Open and honest encountering dying people by Dada Peng
And why for me young dying people are superheroes
The journalist Renate Werner wanted to report on my initiative in a documentary for ARTE. I made a call to Facebook to find protagonists for the documentary and Jana contacted us on the same day of the posting. We immediately had a level and I asked Jana if she would like to be part of the documentary and she said quite spontaneously and directly: Yes.
Of course, an image like “Superheroes Fly Before” is a comforting thought for the bereaved. But when I meet a person who has a life-shortening illness at a young age, it is of course also difficult for me to say: “You are just a superhero and fly forward, is cool!” Sharing these thoughts with someone who, according to a fatal diagnosis, has only a few weeks left to live, is also a challenge for me. That was the case with Jana. She was in her mid-30s and diagnosed with cancer. When I asked her about her life expectancy, she told me in April 2018 that she wanted to last until the Mark Foster concert next January. She didn’t make it. But in her last months I was able to get to know and learn from her and her husband Jens, her life, her perspectives and attitudes to life. For me, she is the ultimate superhero in the spirit of our initiative. The first superheroever ever.
She shaped my dealings with the dying and encouraged me to carry on the image of the superheroes and the idea behind them until the very end and beyond.
Jana – my first superhero ever
Without Jana, our initiative would not exist in the form and probably this book.
In the first time Jana and I only got to know each other through social media and via WhatsApp. Before our first phone call, I was insanely nervous. The superhero idea had only come to me a few weeks earlier and Jana was the first person, the first person with a disease, to whom I would now personally tell about it. I prepared myself for any reaction, from “What nonsense” to “I’m putting on now.”
Then the phone rang. It was Jana. “Hi!” a cheerful and lively voice greeted me. Immediately the ice was broken. What I learned at that moment was: dying are living! And we are all dying.
Why do we always have a direct feeling of having to treat the dying more cautiously and compassionately? None of us know the last day we will fly. I could have died in an accident or accident before Jana. So there was no reason why I should have confronted her with concern or even fear.
Jana took this fear away from me in this first conversation and I realized that we only meet in an instant. We cannot change the past, we cannot determine the future, but we can shape and experience our shared moments in the present. And we did.
Planning your own funeral – why not?
Jana then began to read my first book and loved to comment on thoughts or stories from it. In one chapter, I talk about how my mother gives me and my brother very clear instructions about who should and cannot attend her funeral. When Jana read this, she wrote directly to me: “How horny is that? That’s what I do!” I jokingly pondered in the book whether we should actually work with inlet ribbons at my mother’s funeral. Promptly came the next message from Jana: “I also want inlet ribbons!”
Jana not only took away the fear of addressing her at her funeral. She also took away my fear of thinking about my own funeral.
And when I did, I had pictures in my head: fries currywurst and champagne at the funeral, a welcome shot vodka at the entrance to the funeral, my friends of the Miami pop group “Spiegelblick” playing live and the drag queen Jessica Walker sitting like Alexis Carrington with a huge hat and veiled in the front row and always sobbing too loudly: “Dada, Dada!”
I don’t know how the mourners would find it, but I’d like it!
I think the last party has to be the best.
At some point when Jana and I were writing back and forth and on the phone, I noticed what we were doing. We enjoyed planning our own funerals. We did something really very sad and enjoyed the common moment, the shared experience. Because we were still alive!
Superheroes fly ahead
One of the most beautiful moments together that Jana and I were able to experience was when we finally got to know each other in person. I had an appearance in Dortmund where I wanted to present my song “Superheroes fly before” for the first time.
Jana and her husband Jens came the long way from Stuttgart to the Ruhr area to be there. Jana beamed. She came without a headgear and looked beautiful with her bald head. We also celebrated the founding of our initiative that evening and Jana and Jens stood like a wall behind me from the beginning and said: “You have to do this! That’s great, we need that!”
