“What is a seriously ill brain cancer patient doing wheeling herself down the street?” I asked myself.
Of course I couldn’t be sure that the person was a female brain cancer patient. I was driving without my distance glasses and could only make out a white-and-lilac colored head bandage and the shape of a person struggling. I presumed it was a woman because she was clutching a purse and wore houndstooth slacks and a pale pink top. She pushed the large, rubber wheels with her hands, one leg treading the sidewalk, the other in an orthopedic boot, sticking out straight ahead. She managed three wheel-lengths before sitting and tilting her face up to the canopy of maple trees lining my highly trafficked street.
Seeing the combined head and foot injury, I downgraded the trauma status to bike or skiing accident, although the ski lifts hadn’t yet opened. What was this person doing alone on my busy street unattended? Why wasn’t someone pushing her? I had to investigate.
We crossed paths in front of my neighbor’s house. On close range, I confirmed that she was a woman in her early sixties, and that what I thought to be a head bandage was actually a scarf, wrapped ninja-warrior style around her forehead. I plonked my grocery bags on the ground and addressed her in slow and, hopefully, clear German.
“Excuse me? Do you need any help?”
“Ehhh?” (German slang for ‘What’ or ‘Pardon me?’)
“Do you need any help? I could push you.”
“Are you American?”
I’ve lived in Germany fourteen years yet my accent and grammar mistakes give me away every time.
“I love your accent,” she continued before I could answer. “I lived in America for a year.”
“I’ve accepted that I’ll never get rid of the accent.”
“It’s not bad. I’ll tell you what’s bad. Bavarian. I’m from the North. I’ve lived here years and I’ll never understand it,” she said in her textbook German.
“That’s why I understand you so well!” I said. Which was true. ‘High German’ (Hochdeutsch) being from the northern regions of the country.
“Hessen is worse. My husband was transferred there for a while. Such an ugly accent all those ‘shshshshs’ and such.”
I kept quiet about the fact that my husband was from Frankfurt, the heart of Hessen. “Where are you headed?” I asked, attempting to get her back on subject.
“But that’s ten minutes from here by foot if you’re able to walk properly! I can’t let you go alone.”
“It’s ok, really. I just need to take breaks. Now, go put your groceries away.”
After she had declined my offers of water, juice or a snack, I reluctantly entered my house, threw the perishables in the fridge and grabbed the dog. “We’re helping someone in need!” I told him.
Being four-months old, Enzo did ok on the leash, but hadn’t mastered staying only on my left side in ‘heel’. He bounded after me, floppy ears trailing alongside his head and fluffy baby fur ruffling in his self-made wind. We caught up with the woman in the middle of the street, trying to cross to the next sidewalk. That was when Enzo glimpsed the wheelchair. He planted his puppy derrière on the ground and locked his front paws.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” The woman said, not noticing Enzo’s distress. “I can’t get up that ramp!”
It wasn’t actually a ramp, but an ever-so-slight slope designed to prevent pedestrians from tripping up the sidewalk. I pulled Enzo with my right arm and tried pushing the woman with my left while cursing myself for wearing a puffer jacket.
“I’m sorry I’m so fat!” she said.
“You’re not fat,” I said, trying to disguise my huffing. “Enzo, COME.”
“I had a dog – a Bernese mountain dog. He was so wonderful, a great companion.”
As she rattled on about the advantages of having a huge dog, which would have been convenient to pull her up the sidewalk, I tugged at Enzo’s leash, encouraging him to walk with us. I reached for the wiener pieces I’d thrown in my bag before leaving the house. Enzo, catching a whiff, ambled up to us and snatched the treat from my hand.
The woman’s phone rang and she struggled to find it deep in her handbag. “Darn, I missed it,” she said, checking the missed call list. “It was my daughter. Probably wondering what’s taking me so long.”
Daughter? If her daughter is waiting for her, why didn’t she come pick her up, I wondered. How could she let her mom wheel herself over here?
Enzo zigzagged on the sidewalk following a scent. I couldn’t complain because his breed is used for truffle-searching in the forests of Italy. In the village, there is less opportunity for such dog-sleuthing.
We reached the grocery store, our neighborhood hub of activity, it being the only grocery store in a two-kilometer radius. We needed to pass the bus stop and cross the entrance to the parking lot. Enzo stopped at the bus post to sniff while I continued to push my patient, the wheelchair gaining speed on the slight slope of the driveway and rolling faster, now at a slant. The leash went taut dragging Enzo behind us. I grasped the wheelchair with my left, and weaker, hand and urged Enzo to follow, praying he wouldn’t poop. I had visions of scooping poop off the sidewalk with one hand while bracing the wheelchair with the other. This was also the main bicycle path connecting the newer part of the village to the older section. As Enzo pulled in the opposite direction, an elderly woman sped up to us on her electric-assisted bicycle.
“Get your mutt out of the way!” she shouted.
