I went to the funeral of my 95 year old neighbor yesterday. Only 6 weeks before that, I had gone to the funeral for his 91 year old wife. Rolf was German; Armida was Mexican. A lovely large, lively photo of Armida and Rolf as they were in their 50s was displayed. The family had found it tucked away in a closet.
My most frequent memory of Armida and Rolf was seeing them walking the streets of the Village. They made it a point to walk, walk, walk several times a day. I only knew them for the last 14 or so years of their lives. Beautiful music often poured out of their home because both of them had been professional musicians.
Rolf had the misfortune to be born in Germany during Hitler’s rise. When the scouting program for youth turned into Hitler Youth, Rolf refused to participate and he was thrown out of the scouts. But it wasn’t as easy to keep from being drafted into Hitler’s army. He was eventually able to use his cunning, and his knowledge of Russian, to desert his army unit. He literally ran away from the war.
A childhood pen pal correspondence with an American helped to get him into the U.S. A letter he had kept from his Hitler Youth unit officially throwing him out of the movement helped him achieve U.S. citizenship. His ability to play the viola helped him to play a concert right there in the White House near President Eisenhower.
He was also an accomplished photographer, and his little home displayed many of his keen-eyed photos taken around the world. I felt honored when he particularly liked one of the photos I had taken.
They had married in their 50s, so there were no children. They took several trips to Germany in the early years of being my neighbors. They had lived there for 10 years at some point, and had both loved it. But, looking toward the future, they decided they couldn’t live in a country that would not provide them medical care.
That decision ended up being a wise one since Armida began to develop medical problems. A routine physical exam discovered Rolf had bladder cancer about 5 years ago. He went through a grueling stretch of radiation. Armida told me she didn’t want him to die of cancer. He didn’t, but then Armida began to lose the strength in her legs and the years turned into being called upon to help her up when she fell coming down a slight descent on the way to their home. Paramedics came regularly for calls to pick her up, take her to the hospital for tests, then bring her back. It seemed almost like a nightly routine. Finally, thankfully, they got caretakers to take care of Armida. She still brightly smiled at me in greeting when the caretaker wheeled her back and forth and Rolf followed behind them, but I knew she could also be a tough one to take care of. And then there was dementia creeping in.
After his wife could no longer balance enough to walk, I would see Rolf walking on his own sometimes, listing a bit to the side. He always had a friendly smile. And then there was the night at 1 a.m. when my doorbell rang. A weak voice called out “help, help.” I asked who it was, but there was no reply. I asked what was wrong, but there was no reply except another weak “help.” I called our Security to come, and kept asking who it was and what was wrong. Without him telling me who it was, I didn’t think of Rolf because I knew there were caretakers for Armida. What I didn’t know was that no caretaker stayed all night. The Security guard had to call the paramedics once again to come for Armida.
I only heard that Rolf had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when we went to Armida’s funeral. One of her sisters had come, along with nieces, and other family members I had never met before. Rolf was in a wheel chair during the funeral. He was quite surprised and glad to see so many neighbors gathered around.
Rolf turned 95 the week after Armida’s funeral. I sent him a card, along with an invitation for me to write up something about his unusual life if he would like. He said he wasn’t sure, he would think about it. And I told him I’d get back in touch with him after I returned from a long-awaited trip I was making back east. But after I returned and had recovered from the change of pace of my trip, Rolf fell and was in pain. I didn’t get to talk to him again.
Basically the same people gathered once again at the Catholic cemetery to bid Rolf farewell. We all had different memories of him, but one group of people came who described Rolf as I had never seen him. They were a German-speaking group and spoke of Rolf as an important member of their international organization that had started in the 1800s. At that time, there were German Jews as well in the group. It was a group that never spoke about politics, religion, or their day jobs. They were interested in good humor and friendship. A photo of a smiling Rolf among them all dressed in happy hats at one of their events graced the table next to the box holding his ashes.
Even at his funeral, Rolf wasn’t finished with humor. The priest stood on a platform that was raised by pushing a button to reach the uppermost cubby where Armida’s ashes rested and awaited Rolf’s ashes to be beside her. The priest solemnly put Rolf’s ashes where they belonged — next to Armida. And then the worker pushed the button for the lift to come back down. It didn’t move. Two workers pushed and pushed, prodded, and looked over the connections. It didn’t move. The priest said this was the first time it had ever happened to him. He had no choice but to just stand there looking slightly ridiculous.
The stand-off with the hydraulic lift went on for quite awhile. It wouldn’t budge. A low-tech manual ladder was brought and fortunately the priest was young enough to climb down the old-fashioned way. A worker then climbed up the ladder to replace the front slab, close the crypt, and seal it. Then, he pressed the same button that had refused to work so many times, and the lift quickly and dutifully made its trip down.
Smiles and chuckles all around. We all knew this was Rolf’s last joke.