The Garden

Chapter 1

It was a different Germany in 1987 — in fact, there were still two. The Hawelkas lived in Neuss in West Germany, on the west bank of the river Rhine, in a modest house, with a modest garden. The city was 2,003 years old at the time and had survived a history of conflict, but 1987 was largely an uneventful year for the people of Neuss.

Instead, they watched a world that was changing. Ronald Reagan spoke to the Soviet people via Radio Moscow, reinforcing his hope of continued disarmament during the tail end of the Cold War. Iran and Iraq entered their sixth year at odds in the Persian Gulf Conflicts. Germany even placed second in Eurovision.

For the Hawelkas, 1987 was a good year. On March 22nd, a rainy Sunday afternoon, Jürgen and Gisela welcomed their third child and named him Dennis. The trip to the hospital, the delivery, and the care came like clockwork, yet there was still something new in store for the father Jürgen. He was finally able to be present during the entire birth, and cut the umbilical cord to usher Dennis into the world. It was a busy day for the family, and on that Sunday, no one rested. And yet, it was good.

Dennis on the changing table

Four days later, little Dennis gave his family his first fright. His lungs were having difficulty adjusting to life outside the womb, and he was wrapped in foil and kept in the warm bed and blue lights of an incubator at the clinic beside the university hospital. A week later, he stabilized and received a bill of good health to his family’s relief, and they were allowed to return home not long after.

Back at home, Jürgen’s older sons, Maik and David, were hoping for a new baby brother. They were so happy to see Dennis for the first time, and made sure to be careful and disinfect their hands before playing with their little wish. It’s easy to imagine the scene during weekends: David and Maik running around the living room, little Dennis in his crib, Jürgen rocking him in his chair with the paper in his hands. It would have been difficult to find a story in the news that he could read to his boys, but during that spring, a German teenager made news around the world.

On May 28th, 1987, an amateur German pilot named Mathias Rust landed his rented and modified four seater plane beside the Red Square in Moscow. According to Rust, his plan was to fly through the Iron Curtain and straight into the heart of the Soviet Union to “show that Gorbachev was serious about new relations with the West”.

The teen from the town of Wedel, in Northern Germany, only possessed 50 hours of flight experience, yet he somehow made it all the way to Moscow from his departure point in Helsinki, Finland — despite Soviet defense systems detecting him on several occasions. He was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment yet was pardoned after only four months in a show of goodwill. No one could have imagined that his flight of fancy would help steer the course of Soviet politics in the coming years. Humiliated beyond belief, the Soviet military was purged of its old guard by Gorbachev, opening the gates to his sweeping reforms, and eventually, the end of the Cold War. Thank you, Mr. Rust.

It was into this world that Dennis was born, and from an early age he showed an eagerness for everything it had to offer. His family called him their wibbelstetz — or wiggle tail — because he was lively, hyperactive, and never, ever shy. With some help from his brothers he learned to walk early on, taking this energy on the move. In times of stress his parents could always rely on simple things to keep him calm. A rolled up handkerchief (his “sniffy blanket” as they called it) pressed to his nose, a simple pacifier, his plush dog “Wauzi” — Dennis was easy-going even in infancy.

The new boy’s arrival brought many changes to his growing family. As he increased their young brigade to three strong, the Hawelkas upgraded to a sizeable single-family home with a beautiful garden. Jürgen and his wife dreamed of giving their children a space to have fun, play, and explore, and their home became a gathering place for neighborhood kids and kindergarten friends. It was a house of joy and laughter for David, Maik, and Dennis.

When the trio wasn’t in school, they ran, pranked, and played with their dog Kimba across every square foot of ground and garden. Outside, they had a slide, sandbox, and wild bunnies to chase; when the weather forced them in, an equal trove of games and toys kept the boredom at bay. In this home, the brothers forged their bond through bruises and grass-stains, learning to love one another despite a kinship of constant competition.

David, Dennis, and Maik in Nature and Animal Park, in Brueggen, Germany

The garden was a life force for the Hawelka brothers and played backdrop to their most famous antics. On one occasion, Dennis took note of a bumblebee in the garden and promptly proclaimed, “David, now that I see this bumblebee, I know what you’d look like if you were a bee.” On another, Dennis got his hands on David’s cup of soda and decided to introduce some natural additions to the drink. When David took a sip of the pond-water concoction, all the boys fell to the floor in a round of laughs and sneers. For Dennis, the gags were comradery and the slights a sign of love. He was always looking for new ways to have fun with his brothers.

