Recently we bid one of our small family a final sad farewell. Bernd Czerolka, aged 75, passed away in the early evening of 12th of September, 2018, in the nursing home he was staying at in Wolfenbüttel.
There was a small gathering of very close friends to bury his urn, and to be honest, nothing much else. No crowds of wailing, sobbing mourners, no hymns or choirs, no drunken wake after, just us, the family; quietly paying our last respects to a man who had helped us all at one time or another. It seems that all we have left of Bernie’s legacy is a pile of bills and insurance claims, which to me is most unsatisfactory for someone who played such a large role in my life here in Germany.
So I want to tell you about him.
I first met Uncle Bernd, as he became known to my family and friends, in the winter of 1991. The grandmother of the girl who would later be my wife had invited us to Sunday dinner, and what a lavish spread it was. I’ll never forget the three different types of roast they brought into the living room, and me thinking we’ll never finish everything as the veg and gravy were fetched from the kitchen. It was my first experience with the “Bernd Czerolka School of Cooking”, loads of it and then some more on top. I remember Steph saying to her Grandmother that we had to go, and I was so ridiculously thankful as I’d eaten way too much and all I wanted to do was sleep.
Bernd, like most of his generation, did his time in the military, and so with hands, feet, mimic, and sound effects, we spoke of our respective experiences in the army. His service years were spent in the German equivalent of the Royal Engineers and the names of the characters in his company, (Pippin der Kleiner and der Lange Ludwig) would pepper the recollections of his military days throughout the years I knew him. He always held the British Army in high regard, which obviously endeared him to me, and never forgot that the Brits used to buy him duty free cigarettes and booze from the Naafi.
Bernd was a firm believer in breaking down barriers with alcohol, which he managed with all of my family and a lot of my friends. The one time that really sticks in my head was my parent’s first evening babysitting our kids for us. The kids were asleep and Steph and myself were ready to hit the big city, when Bernd turns up at the door.
“Oh, Bernie, we’re just off out,” I said.
“But your parents aren’t,” he answered, smiling. “It’s fine, we’ll be okay, I have whisky,” he said as he walked in. Later on Steph and myself came home to find my father and Bernd deep in conversation in the traditional manner of people who don’t share a common language; hand jiving and repeating words loudly to each other. The job of babysitting had fallen to my mother, whilst the men had bravely taken on the task of international relations, fuelled by whisky and willing bonhomie.
When we moved into our second flat, Bernd really came into his own with the renovation work. We wore plastic shopping bags on our heads against the dripping paint and laughed like drunken teenagers about it every time we donned them. It was a joke that never went stale and was the first time I really bonded with the old guy. After that, we were more friends than “forced-together-through-family”, which, as anyone who knows me will know, suited me fine.
His health nose dived after his first heart attack, despite the state of the art pacemaker they put in, and he was never the same again. Mentally he was all there, as cynical, sarcastic, dry, and funny as ever. Physically though, it was all downhill, sadly.
After his closest friend passed away we lost a part of Berni. Though they weren’t married they did everything together, and when she left us his pain was palpable despite the craggy façade he put up every day. The light of his eyes faded and it seemed life for him had turned into something to be endured. Make no mistake, they weren’t married but there was an abundance of love there.
The last few years were not kind to Bernd, but he wasn’t one to complain. I made a point of trying to help him on my very seldom days off, (though Steph visited and helped most days), and tried to be there for him, as he had been there for us in the beginning. Sometimes we’d clear his cellar or flat, sometimes just pick things up from the shops. Sometimes we just sat and talked. After he was moved to a nursing home the end came mercifully fast. For a man who had looked after himself his whole life, the constant waiting for other people to fetch things or tidy up was like his own personal hell. He passed away peacefully in his sleep.
With him went a part of one of the chapters in my life. He was there in the turbulent times when I left the army, a calming voice between the wanton ex soldier, drunk on newfound freedom, and the family who weren’t sure if I was the right one for their daughter, (which I can COMPLETELY understand). He celebrated with us on the birth of our children and was more than just a great uncle, he was a second granddad. When we moved into our first two flats and house he helped with the renovation and in the garden, (boy did he!). He made an effort for every family gathering and he was simply there, a friend; more than a friend, an uncle by choice rather than by blood.
A man of quiet strengths and large appetites, of curmudgeonly insights and boundless generosity, of cynical realism and all too human wishes and hopes. He was simply a good man.
Goodbye Bernd, you will be missed.
(I started this piece not long after Bernd’s funeral, on the 15th October. I’ve only just finished it today, hence the delay in posting)