Berni was an adventurer, a globetrotter, a fun-loving flea-market enthusiast and patriarchal family father. What he said had to be done. He needed action, and wherever he was, there was plenty of it. I remember that in my childhood and youth, we used to make weekend trips called, “Reise ins Blaue,” and these trips into the blue were surprise excursions in the car, travelling to places like the feral horses park in Dülmen, Germany, the Externsteine, the Neanderthal, or the Safari Park Stukenbrock. I remember how we raced with burning tires over the Nürburgring in our Audi 100. Mind you, that was the time in the 1980s and early 1990s when there were no cell phones or GPS, so our faithful companion was a blue Aral atlas, and for trips to distant destinations, one had to unfold huge maps (that were impossible to get back into their original shape for me, but never for him!) that spread over the lap of his front passenger, our mom. This way, we travelled quite a bit and saw places most children nowadays only see on their i-Pads.
He was very frugal, not to say stingy. I recall that it was our mother, not he, who saved up her household money to give to us so we could get a perm done, or a facial for our first puberty pimples, or buy a dress for our dance lessons. As long as we were in kindergarten and grade school, our father cut our hair to save money. We looked correspondingly. For Daddy, a phone existed for the sole purpose of transmitting a brief message. It cost money. Back then, we still had phones with entangling cords, and he could not understand that adolescent girls needed to talk and spill their hearts to their school friends for hours sometimes. Thus, while he was watching his beloved soccer on TV, one of us would sneak the receiver out of the living-room and extend the phone cord until it reached its limit, and sit on the cold basement stairs to whisper into the phone for an hour. God forbid he caught us! (He probably knew. He just let us feel the thrill of disobedience and secrecy.) What joy it was when the cordless phones came on the market! Kids with your own cell phones nowadays, you have NO idea what we went through 😉
One of his hobbies was his aquarium. He had a big, 1m cube aquarium that sported neon tetras, angel fish, rainbow sharks, black mollies, sword fish, and guppies. He took it upon himself to clean it meticulously on Saturdays, changing the water, scratching the algae off the glass, sucking the fish poop off the substrate, and saving the occasional fish that had gotten caught in a pump hose. He also repaired many things in the house, even electrical wires, and once almost got electrocuted (the blade of his knife melted; he proudly showed me the indentation). He painted walls and removed old wallpaper. My earliest childhood memories consist of the smell of paste, and I can visualize the ladder and the broom with which my mom and he would straighten out the newly-pasted wallpaper.
My father had worked as an engineer for 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1969 to 1971, building and selling cranes and excavators. With two guy friends, he also visited Yellowstone National Park. One night, they had grilled meat and slept in a bear’s cave. When they woke up, the meat had vanished from the grill!
With a friend, he took an extended trip to Brasil. He wrote in his travel diary: “When I get home, I want to make a quarter dozen children.”
And when, aged 30, he did return to Germany, his match-maker sister introduced him to my mother, a good-looking special education teacher at the time and one year his senior. My mother has great genes that made her look like an 18-year-old, and when she became engaged to my father and met his family, she announced late in the evening, “I must go now; I have to get up early for school tomorrow,” and Dad’s godmother looked at him reproachfully, retorting: “What, you still go to school???” They married shortly after. Needless to say, he also had his three daughters.
My father was a so-called “Mikater,” meaning he became an engineer without a high school diploma, just “Realschule,” on the fast lane (Paul Mikat was a German politician from Northrhine-Westphalia in the 1960s, who enabled career changers who wanted to become school teachers to get their diploma in a faster way, in order to counteract the teacher shortage. The female career changers were called “Mikätzchen,” the males, “Mikater,” Mi-kitties and Mi-tom cats. They did that for engineers, too, so that people with a technical apprenticeship could work in engineering.) My father started out as a technical drawer and later studied to become an engineer; he worked for Orenstein & Koppel in their head office in Germany.
His favorite sentence was, “Ein O&K geht nie K.O.” – an O&K never gets knocked out. O&K also had an office in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, and this is where my father’s best friend, Peter, came from, who worked for the same employer, and with whom he would work in Minnesota for three years at 3M Company.
