The Word: Fall

When I first see my grandfather outside of the Würzburg train station, I don’t recognize him. He looks the same—polo shirt, baseball hat, the bright blue eyes that are just like my mother’s—but it’s his new walk, that, in contrast to his previously sure stride, makes me initially look past him.

He does the same with me, briefly, squinting into the sun as he begins to limp past. “Opa!” I have to shout from behind him.

He turns around.“Ach, Gott,” he laughs, Oh, God. “It’s still strange for me to hear you call me that. Am I so old?” As he hobbles over, the slight grimace he makes with each step belies his humor.

The last time I saw my Opa, he was lying in a hospital bed, still telling these bad jokes. Last spring, he was hit by a car while driving on his motorbike—the bike, he shows me in a photograph later, was broken into three separate pieces, the metal crushed into itself and split, the Swiss-army knife inside his pocket warped into a 90-degree angle. My grandfather flew 20 meters through the air before he touched ground. He broke more bones than we can count. In Intensive Care for six weeks, he was only sometimes conscious, but he finally recovered: Now, he’s something of a walking miracle to doctors and nurses and me—we who thought he might not make it.

It’s my grandfather—who used to run marathons, train for triathlons, and climb mountains—that stands as the only person unhappy with his recovery. “I’m a cripple,” he’ll say, laughing, but there’s an undertone of despair. “I can only bike, nothing else.”

Mensch, war das ein Sturtz.” Man, what a fall.

So we spend the week biking—45 kilometers the first day after I arrive, through the open fields for hours, racing through grass as high as we are, the wind at our backs propelling us on. The next day we bike around the corner to the grocery store to pick up avocados and strawberries; the next, 10 kilometers into town for coffee, and then to the drugstore.

It’s my first time riding in a few years, and Opa’s old bike is a little too big for me: I wipe out in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. I’m pretty much stationary when it happens, too, and Opa just looks at me and shakes his head. They say you can’t forget how to ride a bike; I’m skeptical.

It’s the only time I’ve been alone with Opa, I realize, and so he speaks to me in English at first. It’s my biggest failure to him, that I’m not fluent in German. Now the language I knew before English so often gets jumbled in the back of my mouth and, over-thinking every article and conjugation, I freeze. I can only understand, not speak. I still try, though: “Wir sollten nur Deutsch reden,” I say one night at dinner. We should only speak German.

There’s something about translation, the ability to switch seamlessly between two modes of meaning, that seems unattainable—but my grandfather does it well.He worked at an American school in Germany after the War, teaching English and history for years, and now, he sees hope in re-teaching his granddaughter her first language. “Is relearning a language like riding a bike?” I joke.

Das Fahrrad, not der,” he says. You just have to know these things. Remember them. For the rest of the week, we switch back and forth between the two languages: “Links,” he shouts out at a street corner, and ahead of him, I turn my bike left.

On my last day in Germany, we go on a final bike ride after dinner. We fly through wheat and corn fields, the perfect squares of farmland, the expansive sky; I’m rolling over the smooth bike path one last time, and I swear I’m thinking in German, that the words would fly out perfectly into the landscape, I’m sure, but for now they’re contained within the thin track of two wheels tracing over pavement.

It’s late August, and although up here the sun doesn’t set until past 10 p.m., there are already leaves that have started to flutter to the ground, crunching under my bike. It feels, suddenly, like the end of summer. The end of something, at least.

“Bye, Delphine,” he says at the train platform the next day.

Tschüss, Opa,” I say back. We hug. A smile—or a wince, I can’t tell—and I’m back home, my German crumpled once again into the back of my brain.

Tschüss, it means goodbye. When I was younger and still carrying a German accent of my own, I didn’t realize it wasn’t English. When I found out it was German, that not everyone understood, I was oddly upset. I think the discovery meant it could now never mean all that I wanted it to: It was useless, a broken word.

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