“Get your moped off the sidewalk!” my new friend retorted.
The angry ‘Oma’ on two wheels sped off, rustling the dried leaves in her electric whirring wake.
“Who does she think she is? Can’t she see that you’re pushing me in a wheelchair and walking a dog at the same time?”
I caught Enzo’s eye and urged him forward with my head and clicking of my tongue as we had practised in puppy school. My passenger then went into a rant about her broken foot. “I’m an active person: I swim, I jog, I do all the garden work myself. So stupid!”
I wanted to hear her story but needed to pay attention to traffic.
“Imagine that – I tripped in my house. Over a shoe! Broke a bone in my foot and now I’m waiting for surgery. The injustice of it.”
Crossing the street proved a challenge. I bent my knees, signaling Enzo to sit. We waited. A bus passed. A Vespa Ape puttered along. Car after car drove by. A train must have just left the station and the trail of waiting vehicles was finally allowed through. This was it. A window of opportunity. “Brace yourself,” I said, mostly to myself.
We bumped across the road, Enzo keeping up and my friend steering with her wheels. We were on the edge of the parking lot for my favorite butcher. The head of my meat team watched and, through the window, I could see her pointing and probably laughing or exclaiming “There goes Frau Tolan pushing a head trauma patient and walking her dog at the same time! Americans sure know multitasking!”
“Just around this corner, on the left,” my friend said.
“I thought you were meeting at the Hofmarkplatz,” I said.
“Didn’t you say your daughter was meeting you?”
“No, I have an appointment at the beautician across from the square.”
Wait – I was sweating and heaving, dragging my poor little puppy with me to take this woman to get her nails, toes or skin treatment? A luxury appointment? If she could afford that, then why not a taxi? Her daughter was probably sitting there sipping prosecco having a foot soak while I heaved her mother up wonky sidewalks. Apparently, beauty knows no bounds.
I admit that I was annoyed. When was the last time I had a manicure? When did I have time to get a facial? I know this sounds self-indulgent right now – maybe edit this part out. My point being that instead of doing my household chores and sitting down to write, here I was pushing a lady who was going to a spa appointment. But did it matter? She was in a headwrap and had a broken foot. Yes, it did matter. I’d imagined she was attending a meeting to organize decorating the community well for high holidays. Instead, she was going to be massaged by male-twin bodybuilders.
Ok, I was jealous too. I wanted to be pushed, albeit not in wheelchair, maybe pulled in a chariot or carried on a palanquin like Cleopatra, to a morning of pampering.
We reached the salon and I left the wheelchair before the stoop as there was no ramp. I knew this beautician from previous treatments and called out,
“Frau Eagle! I have your next client.”
Frau Eagle stomped out from her office, her face a stern mask, her long, silver-lamé tutu skirt rustling around her calves.
“You’re over an hour late!” she said, pointing an accusing finger at my new friend.
“I know, Frau Eagle, but you see, if this lovely lady hadn’t pushed me I would have been later.”
“I don’t have a slot for you now.”
I wondered where the daughter was, probably chin deep in a mud bath.
Frau Eagle glared at me, taking in my sweaty forehead with hair plastered to the sides of my face, my steamed-up glasses, sweated-through purple puffer jacket and jeans falling down my hips. “Frau Tolan, is that you?” she asked.
“Yes, I just saw her on the road and had to help her. She’s late, but it was an effort to even get here.”
“Just leave her there, I’ll handle it, Frau Tolan.” Then she noted Enzo trailing behind me.
“Sorry, no dogs in my studio.”
How was she able to scold a woman in a wheelchair while wearing a silver-lamé tutu? But I couldn’t blame her. I’d just gotten duped by the patient and her daughter.
I left my friend, and Enzo and I went to buy sausages. We deserved it.
I’d almost forgotten the incident until I was driving the kids to piano lessons a few hours later. The woman was laboriously making her way back up our street. She was waiting at a street corner, collecting the energy to make her way across. I contemplated pulling over to help her, but we were already late. Thankfully, to spare my guilty conscience, one of our neighbors in the cul-de-sac approached her. I knew Frau Kohl would manage the situation.
One hour later, on the way home from music lessons, we spotted her again, now farther up the road, heading into the center of the village.
“Geez, Mom! She’s still wheeling around,” my kids said.
In one hour she hadn’t made it even one kilometer. I hoped she’d at least stopped for a complimentary schnapps at the wine store.
I haven’t seen her since. Perhaps the tin foil tutu-ed beautician scared her off? Or maybe this will all be on a hidden camera show one day.
At least I’d done my good deed. And I booked my next mani-pedi.
Christina lives in the city of weißbier on the outskirts of Munich. Funnily enough, she writes romantic comedy and is completing a memoir about her experiences as an American embedded among Bavarians. In her free-time (ha!), she attempts Chopin pieces on the piano, assists in a Munich photography gallery and works on her Southern-German dialect.