Thursday, June 30, 2011

An unexpected gift

I received a message from my relative in Germany that his father Gunter Lahr has passed away this morning. The news has left me stunned and sad. I had really only been around Gunter for a few days in 2005. Since then we spoke on the phone occasionally, (he would always be the one who called.) The last thing he said to me was around Christmas when he called and said "see you in the New Year." I had always hoped that would happen and the news today leaves me wondering why it can't.

Sometimes you are given a gift in your life that you didn't expect. Meeting Gunter and his wife Birgit and their son Phil has been one of those unexpected gifts.

In 2005 I was planning a trip to Germany and I thought it would be a grand adventure to connect with relatives there. I knew my Great Grandfather was born in Hirschfeld, and eventually found out where that was. (Outside Zwickau in the old East Germany). I really didn't have any stories about the family excepts a little bit about my Great Grandfather leaving with a couple of brothers for the US (Texas specifically). So I contacted some Texas relatives, and I used the phone book looking for Dietels anywhere near Hirschfeld.

The Texas relatives got me in contact with Gunter, who immediately took charge. He would come and meet me in Hirschfeld. He and his family lived quite far from there (on the map it appears to be about 500 miles away). I also found some Dietels (well at least the Oma was a Dietel) still living in Hirschfeld. We met Gunter in a Beer House in Zwickau. We drove in his car out to the country to an idyllic little town Hirschfeld where we met the East Germany contingent of the family. I saw the house where my Grandfather was born and walked the church grounds. My daughter Katie and I got to see first hand the different points of view about East versus West after the fall of the wall. One of the relatives actually was a guard in Berlin when the wall came down. This was the first time I recognized that Gunter had opinions. That afternoon on a deck in Hirschfeld will be one I will never forget.

They took us to the ore mountains where so many Christmas ornaments and pyramids are made. He told me about their escape from East Germany when his father (who basically was the head guy at the mines there) had gotten out of prison. They escaped across the border and didn't look back. They started brand new lives in the west. He didn't like the current East Germans complaining about the changes they were seeing, and felt them to be ungrateful. From his experience it was hard to understand, he saw his father start all over, why can't they.

We went to Berlin and Gunter and Birgit followed. We met his son and another cousin. We got a tour of the East end where artists had found a new home, in courtyarded buildings on stone streets. We drank Caprianas as we walked. I ate a curry wurst. We drank wine in a restaurant. We talked and talked.

He expressed his opinions much like my Grandftaher would, directly with gusto. No topic was off the table. He was horrified at how the Katrina disaster was being handled (as we saw coverage on the TV of the flooding back home). He said he didn't understand American modesty. He did however LOVE his relatives in Texas and fondly spoke of the time he spent there in his 20s.

He was bigger than life.

Gunter was blessed with a wife with whom it was obvious he shared a long and deep love affair. Birgit and Gunter together had three children. I have spent time with their son Philip, but I never had a chance to meet his daughters. But he and Brigit got to meet both of mine. Allison stayed with them in Heitersheim for awhile on her way back from Dubai. He had become an Opa in the last few years. He retired a few years ago from being an attorney. They sold their family home in Heitersheim near the Swiss border and moved to Berlin where Gunter took up modern art. He and Birgit loved Berlin and the excitement there. I had heard he had a few health issues.

My friends Barbara and Curtiss spent time with them just last year and watched the World Cup and had a BBQ. He left the same BIG impression on them as he did on me. They had planned on seeing him again on another trip. Barbara tells me he had written them an email a month ago.

I had planned on taking Glenn to Germany as my birthday present to him for our 60th birthdays. I knew Gunter and Glenn would hit it off... they are a bit like two peas in a pod in many ways. I am really so down about them not ever meeting. I could just see them together from the moment I met Gunter. Glenn and Gunter sitting and laughing and sharing stories, with a glass in their hands. Birgit and I sitting nearby rolling our eyes. How much of life have we had to put on hold, and then we find out it is too late.

An ocean lies between me and this wonderful family, but we are connected. I hope they can feel how much love I have for them and how I share their loss. The world will be a less interesting place without Gunter Lahr.


I will miss Gunter.

A letter to Gunter:

There are people who, when you meet them, fill up the room with their essence. Even when they have gone away, you feel their presence as if an echo lingers, playing over and over again in the air.

It seems somehow that there are people who have been blessed with more life than some. And I wonder as I think about your leaving, if somehow, in some sort of unkind balancing act, you had used up your allotment of life. Then I think again of you and know, you had so much more living to do, that the notion just doesn’t ring true. I look for a reason. There is none. I look for an answer and am only left with more questions.

I see you in your son. I feel your love in your wife. I know of your legacy with your grandchildren. Here in California, a million miles away, I cry tears of joy for having known you and tears of sadness at your passing. The wind comes rushing by my face and I imagine it is you.