The Berlin Conspiracy


I left Berlin on the morning after my mother was buried. A few hours before she died, my brother and I were roused from our beds and told we should say our final good-byes. The memory of that night is still vivid, even through the fog of all those years.

A band of warm light spilled into the room as we entered, illuminating her face. She didn’t look real, already more an angel than our mother. After a moment, she spoke, softly, on shallow breath. “Kommt,” she whispered. “Come. … Don’t be afraid.” She was young, far too young to die, but even I could see that precious little life was left in the slender frame that faded into the shadows.

Outwardly, nothing had changed. The dressing table was neatly arranged with lipsticks, rouge, and powders; the music box still sat on the mantel, its waltzing couple frozen in silent midstep. Next to the bed stood a formal wedding photo in a silver frame and, on the wall, a fuzzy picture of a smiling man in uniform—black ribbon and medal of honor draped over the image of a husband and father who, like many others, never returned from “The War to End All Wars.” Everything was in its place, yet the room had changed in some way. The smell of medicine was gone; now there was death in the air.

I took Josef’s hand and led him to our mother’s side. He was only eight, five years younger than me, and probably didn’t fully understand what was happening. Nobody had explained it to us, not in so many words.

She lay there, very still, for what seemed like an eternity and the thought crossed my mind that she might’ve died in the time it took us to cross the room. Finally her eyes lifted and turned toward us. She studied our faces for a long time, as if trying to memorize them. Or maybe she was gathering strength, determined to use those last few breaths to carry the words that she wanted to leave behind.

“Give me your hands,” she whispered. I felt her weakness as she attempted to close her fingers around ours. “You see…” She tried to smile. “A family… Do you understand?”

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure that I did.

“Say it,” she demanded.

“A family,” I responded obediently.

She slipped her hand away, leaving Josef’s palm in mine. “And now—” she breathed. “Still a family … Always a family.”

I felt that she wanted to say more but was unable to summon the strength. I wanted to say something, too, but words wouldn’t come. Not because I was too emotional. In fact, I can remember wondering why I wasn’t more upset. I loved my mother dearly and I knew she loved us more than anything, but for some reason I felt removed from it all, watching the scene from someplace far away, like I am now.

Not many came to her funeral. Three, maybe four faceless men in dark suits and polished shoes standing a few steps behind us, heads bowed, hats in hand. I didn’t know any of them. Josef and I stood in front of the open grave with Auntie between us. The lady who came once a week to clean the house—I don’t remember her name—was the only one who sobbed quietly as the priest said his prayers and remarked that although it was sad our mother had left her sons orphans, God knew best and must have needed her in heaven more than we did on earth. I hadn’t thought of myself as an orphan before that.

I think Josef and I each placed