It is a beautiful spring day in Ludwigshafen.
A visit to Helmut Kohl — the Chancellor of the Reunification celebrated his 86th birthday yesterday!
In the garden behind the bungalow, the tulips are blossoming, the birds are chirping, and the grass is growing.
On the terrace, the former chancellor sits upright in his wheelchair, enjoying this year’s first rays of sunlight.
It is almost a miracle that Helmut Kohl can enjoy them today.
His doctors attribute this to his enormous will to live — and to the fact that his wife Maike (51) was and is by his side day and night.
Last year, the former chancellor had to spend 24 weeks non-stop in various Heidelberg Hospital intensive care wards: first a hip surgery, then the bowels, followed by further complications — it was a battle to survive. Almost until the end, it was not clear whether Helmut Kohl would leave the hospital alive.
In October came the surprising news … He could go home.
Today, the former chancellor is feeling well-enough for a degree of everyday routine to return. This means being at home and, as far as possible, deciding for himself how to spend the day.
But it also means training and therapies, especially logotherapy and physiotherapy. Because of his hospital stay, Helmut Kohl has lost much of his strength. He still cannot use his swimming pool again. He also still struggles to talk and swallow. Almost every day, he trains his flexibility and muscles on the ergometer.
At noon, he sits at the table as usual and has the newspaper read out to him. He often shakes his head, for instance when he hears about the divisions within the EU, the refugee influx, the terror in the world or the interaction between the CDU and the CSU. He was saddened by the news of his former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s death.
He rarely watches TV. But he watches the news regularly, sometimes also the football, like he used to. In the company of a doctor, he was recently able to take trips in the car again. For Christmas, he went to Speyer, to his beloved cathedral, and to the Rhine shore, near Petersau.
By now, the former chancellor also receives visitors again. For his birthday yesterday, Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, the Bishop of Speyer, called by, as did friends and lawyers from Essen. Later, his oldest friend, the 90-year-old priest Erich Ramstetter, mayor Eva Lohse and a friend from Mannheim visited.
Sometimes, albeit rarely, there are also once again political visitors, like Croatia’s foreign minister Miro Kovač. A meeting is scheduled soon with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. The former chancellor appreciates Orbán and always defends him against critics, calling him a dedicated European.
The issue of Europe is on the former chancellor’s mind. “Solitary decisions — regardless of how well-justified they might seem to the individual — and national solo performances have to be a thing of the past.
In twenty-first-century Europe, they should no longer be an appropriate means, also since the consequences often have to be jointly borne by the European community of fate,” writes Europe’s honorary citizen Helmut Kohl in a book contribution that will soon be published when Pope Francis will be honoured with the Aachen Karlspreis for his commitment to Europe.
This book contribution is an exception, and it is due to his concern for Europe. Helmut Kohl is also concerned for his historical legacy — which is the reason for the exhausting court case against his ex-ghostwriter involving the famous tape recordings, betrayal and potential damages in the amount of several million euros.
And his birthday? Helmut Kohl is happy about all the congratulations, the phone calls and the letters. He is just not yet able to answer them. The time he would need to do this must be dedicated to his recovery. What are the former chancellor’s wishes? “Strength. And a few more good years.”
I keep thinking about something his wife Maike said to me when I was leaving: “Why can’t we treat the living more decently? Then we would not have to lie so much in death …”