With the best of intentions – or for that matter the worst – I could not describe my maternal grandfather as emotional or highly demonstrative. His occasional very brief manifestations of emotionally motivated outbursts were nothing more than barely audible encouragements aimed at God, turning His oft quoted words from the Book of Genesis saying: “Be fruitful and multiply” - addressed to mankind - back on God Himself. Of course he used somewhat more descriptive and definitely more profane words to the same effect and only uttered those words when he thought that nobody could hear him and never in a manner that could be described as emotionally charged.
He was a quiet man, a man of few words, except on occasions when he quietly rumbled on with some long stories about his youthful wonderings all over Europe. It was no surprise therefore when he said nothing about not feeling well. We found out later in the day, when we realised that he did not get out of bed, which was very unusual for him. When we enquired about what ailed him, he dismissed us with an almost contemptuous gesture of his hand. He quietly informed us that he wanted nothing to do with doctors and just wanted to be left alone. We obliged reluctantly. Generally it was no use arguing with him and as he never before showed any signs of illness, at that stage we didn’t think that there was anything seriously wrong with him. He refused food all day, refused to answer any questions, but he did not give the impression of a seriously ill man. He was eighty years old that year and up to that day he never had anything wrong with him other than the occasional symptoms of a mild cold. Neither my mother nor I could recollect a single day when he stayed in bed. Respecting his request for privacy we left him undisturbed in his little room.
The following morning I knocked on his door. There was no response. I cautiously opened the door to look inside. He was lying motionless on his bed, eyes closed. I stepped nearer and tried to wake him. He did not respond either to voice or touch and I began to realise that there might be something seriously wrong with him. His breathing was shallow, his skin was pale and cool to the touch and his pulse was weak and slow. The realization struck me then that he was in a deep coma. I alerted mother and we called for an ambulance. A doctor arrived with the ambulance and within minutes the old man was on his way to hospital.
Mother and I – full of apprehension - followed on in a taxi.
At the hospital a doctor gave grandpa a thorough physical examination, ordered x-rays, ECG examination, blood and urine tests and advised us to go home. We waited until he was settled in a ward and then left him with a heavy heart. The doctor did not sound too optimistic about the outcome. We telephoned the hospital later in the afternoon and talked to the doctor, who informed us that there was no change; the old man did not regain consciousness and although he could not establish any diagnosis as yet, he did not think that there was much hope for him to survive.
We visited him the following day, finding his condition unaltered. The doctor – very apologetically – admitted that they were unsure about any diagnosis, but they suspected a cerebral haemorrhage, which in their opinion would eventually affect the centre controlling all vital functions. He advised us not to visit and assured us that they would inform us if there were any change. We left the hospital rather depressed and without much hope of seeing grandpa alive again.
For the next few days there was no change. Grandpa remained in a deep coma and we were not allowed in to visit him. We were unaware at that time that his younger brother Ármin was in the next ward in the same hospital, also in a deep coma. The doctors were equally pessimistic about him. As Ármin had changed his surname early in his youth, nobody at the hospital made a connection between the two of them. For us there was nothing left to do except to wait apprehensively for the seemingly inevitable bad news. We did not have to wait too long. A couple of days later the telephone rang early in the morning and the doctor informed us that the end was now very near and if we wished to see the old man alive for the last time we better hurry and get to the hospital quickly. Mother and I left home in haste, caught a taxi and arrived at the hospital full of foreboding.
An apologetic doctor was waiting for us at the main entrance. With great embarrassment written all over his face he addressed my mother.
- “I don’t know how to tell you this” – he began – “ we have no explanation and we can hardly believe ourselves what happened here. Minutes after I telephoned you there was a big commotion in the ward next to the ward where your father was. The nurses alerted us and a colleague and I dashed in, only to find your father standing over the bed of another patient with a walking stick in his raised hand, beating him and yelling at him: ‘ Get up you little bastard; you are not going to die before me!’ This man too had been in a coma for days and we gave up all hope for him as well. They are now sitting together chatting. I am not one who believes in miracles, but this comes as near to one as I can imagine.”
We were escorted to the ward to find grandpa sitting with his younger brother, both of them slurping tea and in deep conversation as if nothing had ever happened.
True to character grandpa showed no signs of emotion as we entered. He finished his tea, finished his conversation before he nodded his head towards us in silent recognition.
The two brothers left hospital together within the next couple of days. Grandpa refused to talk about the events and just shrugged his shoulder when I cornered him about what he thought was the matter with him.
“How would I know, when the bloody doctors could not make their minds up?
Anyway, it was not my time to go yet and I just could not allow that little bastard to beat me to it. That’s all.”
Well, he never was a man of many words… and nobody could ever accuse him of being over emotional… except perhaps his younger brother Ármin… “that little bastard” he was beating back to life…
© P. J. Oszmann (2003) Illustration: Pencil Drawing (1966)
All rights reserved.
(The events described above happened in the late summer of 1951 in Budapest Hungary, a year before I entered Medical School. Nobody could ever offer a rational explanation, why the two brothers were in a coma at the same time, how did my grandfather knew about his younger brother being at death’s door in the neighbouring ward and what gave him the strength to beat death… and his brother back to life… Grandpa passed away in 1958, two years after I left Hungary.)