BERLIN is still one city in the early morning hours of August 13, 1961, just before hastily installed barbed wire slices it in two.

If there is no before and no after, then what remains? Me. Here. Bookending the last seat in a row of five chairs placed at the front of a funeral home. At the other end, sits my son’s girlfriend, who will soon be his fiancé. A simple wooden box at the front of the room holds the ashes of my ex-husband. How suddenly what was, is no more.

EVENTUALLY bricks reinforce barbed wire, encircling what’s called West Berlin.

I started dating him when I was fifteen. We broke up, then made up, over and over before we married, early in 1991. I was twenty years old. I was still in college. I wasn’t pregnant. I wasn’t trapped—not in that way.

WHERE barbed wire allows glimpses of what’s lost, bricks require you to mine your memories.

I turned nineteen in Regensburg, Germany, during a summer study abroad. Before I departed, he asked me not to go. “Auf wiedersehen,” I said, and he broke up with me.

PERSPECTIVE matters. Who’s free? Who’s caged?

That summer of 1989, I made friends from Yugoslavia, also international students. We spoke German with one another. We drank Guinness in an Irish pub. We rode the Regensburg city bus out to a lake where some of us swam topless. We danced to the Psychedelic Furs at the Discotheque. Before returning home, I gave them a few pairs of faded Levis. “So valuable in our country,” they told me. The next year, their country would be no more.

WHEN lines are drawn, be careful where you’re standing.

I returned home at the end of my study abroad; he was in the airport, waiting as my plane touched down in Minneapolis.

BARRIERS can be both physical and psychic.

One night, soon after my return, I drove to his apartment. I thought I’d crossed a line in Germany. This time, I’d break up for good. But he crumpled to the kitchen floor and cried for two hours. I’d never seen him cry before.

WHAT choice do you have than to adapt to life on your side of the wall?

Not long after Germany’s historic reunification, he gave me the same diamond that now sparkles on my daughter-in-law’s hand. He would never see the stone’s second life. He would be gone by then.

BEFORE the physical, psychic barriers fall. Small fissures precede a larger breach.

At the end of 2019, ten days before my ex-husband’s death, one day after Christmas, when our two kids were still at home—my home—my ex and his wife came to dinner. That evening, he sat at one end of my farmhouse table; from the other end of the table, I could see the whites of his eyes, now yellowed. I’d later think of this meal as the first and last supper. In the seventeen years since our divorce, the two of us had not shared a meal with our kids.

WALLS don’t just lock people in, they lock others out.

Though once my husband, at his death, there is no term that easily defines my relationship to him. I am grateful when his widow invites me to take a seat at the front of the memorial, to be seated near my two grieving children. My son’s future fiancé and I cap this row of five chairs. My now-adult daughter sits next to me. My son sits on the other side of this new widow, who centers the row.

IN the late hours of November 9, 1989, citizens on both sides of the wall gather; they shout “Tür Auf!” (“Open the door!”)

In the right now, I am strong. In the right now, my left arm is long enough to reach the middle of this new widow’s back. Right now, my heart is large enough to contain the tears of his widow and my daughter, who holds her stepmother’s hand with a firm and steady grip. Through side glances, I can see my son, looking stoically ahead.

GATES open, walls fall. East and west discover they still share a common language.

In the after, I miss him in a way I couldn’t when he was still here. Weaving back across an invisible line, I begin the grieving of the once wife. I enter a foreign landscape where so much that is familiar lives.


Heidi Fettig Parton (she/her) holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from BrevityForge LiteraryMultiplicityThe Manifest-StationNorth Dakota QuarterlySweet Lit, and more. Connect with her on Instagram @heidifettigparton.

Photo by Amy Selwyn