In 1979, my father switched jobs to become the financial director of a hospital (something completely different, but he was good with numbers and even better at being a boss), so he moved his family to a different federal state, Hessia. He worked at two other hospitals after that, so we moved a lot, which made it a drag to find new friends every time. He was always interested in clinics with more beds, and not only did the hospitals get bigger, but also our houses.
We were not living with our parents anymore when we noticed their marriage crumbling after 33 years. He was not the most faithful kind of guy. They got a divorce. Then, it hit us like a hammer. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early February 2005. He went to the hospital when he noticed that his eyes and skin got yellow, thinking he had a liver problem, which surprised him, because he hardly ever drank, but exams proved that the cancer had blocked his bile duct and had already metastasized throughout his abdomen and into his lungs. He had a stent placed, so the bile could flow again, but he understood that there was nothing that could save him anymore; surgery was not an option. He was offered a light chemo, but the doctors stated that he would not have years anymore; maybe a few months. He rejected chemo and did not want to get his lungs drained every few days. Always his own master, he abhorred having to be bedbound and dependent on others, hanging on tubes and wires. He went home and spent the rest of his time with his family.
Turned out he had two weeks. During that time, he regulated his whole estate with humor and pride. He was still able to make jokes, he contacted some friends to bid them farewell and told us, his children, to inform those he could not reach anymore. Three days before his death, he made amends and remarried our mother. He destroyed his old files, cleaned up his house, and when his oldest brother found him in eternal sleep, his two shiny black shoes were standing orderly on the door mat. He had left his safe open, so our mom and we could get his ID and other important documents without any trouble. He had been orderly, neat, and well organized until the end. He had even given me his last tetrapak of milk so it would not spoil.
Dad had entrusted me his address book, into which was penciled on the last page: “Wenn Ihr mich sucht, sucht mich in Euren Herzen. Habe ich dort eine Bleibe gefunden, lebe ich in Euch weiter.” – If you are looking for me, look for me within your hearts. If I have found room there, I will continue to live inside you.” (This verse is from the pen of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.) We cried a lot these days. Dad had loved life so much. He had told me proudly: “The Vossens live long!” (His father and aunt had both made it to 97.) He was so sure he would outlive our mother.
Berni died on February 25th, 2005, at the age of 64, peacefully falling asleep in his armchair in his apartment. His lungs had filled with water from the tumors, and he had slowly run out of oxygen. He had a smile on his face.
He had wished for a sea funeral, so he was cremated, and in April 2005 (after I returned from Scotland), his closest family accompanied him on a ship to his final resting place in the North Sea near the coastal resort Hooksiel in Wangerland. His best friend from the United States had flown there to be with him for his last trip. It was a touching ceremony; the captain rang the ship’s bell three times while making a circle around the place where the urn was put to water, we sang his favorite songs, and we all threw red roses into the ocean. I asked whether there wasn’t a pile of urns down there, since the shipper was doing sea funerals commercially, but I learned they consist of cellulose and dissolve in the water. Good-bye, Daddy, free spirit; may you rest peacefully on the ocean floor among sea creatures and water plants, and haunt us occasionally when we have done something and ask ourselves, “what would Daddy say about this?”
Actually, and here comes the cliffhanger, my father was buried twice: His family was devoutly Catholic, and they had wanted to bury his body in a coffin on a cemetery. Thus, we had an empty coffin, closed of course, for the visitation, and then walked to the graveyard where his youngest sister and his parents lay, and had a funeral ceremony in a restaurant with his relatives, friends, and former work colleagues. His family’s gravestone bears his name, but he’s not there. Daddy is in the water!
In 2012, as an emerging composer, I wrote a piano piece called “Ocean Waves” for my father to commemorate his sea funeral in Hooksiel. My then boyfriend David played and recorded it on the grand piano in his office. It’s the second movement from my neoclassical sonata, “Crustaceans.” It’s about Berni’s last trip into the blue.