While I was digging around in my closet to find the Cancer Pants, this silk jacket tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I might be so kind as to share its story, too. It’s a story that goes all the way back to Berlin in World War II. Then it rushes forward to one of the saddest moments of my life.
I’m not much for Church with a capital C, but I do enjoy old churches, especially quiet ones. In the center of bustling Berlin, smack in the middle of its busiest shopping street–Kurfürstendamm–stands the ruin of a church. It’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, built in 1892 and destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943. The shattered tower of the original church still stands as a memorial to the war and its losses. Next to the old tower, a new modernistic column rises from the traffic. From the outside, I found this new tower repugnant–like a silo. Berliners aren’t all fond of the design–it’s often called “The Lipstick and the Powder Box.”
But inside…oh inside there is peace and joy and beauty, all built pane by pane from the pain left to Germany after the war. The walls are made of honeycomb concrete to keep out the noise from the street. Suspended inside the honeycomb are over 21,000 panes of glass, mostly blue, but shot through with red, green and gold. Like those beads that I talked about after the Boston Marathon bombings.
Richard and I visited there on a sunny spring afternoon. Stepping inside was like walking inside a kaleidoscope. I sat on one of the simple pews and let the peace enter my heart. In that same week, we had been to Prague, where my heart was broken in the Jewish Quarter, then on to Dresden, where I faced the reality of what American firebombs had done to that beautiful city, then on to Berlin with Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Reich-stag. The lime blossoms along Unter den Linden. The pilfered archaeological treasures at the Pergamon Museum. Everything that week was related to war and my heart had grown heavy with trying to take it all in. This broken church gave me sanctuary.
It might be my imagination, but I think I recall that some of the glass from the bombed Kaiser Wilhelm Church was collected from the ruins and incorporated in the new windows. Even it it’s not true, it should be.
A few months after that trip to Germany, I found the “stained glass” silk jacket. It reminded me of the blue windows in Berlin.
Richard died on March 16, 2005, at about 6:30 in the evening. I slept on the couch that night because I couldn’t sleep in our bed. My cousin, Annette, came across the street, gathered up the sheets and washed them for me that night. She knew what to do.
After his parents woke early, I retreated to our room and closed the door. I crawled up in the rented hospital bed, curled into a tight ball, and cried myself back to sleep. There over the place where his heart had stopped beating. I slept so soundly and woke rested after only two hours. His father knocked on the door to tell me it was time to go to the funeral home and see to arrangements. I asked if he could go without me but I had to be there–because we had married, I was his next of kin. His own father couldn’t sign the papers. I had to.
I put on my stained glass jacket. Ever since then, I think of that day, those papers, when I see that beautiful jacket. How my hand shook and hesitated over the cremation request. The moment when I had to commit the body I had loved so well to oblivion. How his father steadied me with the idea that this fire, this final fire, would be the thing to clear his body of the cancer he had fought so bravely. Like a child, I wiped my tears on the sleeve of that silk jacket, and they blended with the blue, the red, the green, the gold.