I’ll come back if you need me. I’ll know if you are feeling lost. And now it is night and you have left my bedside for the brief hours you agree to sleep. Dr. Bloch says he has never seen a boy sob so, be so stricken with grief. Today you scrubbed the floors and walls, and washed the drapes and my clothes and sheets, and then you cried on my stomach because it still stinks of the iodoform. I saw you in the hallway holding Dr. Bloch’s hands, and praising him and thanking him for allowing you to press the suppurations on my body with the poison in your own dear hands. He is a good doctor and a good man. He will try everything because you beg it of him. Only your devout eyes on me keep me from screaming like a demon all the hours of the day.
I hate to leave you when I’ve given you so little but I long to hold little Gustav, Otto, and Ida. I never saw their faces; I only saw their cheeks and eyes and wondered what kind of children they would make. At five years, Edmund broke me in half, sweating all over my arms and breasts and neck, and shaking and covered with spots and then still, so still so stiff so silent. I rocked him well into the night after his death. He was so much bigger than the others and still so small against the world, and there were too many more faces that he never got to wear, that I never got to witness.
Alois looked at you children as if you were too far away to make out your individual features. He was, as you know, angry about being illegitimate and what family he did have was half-mad and half-simple. He had no way to know what loving families do. They were all wild animals living in the forest. I was in danger of becoming a wild animal too, until you. Often, even after you were walking and running, he called you by the name of one of the dead ones, not out of grief I’m sure, but that he was lucky to remember a name. I looked at you and Paula as if the entire world winnowed down to just two faces. One boy, one girl, all that was left, and all that still mattered. I knew that in you was some of the same material as in them I lost, and I wondered if the way you walked or the sad look, the bitter voice you sometimes had, was familial. I never felt that way. I felt powerless but I never felt the way I saw you and your father feel. The way you leveled your whole selves against forces that hadn’t attacked you to get even for the injuries you had sustained elsewhere.
Those eyes, which are as light as mine but different. I missed the dead ones so much I even fantasized about the things that they might hate. I imagined them hating your father as you did. I imagined them brooding, and plotting, and nursing their tempers until they went flying free, and the group of you stood together burning down his bee houses. I wanted you to be free of hate but I couldn’t get it all out of me, and I also wanted to be close to you. Your tenderness and obedience for me was the only respect I felt worthy of. I failed the others; my body failed them; my brain failed them; my heart failed them. I didn’t make them strong enough and then I didn’t protect them. Paula skipping, cooking singing, you doing everything — relentlessly painting, reading, arguing — left in me a thousand half-formed images of what they might have been. And we, the larger family might have overcome your father and tempered you. Five children: Gustav, Otto, Ida, Adolf, Paula, and only two at my bedside now.
You must take care of your little sister. She is feeble, like me, and she will not be able to support herself alone. She isn’t ugly but I feel that seeing how life was in our house that she will not marry. She loves the garden, always let her have a garden. Your half-sister, Angela, will go against you but you must love her too for she is only capable of soft feelings no matter how strongly she expresses them. I have a premonition you will conquer her somehow and it fills me with confusion.
I know you hate this monster in my cells. Don’t blame the doctor for poisoning me when I am gone. I want to go. The pain shuts down when I die. This pain that is so intolerable. There are dozens dying by me with this same pain, and thousands more across the city, across the planet millions in pain. I think, So this is what it feels like to be dying. Did my children hurt like this? I know that you are angry and more full of anger than I understand. I look at your paintings, MY BELOVED, and the sketched glass windows shimmer with thoughts I can barely decipher. I am so proud of you and you will have everything that you desire. You will be a great artist, isn’t it obvious now that you have been accepted into art school? Isn’t it obvious that your talents will save you from the menial work that is your experience and our legacy? Be proud, Adolf, be ever proud of who you are. I gave you shadows in your father and your grandfather; I know that. I called your father uncle too long into our marriage. I let him beat you and I gave you sweets to make it better. I taught you nothing about money or people because I knew nothing. I was poor and because I was poor, my life was so narrow, and I still felt overwhelmed by it. I combed your hair and I tried to picture what an architect does and I couldn’t. I only knew that it meant you would draw buildings and someone would make them. This seemed to me to be an ideal.
Paula is going to forget her father and she will forget a lot of me so you must be memorable. I forgive you your silence, and your brevity in the letters you do send for I know you hate writing. But I will not forgive you if you leave her to wonder, as I do, what your life contains.
This room. The white Jasmine around the window that sends sweet perfumed air in with every breath of the wind. You and Paula at my side. I suddenly matter so much. I spoiled you because I was too weak to bring you up. Once, I found you hiding in a closet with a broken arm. And once, I saw you strip down for the bath and your white back was ribboned with whip marks. You were less than eight years old. Once, I hid you both under the bed and told him I had broken his reading glasses. That was the only occasion I tried to be brave like you and take the beating. But I was beyond beating, never going to be any better. And he thought himself a good citizen and so would beat his son but not his wife.
Adolf, I speak to you now and I ask that you destroy this letter because what I say here will make clear that I know something about you that frightens me, and if you ever get into trouble later I would not have my words fall as evidence. I went for a walk before I got sick, in the summer, and I saw you by the pond. Your back was to me and you were throwing a frog into the water. The little thing swam back and you grabbed it up and threw it again, harder, into the water. It swam back. It was drawn to you. You grabbed it and threw it again, and again it swam back and you threw it, and it swam back and you threw it until it was exhausted and it drowned. It was like you were entranced, the pair of you, you and the frog. I have seen you in that detached space and I have seen a cousin there as well. That cousin killed a dog and slept with it until his housekeeper found it rotting in his bed, and then he killed her too. Another cousin came to dinner at our house and ate, and drank, and spoke ambitiously of crops he could never afford, and then went home and killed himself. Keep away from our family and be kind to animals.
I feel sure that if you follow your art you will be happy. I feel sure that you will hang in the memories of millions. You will make something incomparable. You will be terrifying in your greatness. You must nurture your body, and stay healthy so that your thoughts are clear and you can avoid ill thinking. You must not be isolated as an artist. Those artists, I have heard, die young of drink and sadness. Don’t drink if you can help it. My father might have been redeemed if he stayed sober. Go to church. The church is where you will find understanding and compassion. You know I am devout, and I do not demand that you be so devout as me but do not leave God. Do not act against God because you are angry. You are never forsaken. I must see you in heaven. I must not be there without you. It will be better there for us as a family, all the children and me. And I will have learned so much by then. Think how it will be, you and Paula will be the babies doted upon by us all. I will be a stronger person and I will have made a beautiful home for us near the gates so we can watch the happy souls arriving and welcome them. We will have a garden such as you have never seen with every flower in Creation. I will gather paints and canvasses for you so that you can paint through eternity. Money will never again make us cry. I want you to live a long good life and repent everything immediately so that there is no catch at the end. Say your prayers, and say thanks at dinner, and give alms, and see that the priests know you. Keep my grave tidy. But most of all be good, be good, be good because I love you and I know you are good. I see in you a genius that can be good if only you would be good.
I must pretend to sleep now. I have a strong feeling that tomorrow I will die. It makes me hopeful. I love you and I pray you will forgive me.