By Doug Chase
Hogan’s Heroes. A silly TV sitcom from the sixties. Stupid SS officers, hapless stalag commanders, sergeants who knew nothing. Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz. These were the Nazis of my childhood, my Jewish family growing up in L.A. Goofy Germans and their silly TV accents.
Vee haff vays to make you talk.
It became a family punchline. Even Mom, not the biggest sitcom watcher, laughed at vee have vays to make you talk.
This is what my home town, Hollywood, did to the scary motherfuckers that killed six million of us, starved us, tortured, did medical experiments, rolled out their final solution on us. We made them a joke, a running gag. We took our annihilation and added a laugh track.
I was scared of the real Nazis. Five, six, seven years old, I was too young to hear the gruesome details, but I still heard them. I knew we were just lucky that my parents’ families came to America a generation before Hitler came to power. I was so young to be stuck with the question of who I’d be if my parents had been killed before I was born.
The Nazis meant lack of existence.
On Hogan’s Heroes all the major German roles were played by Jewish actors. The actor who played Sergeant Schultz, said, “Who can play Nazis better than us Jews?” Werner Klemperer, Colonel Klink, lived right down the block from us.
And any time I ever heard a German accent it sounded silly to me.
That was childhood. It was Hebrew School and Passover and Yom Kippur and, in 1971, my bar-mitzvah.
Also in 1971 Hogan’s Heroes ended its run. The war sitcom changed to M.A.S.H. No more goofy Germans to soothe my fears.
You get older and things get complicated.
Every four or eight years another president and another disaster. Nixon and Ford and Carter. Reagan and Bush and Clinton and little Bush.
Black September. Watergate. Disco. The killing of John Lennon. AIDS.
9/11. Homeland Security. Guantanamo.
33 years after Hogan’s Heroes, 2004, I got a call from Mom.
She had made her way through law school, and then through a master’s degree in classic literature. Her bookshelves were filled with Greek and Latin texts. She taught Latin at the University of Oregon and went to the opera and led tours to Greece. She made her life into what she wanted.
She made it beautiful.
Mom’s phone call. Her voice husky from asthma. And cigarettes. Although she quit smoking many years before, the sound of them was still in her throat.
“Doug,” she said. “I was having a cough that wouldn’t go away.”
I was on the futon in my girlfriend’s living room. The TV on its cabinet was muted. It was winter, and the heat wasn’t enough for the house.
Mom. The sound like she had just cleared her throat.
Lung cancer. Stage four. Which I didn’t know at the time, because you learn it when it happens to someone you know. Stage four means you’re fucked.
I don’t need to talk about the next few months. Respiration tests and blood tests and CT scans and chemo and more chemo. The way the cancer spread. Metastasized.
I had known a couple of people who died, but at a distance. No one that counted. No one that was part of me. All those months I watched everything Mom had taken from her. Her joy in the life she made. Stripped away to helplessness.
The thing is, I wanted her to live, but I knew she was going to die. So I wanted her to die. I wanted her to die because it was hard for me to see her that often, to sit next to her in the chemo room, to hear her quick breath that couldn’t get enough air. It was hard for me so I wanted it over.
She made me afraid and death was too close.
The call I got from one of her doctors that morning in June. He said I better get down to Eugene quick if I want to say goodbye.
His call was three weeks premature, but when I saw her, wrapped in her sheet and blanket in her hospital room, she’d been given so much morphine her eyes scared the hell out of me, the depths of them, the glaze, like they were covered by a hundred layers of shellack.
My two sisters flew up from L.A. as quick as they could. There we were. The cancer floor. Mom’s little room mostly taken up by her hospital bed. She was so small under the covers. She was never big. Her head against the pillows, rush of white hair, the skin of her face white and red blotches, plastic frame glasses. Her broad Jewish nose with capillaries showing.
(This nose here, I got it from her).
One chair tight between the bed and the wall, my older sister Susan, long straight brown hair. Nearly fifty, but she looked thirty. We joked, not around her, that Susan had a painting of her true self in the attic.
My younger sister, Marjorie, and me, we sat in chairs at the foot of the bed. We were the younger children, even in our forties. We were the funny ones, the ones that could joke at all the inappropriate times.
Mom up against her pillows. They had backed off the morphine a little and she could see us. And the way she watched us. Listened to our quiet comments. Eyes magnified behind the lenses of her glasses. She took us in like she wanted to remember us.
I don’t know what Marjorie or Susan was thinking. But what I was thinking. The hospital wanted their bed back and we had to find a place for Mom, a facility that would take her for whatever time was left.
What a chore. What trouble. It was all on me.
That’s what I thought, even though my sisters ended up doing the work, the research, the phone calls. Even though the hospital social worker gave us what we needed. Still. I wanted it over.
Then this woman from the hospital cafeteria, big, older than us but younger than Mom. Short hair in a hairnet, a light brown two-piece uniform, a name tag. A clipboard and a folded over sheet of paper and a pencil, and she got into the little room, the space between our chairs, and she reached over the foot of the bed to hand the paper and pencil to mom. She moved clumsy, but she didn’t bump into the bed or bump into the chairs.
Her voice when she spoke, like Sergeant Schultz, like Colonel Klink. The goofy German.
“Ziss is the lunch menu. You circle vot you vant. I come back soon to get ze menu.”
She left, I suppose to give a menu to the next cancer patient and the next one. We carried on with our quiet non-conversation. Mom’s eyes were shiny, but I don’t know if it was tears or morphine or pain or what. The menu and the little pencil stayed on her blanket. The same way that charts and notes and cables from everything mom was hooked up to landed on her sometimes, against the slight shape she made under the covers. But none of it disturbed her. Her very small breaths. Her stillness.
A short while later, ten minutes, twenty, I don’t know. The cafeteria lady was back. Her clipboard. Her two-piece uniform. Her name tag. I don’t remember the name. Gertrude? Helga? Or is that me making up shit to be mean? Maybe it said Eva Braun.
This time she bumped my chair to get through. Reached over from the foot of the bed to get the menu. The light brown polyester slacks tight on her ass. Her mach shnell tone of voice.
“You did not fill out ze menu. You must circle vot you vont. I come back again.”
She left the little room. We all looked at each other. My sisters. Me. Mom. She had a look, a smile, mischief.
The cafeteria lady. She was a gift. In that terrible little room, cancer ward, death so close, the annoying details of how to get Mom all the way there. My fear. Whatever my sisters thought and felt.
The cafeteria lady was Hogan’s Heroes.
“Vee haff vays,” I said. “To make you fill out ze menu.”
All of us in our grief, and we laughed.
We all knew what would happen next, the move to the hospice, the last handful of visits, the call for real in the middle of the night that Mom had died. But in the little hospital room, Mom laughed, too, at the family punchline. The tears in her eyes because we were there and together, and we shared the visit, visitation maybe, from the cafeteria lady. The goofy German.
It was a moment, whatever the length of time it was. There was breath in the little room. There was a little light and air.
Doug Chase lives in Portland, Oregon. His writing has appeared online in The Gravity of the Thing and Nailed Magazine. He and his wife like to think they are George Burns and Gracie Allen, not necessarily in that order. Their dog is the calmest one in the house.