Thursday, August 19, 2010

Goodbye Ulli

Walter 'Ulli' Colman was a friend of mine. He was 93 years old, and died today.

His son Tony advised me that he probably didn't have long to live. Ulli had been in and out of hospital a few times in the last couple of weeks, and been diagnosed with bladder cancer. But he had stopped eating, which was his real health issue. There had also been some issues with the care he received from the Montefiore Home in the last few weeks, which may have made his last few days more difficult than they needed to be.

I went to visit him two weeks ago to say goodbye. Ulli was dressed, and sitting upright in a chair in the Special Care Unit common room. He didn't appear to be in pain, but he seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness. He cried out a couple of times: 'hello, hello'. He briefly asked me where he was, and why was he there. His voice was weak. I know his hearing had become impaired in recent years, so I don't know if he could hear me much. I told him that he was very special to me, and I was very grateful to have known him. I told him his son would be visiting in a couple of days, and said goodbye.

His son Ron arrived a few days later, dedicating the next few weeks making Ulli as comfortable as possible, and dealing with some problematic care issues.

One could say he was a distant relative. His son married my father's cousin's daughter. Both his sons had moved away from Sydney, one to London, the other to eastern Canada. He was my closest 'relative' in Sydney, but more a friend. I had actually never met my cousin Lou before she visited us in Sydney, and I came to know Ulli and his wife Liesel through Lou's family, along with Ulli's other son Ron's family.

Ulli was an amazing man.

Ulli was born in Germany. His parents had a successful retail store in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and they lived just off the Kurfurstendamm. His parents decided he should have a trade, so they sent him to Belgium to learn textiles/knitting. After training, he thought Australia might be a good place to find work, as there was lots of wool here. He had the foresight to organise for his parents and immediate family to emigrate to Australia when the Nazis came to power in Germany (being Jews, many of their distant family and friends perished). He met Liesel in Sydney at a social dance.

He served in the Australian Army during WWII. He could recite his service number to me from memory. He seemed quite proud of his service, although I believe the army at the time didn't fully trust German-born servicemen, so he was given duties in rural NSW. After the war he taught textile technology (specifically knitting technologies) at Tafe.

He often spoke about teaching. He would lament while in the Montefiore Home that he had lost his confidence to teach. Ulli loved being a teacher, and having that sense of control in front of a room.

He was passionate about music, in particular he liked pre-war jazz, which he called 'happy music'. He also liked to play Skat, a German card game which he called 'the chess of card games'.

Ulli and Liesel bought a small 2 bedroom flat in Bellevue Hill after the war. He stayed there until he moved to the Montefiore Home. She passed away in the late 1990's. They raised their sons there, and both boys went on to great personal success, one a lawyer in London, the other a brilliant economics academic in Canada.

Until the stroke when he was about 85, he regularly played tennis a few times a week, and was quite socially active. He traveled to Israel, and drove his 1970's rusty yellow Toyota Corolla around Sydney. He was fit, and friendly. On New Years Eve 2000, he let my family watch the fireworks from his flat in Bellevue Hill while he had gone out to a party with friends.

About 8 years ago he had a stroke. This was quite debilitating at the time, as his vision was severely impaired, and he acquired a short-term memory defect. He could not read (this eventually sorted itself out, and his vision corrected itself, but the memory thing made reading functionally problematic). His friends and family in Sydney formed a roster to visit him at home, and assist him in being independent. This didn't work out for him, so he moved to the Montefiore Home in Hunters Hill. As aged care facilities go, the Montefiore Home is of a very high standard. But I don't think he liked it there much. The home is clean, bright and cheerful, and there are plenty of diversionary activities, but some of the attention to personal well-being can be a bit uneven.

With the memory problem he couldn't remember anything before the prior 60 seconds. He would constantly ask where he was, and why he was there. He usually sort of already knew the answers. He couldn't remember anything that had happened since the stroke, but could remember much of his life before the stroke. Sometimes he would remember something like the weather from the previous day. We could still talk about his family, career, and other things, and he was still very intelligent, and funny too.

He complained that his greatest problem was that he didn't have confidence and was unsure of himself. He said he couldn't teach without confidence. I imagine it must have been truly awful for him, living in that purgatorial memory loop.

I would visit him at the home. Our conversations always included quite a few rounds of the same questions from him, but I tried to direct the topics to current events, his family and past. The visits became less frequent over the years (only once every few months or so), and his physical and mental facilities became less strong (although he did wear out a couple of girlfriends). I don't think he really knew who I was for the last year or so, but he did always remember his real family. He did maintain his sense of humor.

Ulli had an amazing sense of humor. He often made jokes, sometimes about his condition (although he would forget that he had made the same joke about 5 minutes before), and he would kid around with my children.

Ulli was my friend, I have truly enjoyed knowing him, and I will miss him.

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