Christmas Day 2018 was one of the worst days of my life. Just over a month before, my husband of 32 years, Dale, died two days before Thanksgiving of a sudden massive heart attack.
He was only 57 and we had been together since we were teenagers. To say I was lost was an understatement.
I woke up alone for the first time in my life on a Christmas morning still deeply grieving and depressed. By noon, I couldn’t stand the sight of the Christmas tree that Dale and I had put up three days before he died. Through my tears, I hurriedly packed it away.
She wanted to give me something to look forward to; to hold onto, not just to get me through that day but through the days and months of grief that still lie ahead.
Later that afternoon, our former German exchange daughter, Steffi, called. By that time, I was so distraught I couldn’t hide my pain while talking to her. I didn’t even know if I wanted to make it through the day.
Steffi told me, “I’m planning a trip for you to come and visit us next year.” She wanted to give me something to look forward to; to hold onto, not just to get me through that day but through the days and months of grief that still lie ahead.
Two months before, when she’d visited us before Dale died, I’d mentioned Elton John’s farewell tour. I told her I wished I could have gotten tickets, but by that time, all of the U.S. scheduled dates close to us were sold out.
When Steffi told me she was planning a trip for me to come to Germany and meet her 8-year-old daughter, Sophia, the next summer, she didn’t tell me she was also planning on finding tickets to an Elton John concert in Europe.
A True Family Bond Forged Over Decades
At my urging, my parents hosted an exchange student from Australia during 1979-80, when I was 15. Angela, from Melbourne, was my parent’s only exchange hosting experience, but my oldest sister hosted many throughout the years she was raising her family.
When Dale and I married, I was volunteering for the exchange program, helping place students in American homes. In 1990, when Dale and I bought our first house, I couldn’t wait to host an exchange daughter of our own. As a volunteer, I had access to all the files and handpicked Steffi because she’d earned a prestigious scholarship. I wanted our first experience to go as smoothly as possible and I knew she wouldn’t likely cause a lot of issues that typically come with teenagers.
We chose well and forged what we felt was a true family relationship not just with Steffi, but with her family in Germany. Two years later, we had just as lovely an experience with our second exchange daughter, Meg-Ann, from Australia. As with Angela, we maintained contact with them through the decades and shared in their lives as they grew into women, wives and eventually mothers. We were even able to attend Steffi’s wedding in Munich in 2007.
Although we hadn’t met them in person, Steffi and Meg-Ann’s daughters called us “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”
I’m Still Standing
By the time my anticipated trip rolled around in late June, I was still understandably dealing with grief and figuring out how to move my life forward.
I looked forward to meeting my German “granddaughter” and of course, anticipated the Elton John concert with great excitement. Steffi had sightseeing planned for us every day, going to museums, art galleries, a somber visit to Dachau and seeing the famous Glockenspiel, as it was under renovation during our last visit.
Elton John was simply amazing, playing for three straight hours with only a short break as he changed costumes during an instrumental. He played every one of my favorite songs, “Tiny Dancer,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “I’m Still Standing” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Steffi’s mother, Barbara, attended the concert with us in Graz, Austria, which gave us an extra special memory to carry forward.
Simple and Special Moments
When Barbara asked me toward the end of my 13-day visit about my favorite part of the trip, I immediately thought of the concert. A lifelong music fan, I got to experience in Europe a favorite artist sing the songs of my youth, at a concert named for the first album I ever asked for as a Christmas gift so many decades before.
However, upon more reflection, I decided it wasn’t the history in the museums, dachshund museum, ornate art in the galleries, the happy dancing of the marionettes at the Glockenspiel or even singing along to Elton John with my German exchange daughter and her mother that were the highlights.
Those things were wonderful. But there was something even more special, something I could not have anticipated before my trip.
My favorite moments were the human connections:
Visiting with Angela, my exchange sister from 40 years ago, who came from her home in the Netherlands, where she now lives, to visit us in Germany.
The routine mornings when Sophia hopped out of bed, full of the energy of an 8-year-old, singing, and upon seeing me, hugging me and telling me “Good morning,” in English.
The times Sophia practiced “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a song she learned at school or “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck,” the tongue-twister I taught her and she practiced for a solid week before getting it right (although it was driving us all a bit nuts before she finally learned).
Picking her up from school with Steffi, seeing her face light up from across the playground and watching her run up to me and throw her arms around my waist in a big bear hug.
Playing games with her on the subway and sing-songing “Home again, home again, jiggity jig,” upon returning home.
The evenings spent with Steffi and her husband Stefan, as we shared dinner together and decided on movies to watch after Sophia went to bed.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Yes, Steffi gave me the trip of a lifetime by inviting me to Munich and planning a tourist’s dream — along with a once-in-a-lifetime concert experience — but she gave me so much more than that.
For 13 days, Steffi gave me a glimpse into her busy world, a chance to experience living in a household full of life again. Living alone in my grief, I had forgotten in those short months what it was like to be a part of a family unit, to experience life with those I love. Steffi and her family allowed me to see that there is life beyond the one I shared with Dale and it was up to me to create it.
We never know how choices we’ve made in our lives will affect us days, weeks, years or even decades down the road. But I know the choice we made to host Steffi that year she lived with us now almost three decades ago not only provided me with memories of the trip of a lifetime, it helped save me from the most traumatic loss of my life.
I still yet do not know what my future life will eventually look like or even where it will be. I’m allowing the pieces to come together in their own time. But when I do, I know it will be partially to Steffi’s credit.
Just as Elton John sang in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Steffi and her family saved mine.
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- Moving Beyond Grief After Losing a Spouse
- Author Jonathan Santlofer Reflects on Grief
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