Jana was wonderfully supported by your Jens. I also told her later in the evening that I would really envy her. To this form of partnership. To this form of accompaniment. In our conversations we always found a completely balanced, common level. We never saw ourselves as the healthy and the sick, the envied and the one who was too affable. It was just “we.” We with our beautiful things in life and we with our less beautiful.
That evening in Dortmund, the presentation of my song was getting closer and closer. Jana and Jens were at the front. When the first sounds sounded, Jens took Jana firmly in his arm and I noticed my throat tightening a little. This time I could only sing if I closed my eyes. And so I did. When I opened my eyes again, I saw Jana crying. Luckily, the song was the end of the evening and so I said goodbye and was able to get off the stage quite quickly. A few tears ran down my face, too. Not out of sadness. It was more of a form of gratitude and happiness.
Jana approached me directly. She took me in her arms and said, “Did you know what? It is the same. I’m a superhero – I’m flying ahead.’
It was a wonderful evening, with friends, lots of gin and tonics and a very warm, pleasant atmosphere. We celebrated the moment and life.
It should remain our only face-to-face encounter.
What do you say when someone has died and the words are missing?
I learned of Jana’s death via WhatsApp when her husband wrote me a message via Jana’s account: “Jana fell asleep peacefully in my arm at 2.15pm today. Greeting Jens”
I had been on the phone with Jana a week before and although she reported pain and physical limitations, she was in good spirits. We laughed and compared to many other phone calls I make every day, it was a lively and positive, happy conversation.
She reported how much positive response she received after the ARTE post aired, how she enjoyed meeting old friends and, of course, how shit it was to feel powerless about her illness. But she didn’t complain. Not once.
After drinking a champagne on Jana, on her life and on our encounter, I wanted to condole Jens. I had already typed in the first lines: Dear Jens, how terrible. I’m infinitely sorry….”
Then I thought of Jana and what we had agreed on our first phone call. It was hard for me to call her dying by name. I kept saying things like, “In your situation” or “if you have your diagnosis. ” and the like. At one point I said, “Jana, I notice all the time that I find it hard to speak openly, because I don’t want to get too close to you and I definitely don’t want to hurt your feelings. But if that’s okay for you, I’d like to say what I think and if you feel uncomfortable with it at some point, say, OK?”
Jana replied only: “Yes, of course, no problem at all!”
“Okay, so you’re dying, right?”
“Yes, I am dying,” Jana said.
And then we maintained this direct and open communication. For me, one of the greatest gifts Jana has left me. To be fear-free, value-free and open to talk about one’s own death and death.
When I wanted to write Jens back on WhatsApp, I noticed that there was resistance in me. Even the first sentence “How terrible!” – why terrible?
Jana and I had determined that we can always say what we think, what we want to say from the heart. Why shouldn’t I do this anymore just because she had died? I thought of what I had learned from Jana: no pity for the dying. The dying are the living. Glitter and champagne and at any time.
So I deleted the text that had already been typed in and wrote:
“Dear Jens, dear Jana! I firmly believe that death is a transition from one to the other. But I also know that it is very difficult if you would have liked to have gone down the road together and now have to go it alone or stay behind. I wish you both much strength, courage and hope! You have strongly influenced and accompanied me and our idea of superheroes. My phone calls with Jana have had a direct impact on the course of the initiative. I am very grateful for that! Jana was the first person to say to me as a concerned person: “Stay tuned to the initiative. Do that! We’re all superheroes, I’m one too, I’m flying forward.’ Dear Jana, you are our first superhero and I will not tire of telling you about you! Dear Jens, thank you too and all the love for the next time. If you like, please report!”
The funeral as a final party, as a celebration of life!
When Jens sent me the first pictures of the funeral via WhatsApp, I was very moved, happy and sure that she understood me more than many people who were still alive, who were more physically visible than her, but definitely not more present or alive.
Colorful balloons flew into the sky; Jana was buried in a fried forest, photos of Jana, her favorite things and greeting cards lay under her tree. A plaque with her name and dates of life has since commemorated this wonderful woman. At Jana’s request, an inscription was incorporated on the plaque. Directly above her name it is written: “Superheroes fly ahead”.