by Alan Reinstein, English teacher
Sometimes the gifts of a relationship swell beyond your partner or friend and over into the friend of your partner, or the partner of your friend, or the partner of the friend of your partner, or… you get it. Some people make you so glad you found your way to them — that person for me was Gunard Hans, the husband of my college girlfriend’s mother’s cousin. Gunard, Irene and their adult sons Karl and Peter lived in Madison, Wisconsin where my girlfriend Ingrid grew up and where we both were freshmen at the University of Wisconsin. I remember Gunard for two majestic qualities, and I want to tell you about him.
One, he could listen. First, know this: listening in his home was a Herculean feat because Irene was a swirl of nervous energy who expressed herself through unrelenting, over-the-speed-limit chatter. Ingrid described it as “speed-talking,” a quirky mannerism that was matched with just the right partner, capable of listening well. To watch Gunard listen to Irene was to see patience and love in their purest forms, and whether this listening to his wife was driven by sympathy for her nervous condition or by an earnest interest in her thoughts is of no matter to me. I know what I saw: gentle, loving and patient attention given to another human being, the platonic ideal of listening.
Gunard’s gift was being able to free himself into the moment where listening was the appropriate thing to do. On the other hand, if speaking were the thing to do, he would have spoken. He seemed able to set aside all other ambitions in order to be fully present with his wife, a gift to her, of course, but also a gift to himself — and as an observer, to me.
Something else Gunard did during the short time that I knew him was that he comforted. Near the end of my junior year, he was diagnosed with brain cancer, and we all visited him at the university hospital right after his final surgery, not long before he would return home to pass away. We all went to the hospital together — Irene, Karl, Peter, Ingrid and I — to comfort Gunard after the surgery, and yet, from his bed, he was consoling us, mollifying us with encouragement. I remember how obvious this odd reversal was to me, how fully natural and right it seemed. I was on the outside, of course, the boyfriend, but I had wedged my way into this family over three years, and so I also was a beneficiary of Gunard’s goodness — his greatness. He held his wife’s and sons’ hands and told them not to worry: he assured them that he was feeling well, and it would all would be okay. It wasn’t, of course, and yet it was.
There’s no way to know how you will respond to the darkest moments of life until they’re right there: you hope that you’ll be your best self, not so you can be remembered as a benevolent and courageous person, like Gunard Hans, but so your best self will be an agent for what the room needs most. If that means comforting others, then that’s it. If it means letting the comfort and love of others into you, then that’s it. To pay attention to what is needed seems to be among the many lessons I learned from Gunard Hans.
Sometimes the gifts of a relationship swell far beyond your partner or friend, and you’re so glad that you found your way there. I’m so glad that I found Gunard Hans.