Chapter 1

49.7K 97 43

While Mitzi put on some tea, Johanna flopped face-first into the manure.

February was too early in the season to be fertilizing, but Johanna wanted to contribute to this year’s harvest while she still could. These days, that amounted to little more than curling up in a chaise lounge and croaking out hushed commands to Mitzi. This time last year, Johanna would have been the one loading the wheelbarrow with gusto, shoveling out its contents and raking evenly around the base of the vines. But then, this time last year, she hadn’t been tossing back ten milligrams of morphine every few hours. Cancer and chemo were sucking away at her like a strawberry milkshake, racing to see who could get to the bottom first.

Seeing Johanna prostrate and motionless at the edge of the vineyard, Mitzi dropped the tray of herbal tea and ran headlong to her side. She turned her over gently and dusted off the powdery manure.

“Couldn’t you wait five minutes? I was on my way with the tea,” Mitzi admonished.

Johanna murmured through cracked lips, “It—it was just so lumpy.” She gestured weakly to the rake leaning against the trellis.

“Look, I know you’re the gardener, but they are literally piles of crap. Stop being such a control freak.” Mitzi used a dishtowel to swipe away the remaining brown residue.

This was the first time Johanna had been out of the house in days. Having kept her muesli down since lunch, she was determined to see the sun again. In its descent behind the Swiss horizon, it hovered just above Lake Constance and turned the water a shimmering orange. Johanna had not adapted well to hospice care. Rather than let death creep over her day by day, she preferred the kicking-and-screaming approach.  A homeopathic nurse for nearly 40 years, Mitzi encouraged it with all her patients; if you couldn’t beat death, you could at least knee it in the balls on the way out.

“Let’s not fight,” Johanna smiled, “not today.” She closed her eyes and shuddered, the fleece nightgown doing little to shield her from the late winter chill. Mitzi felt her forehead—clammy. Johanna appeared to be losing color by the minute, her cheeks going ashen as her bare head prickled with gooseflesh. They had both been preparing for this day, but Mitzi froze with denial. Another twitch from Johanna shook her back into action. She grabbed the blanket from the chaise. It was a good hundred meters back to the house; while Mitzi was a fireplug of a woman, the wheelbarrow just made more sense.

Johanna barely acknowledged the jostling ride, her head lolling back and forth with every bump. Mitzi kept her gaze fixed on the kitchen door as it grew blurry through a film of tears. So this is the payoff, she thought. Thirty-odd years together, four more of “registered” partnership--and for what?

She hoisted Johanna’s delicate frame from the wheelbarrow and laid her in their bed. Still smiling, Johanna groped for the edge of the quilt. Mitzi tugged it up under her chin and gave her a tender kiss. She rolled an IV stand closer and connected a tube to Johanna’s central line. In case her wooziness was pain-induced, Mitzi thought the drugs might bring her around. Though she still swore by her homeopathic remedies, even she had to admit that, as a pain reliever, poison ivy extract couldn’t hold a candle to morphine.

Johanna’s eyes fluttered open and she looked dreamily into the distance. Mitzi sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Johanna’s scalp, her platinum hair reduced to patchy wisps. It was once so lush and lustrous that Johanna had been among a handful of authorized sources for Dolly Parton’s wigs, anointed by the country legend herself after being summoned backstage at a Munich concert in the seventies. 

Before the cancer, Mitzi and Johanna would make a yearly journey into neighboring Meersburg, Germany, enjoy a lovely lunch at an open-air café that served wine from their vineyard, then end the afternoon in a beauty salon. On the return trip home, with her hair securely wrapped and boxed, Johanna would comment on Mitzi’s charming manicure. Mitzi reciprocated by marveling how Johanna’s new pixie cut made them look like twins, although Mitzi’s hair was a severe man’s style and black as a liter of schwarzbier. Dolly paid top Deutsche Mark, too--or euro these days. Definitely helped float the vineyard through some harsh droughts.