What prison, death and relapse taught me about the power of dressing well

The last book in the Bernie Gunther series that I had received from my mother came out my eighth year in the joint. Kerr had written a lot of books over the years. Minus the three he had written before I entered, there were 11 who had since been released. Kerr was a machine. He would have written more, only he died of cancer before the last was printed. It was called Metropolis. My mom sent it to me on my 34th birthday. I had spent eight years in prison and had become a bestseller myself. So things had gone well. Except the day before the fucking book came out, my mom told me she had fucking leukemia.

When I got out of jail, the judge sent me to a halfway house in Tupelo, Mississippi. The only problem was that my mom was in a hospital near Jacksonville, Florida. So the judge added a caveat to the order, which said I could travel to see my mother in the hospital, within reason. Which equated to about every six weeks.

Within a week of arriving at the halfway house, I was on my way to see her and went straight from the airport to the hospital. She had broken down all summer, and it was bothering her. But it was nothing like what it was. It was something else. If you have never seen a member of your family, your own mother no less, irradiated and chemo and experienced to death, then you are missing out on important knowledge. Either you know or you can’t imagine.

I walked into her room and said, “Okay, mom. I’m out of jail. You can stop pretending now. I don’t know if she smiled or not. Maybe she did. Her brain was quite burnt out and she was not very responsive. The hospital said she caught Ice Machine Legionnaire’s disease, of all things. She had fevers of 104. It was hard to tell, because the thermometer was broken and for some reason the hospital didn’t want to get a new one for her. This is how it went for a few days.

Understand about my mother that she was hardened in some ways. She might be the nicest person, but she had an advantage over her. She was born in the occupied Saarland in 1957. Or maybe it was Alsace. Everywhere it was, there were German speaking people living there, but the French ran things. Apparently she was born in a convent. And the midwife had had a strut. Her father, an Italian named Vittorio, died in Paris when she was a baby. Throat cancer. He came from a good family and a good dancer. I saw a photo of him. And that’s all I know about him. Her mother, Erna, remarried a few years later to an American named Jack. He was a sergeant in the army. And so my mother became American, and a kid in the military no less. She was nice, though. Too nice, really.

My dad had been in the hospital for five or six weeks when I got there. He hadn’t left the room. He was losing his mind because of the thermometer. There were nightmares everywhere. You leave one nightmare, and another is right next door.

We will jump until the end. She died. It was bullshit. I’ve been around some of them, and it was maybe the cruelest shit I’ve ever seen. But she was brave about it. She was never brave. Some people say bravery is stupid or unnecessary. But this is not the case. What is unnecessary is something else.

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