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Matt's Greece Travel Blog

Goodbye to Hanna

The first I heard that Hanna had died was Ruthie calling from the street.

"An old woman just died on the steps. She is a foreigner named Hanna." she shouted up to us from the street in a way that made her seem like a veteran of combat to whom death is no stranger.

"What does she look like?" asked Andrea already knowing the answer.

"She is very thin, very nicely dressed...."

That was Hanna. I heard Rob at the back door. Just by chance he had gone to Hanna's to check in because she had not answered her phone this morning and being an RN he is the kind of guy who cares about old people living alone on a Greek island. He tied his dog Mitso to the back banister and he and Andrea ran with Ruthie to see if there was anything to be done. Just like that it was me and Mitso, alone and wondering, me as to where this would all lead, and Mitso, where is Rob?

I thought about going down to see but I know there is not all that much I can do for a dead person. Plus Hanna did not like me very much. I think she saw me as the kind of rude American that disturbs the peace of her tranquil Greek island. It was kind of an unfair appraisal but I did nothing to change her view since it kept me from being invited up the many steps to her house for cocktails and meze to watch the sunset from her patio. I love sunsets and meze and even cocktails, but I am not that wild about steps. I liked Hanna though. I always said hello and talked to her and once or twice I helped her with her computer. I would not have even known she didn't like me if it were not for Rolando who pointed it out to me fairly regularly in a joking way. I thought it was unfair because I had never done or said anything that should have made her not like me. My theory is that she sat too close one night at one of our family dinners and heard all the bickering and insults and decided we were one of those nightmare Greek-American families that people run screaming from. The kind of people you don't want in your favorite island restaurant every night.

Anyway it is not really fair to blame her not liking me on my family when it could just as easily have been something I didn't realize I had said or even that I remind her of someone. The point is it gave me a reason to not rush to help someone who was beyond help. If Hanna's soul was lingering near her lifeless body then the last person she would want to see was me. Unless there was a neighbor who gave her problems. But her house was so high in the village that it was unlikely that any of her neighbors were around. So I stayed and tried to reassure Mitso that Rob was coming back.

Hanna was in her eighties. I had never known her as anything but old but I imagined her coming to the island as a young woman when you could buy a house for nothing. She would drive here every summer from Denmark even when she looked too old to drive. Last year a car caught fire in the parking lot and just before it exploded the owner managed to park it right next to Hanna's car which was also destroyed. I think by then she was leaving it on the island and flying rather than making that long trip. But even though she bought a new car it must have been like losing an old friend.

Hanna had not been dead for more than a couple minutes when Andrea and Rob got to her. She had been walking down the steps and had sat down on the stoop of one if the houses. The woman who lives across from Ruthie saw her and asked if she was OK and Hanna said she was not feeling very well. She then fell over and died and the woman ran up the steps crying and that is when Ruthie told us. Andrea ran back to the house and got a sheet to cover her. Word spread through the village and I looked out the window to see Krisoula rushing to the steps with the retired manager of the archaeological museum. Mitso was barking non-stop. He had one bark for Rob and another to answer the other dogs in the village that were barking in return, the kind of thing you notice when you are sitting waiting for the report on someone who has died.

Andrea and Rob returned. Hanna had died quickly and painlessly. The last thing she saw was the clear blue sky and the flags flying over the cathedral across the street. Her eyes had been open but Rolando closed them when he arrived, something I would not have thought of or known how to do.

A guy came from the clinic with a stretcher. (What can one guy do with a stretcher?) Andrea was going to get me to help but Andonis the former cafeneon owner, now "the guy with the truck" showed up and they took Hanna's body away while Rob phoned her daughter and her husband in Berlin who came the next morning.

Last night all the foreigners in the village were on the terrace at Rolando's like it was a going away party for Hanna. Her daughter and her husband were there, looking much sadder than the rest of us. But the mood was hardly somber. People toasted Hanna and told stories about her and if she was still around she probably enjoyed listening. I can't speak for anyone else but it seemed to me that Hanna could not have asked for a better way to go. She was on the island she loved. It was a beautiful day. She sat down on the steps and left this earth forever, at least as the person we called Hanna. We should all be so lucky. The only thing that might have spoiled it for Hanna was if the last person she saw had been me.

In the Death of Ivan Illich Tolstoy points out that when an associate or even a friend dies, one of our first thoughts after the shock of the news is how does this affect me, or to put it more bluntly, what can I get out of this? To Ivan Illich's fellow employees it means an opening and a promotion, perhaps an office with a better view. Though we don't want to admit it we all think this way. I told Andrea about this and came up with two ways I would personally profit from the death of Hanna. The first was that I would never come to Rolandos and find Hanna and her friends sitting at my favorite table. Not that I have a favorite table but the fact that I even thought of it means there is a dark place in my mind  that would see this as some kind of victory. The second, which I am ashamed to admit actually did pop into my mind, was that there would be one more parking space in the village lot, which would make divine intervention through prayer even less necessary and allow God to focus on more important matters. As you can see I have taken Tolstoy a step further and not only am I looking at how I can profit from Hanna's death but I am making it seem like I am doing God a favor.

Whatever. An extra parking space or a free table hardly seems worth the price of no longer seeing Hanna immaculately and tastefully dressed, drinking her red wine, or walking down the steps from her little house perched on the mountainside to buy groceries or go to the pharmacy for the many drugs it takes to keep you alive when you get that old, or to go to Galiskari Beach and work on the tan that she has been working on for the last 60 years or so. I don't know what she looks like during her winters in Denmark but in the summer there is nobody her age as tan as Hanna.

I felt awkward at dinner. Here I was, the only person there that Hanna disliked and already I was one table and one parking space richer. Is there no justice on earth?

But I can't help but think that if Hanna knew me a little better she probably would have realized I am not the typical loud stupid American she saw me as and I was not going to destroy her little bit of paradise. And I did fix her computer which is the modern equivalent of taking the thorn out of a lion's paw.

So in the end the loss is mine. Another missed opportunity to get to know a remarkable person in the short time they have on planet earth. I will try to think of that every time I find a parking space.

Hanna and Rolando

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