the river was a car park and a train stop. I stared at the field, taking in every single detail as if it was a historic painting. I hadn’t realized until that very moment that it wasn’t Kleinstadt I’d come to see: it was this field.
Because I’d taken the wrong turn and come in through a back road, I ended up being beside my old house in just two blocks. I was surprised at how little had changed: there was a new gate and a sporty, red car in the driveway, but everything else looked the same. The barn was a weathered white and brown Tudor design. The apple trees in the side yard were shedding their leaves. The house stood wider and taller than I remembered. Rubber snowflakes covered the windows and a plastic red and yellow hot air balloon hung from one of the porches. The house sat on the sharp, blind curve of the town’s main road. Dad always warned me about leaving the house alone because speeding cars would never see a child crossing at such an acute turn.
I walked past the house and down the street towards the town’s only gas station. Just before crossing the bridge that would take me out of town, I turned to the right and into the open field I’d seen from the hill above.
When we lived in Germany, my dad walked our dog in this field every day. One of my most distinct memories as a child is waking up early in the morning during one of the first weeks that Dad and I had moved to Cuba. I was about six years old. It was still dark out and I went looking for my dad. When I saw I was alone in the house, I was convinced he and the dog had gone back to Cuba without me. Determined to catch them before they went back to Cuba (or maybe I thought I could head back to Cuba myself) I put on my jacket and rain boots and started walking down the street, sobbing the whole time.
I reached the bridge and heard the familiar jingle of dog tags. I called out my dog’s name. The jingling stopped. I called out the name again, and my father responded. I ran across the field to my father’s voice, much to my dog’s delight and my father’s dismay (re: dangerous, blind corner). I told him I thought he’d left me for good. Dad said he walked the dog in that field every morning. “You’re usually not up at five,” he said.
As a 31 year old adult, I thought about this early morning childhood memory: the complete devastation of being abandoned in the house, followed by the shock, relief, and utter joy of finding my dad and dog in that field.
On this day, no one was in the field but me. I walked along the edge, letting the wet grass soak the cuffs of my jeans. I imagined taking the same steps my dad had every chilly morning. My father’s military dog tag, which I wear when I travel, clanked against the zipper of my coat. The sound reminded me of the jingle of my dog’s collar, and I imagine see her sleek black and gray body zooming up and down the small mounds of grass around the field.
The sky was overcast, coloring everything with silver light. I’d been wondering why I felt the siren’s call to come to this town in November of all month’s and it suddenly hit me: if there was a Heaven, this is what my father’s Heaven would look like: cold and overcast so that he could wear one of his favorite Icelandic sweaters, quiet, surrounded by nature with a small village just up the street. Dad wasn’t a sun and beach person. He liked the countryside and mountains, where he could light a fire and take long, cool walks with his dogs.
There is a point in Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild where she scatters her mother’s ashes and finds a small piece of bone. “I put her burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole,” she says. When I read this years ago, I remember thinking that that was strange. How would swallowing the bone make you feel better? Wouldn’t it hurt going down? Scratch up your throat or make you nauseous? And the bone wouldn’t stay in your body forever–so why?
After my father’s death, I get why. One month after he died, I got a tattoo of his artwork and art signature on my shoulder. I wanted to carve the reminder of him into my body, but even that didn’t feel like enough. Like Cheryl Strayed, the loss was so great that I wanted to absorb the memory through my skin and into my actual muscles and bones. I wanted to swallow it whole.
Walking around the field in Kleinstadt, I thought about digging my hands into the mud and eating it. Instead, standing at the far edge of the field, at a spot where I was sure Dad had stood while he let our dog have her fun, I said, “Goodbye.” I said ‘goodbye’ out loud and over and over. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Dad the day he died. I didn’t get to say anything because his death was so sudden and unexpected.
Each time I said goodbye to the field, I felt the knot in my chest that has squeezed there for three years and three months loosen just a bit. It didn’t disappear, though. It never will. Grief doesn’t vanish. Instead, it absorbs into your life. I don’t honestly know if I felt my father’s presence in the field in Kleinstadt. I just know that it’s the closest I’ve gotten to feeling something, and for right now that’s good enough.
*Not the real name.