Dennis, David, and their parents at a class party

Beyond those small moments, the three boys made everything special. During the holidays, they would steal each other's chocolate from the advent calendar, too eager to wait their turn as the days to Christmas counted down. Dennis especially looked forward to this time every year because he loved opening gifts and seeing his grandparents when the day finally arrived. They played a large role in his life, looking after him and his brothers when his parents were away. The Hawelkas were a three generation family, and grandma and grandpa’s availability and love was crucial for both the boys and the parents.

On Christmas Eve, Dennis, Maik, and David lay awake anticipating their grandparents’ arrival. Their minds raced through the presents, food, and joy that the sunrise would bring. Though excitement kept them restless, this time offered brief respite from their mischievous escapades as they sat next to the tree singing songs and poems.

In those quiet moments, Dennis was an image of meekness, but everyone knew that the space around him would light up as soon as he awoke. Even as a child, Dennis could only be described with the most vivid of words — like boisterous, spirited, and warm. He was a big personality, often exceeding his size. If Jürgen took him to get a burger and fries (one of his favorite foods) he would always order the largest size and swear on his ability to finish them, despite his father’s doubts. For Dennis, the whole world was a large fry. He wanted the greatest challenge, the biggest reward, even if no one around him believed he could do it.

April 1991, Dennis with his Mother

His larger-than-life persona drew people of all ages to him, and he received his new playmates with high fives and getting-to-know-yous. He was open to all people, whether he knew them or not, and never had any problems with close contact. On family vacations, Dennis was outside making friends on the beach on the first day, as if he had lived there all his life.

After his parents divorced, he wasted no time adjusting to the new situation. The three boys lived with their mother in their childhood home, with their precious garden, and stayed with their father during weekends. When he met his step mother Martina for the first time, one might have expected apprehension, but Dennis was never afraid to love. He doted on her immediately. Dennis spent so much time sitting on her lap or giving her hugs that her own daughter grew a little jealous of him. For as much as Dennis opened his heart, he received the same love in return.

While Dennis' excitement and intensity stood out most to his father and brothers, it was this softer side — when they played cards, tinkered, or simply talked — that meant the most to his stepmom. She believed that Dennis was thoughtful and warm in a way beyond his years, and it helped make their family whole.

February 1995, Dennis with his stepmother and stepsister

The Three Musketeers

In elementary school, Dennis was a handful to say the least. His determination to get a laugh from his friends expanded from brotherly pranks to classroom tricks. Teachers often complained about him not doing his homework, and he had trouble being serious in class and following the lessons. Naturally, he polarized his audience. While his classmates roared at the jokes of the class clown, he received constant disapproval from his teachers.

This meant that Dennis brought home many love letters from his teachers. “He is a wild one,” Jürgen often muttered to himself while nodding at the laundry list of complaints. Despite those notes in teacher’s ink, there weren’t many red marks on his report card.

Dennis, with his father, Jürgen

At home, Dennis' relationship with his brothers grew even stronger, and their competitions more intense. Failure was not an option for the youngest Hawelka. If Dennis wanted something it didn’t matter who or what tried to tell him otherwise; he was ready to sneak, argue, and fight his way to that goal. Whether it was a swipe at David’s lunch money or a feeble attempt at wrestling the bigger and stronger Maik, Dennis was ready. He was the immovable object to his two older brothers’ unstoppable force — or at least, he pretended to be.

One game in particular drew little Dennis’ ire: Risk. This game of strategy baffled him to no end. He wanted to be better, faster, and smarter at everything all at the same time — which invariably led him to being none of the above. Each new game brought new lessons in managing his resources, but the result was often the same. When defeat seemed certain, there was only one way to quit. He would flip the board and end the game, and yell out, “You just wait! You’ll see! I’ll become the bigger and stronger one and then I’ll kick your butts and take my revenge!” After a brief moment of silence, they’d erupt in laughter, but Dennis was serious about one day evening the score.

In that cycle, they pushed each other further and further. Pinned during a wrestling match, one-upped on the battlefield of pranks, or bested in a round of Mortal Kombat — regardless of the odds, Dennis fought on, determined to keep up. Despite Dennis' can-do attitude, however, even he admitted defeat at times.

On one occasion, Dennis plotted a Hawelka classic: China Oil on David’s toothbrush. The familiar gag was simple yet effective and there was nothing funnier than an angry brother with a burning mouth. This time, before David could fall victim, the ruse caught up to his younger brother as he heard shouts of pain from outside. Dennis forgot to wash his hands and inadvertently rubbed the oil in his eyes. Through tears, he denounced his actions, “I’ll never do it again, never ever.” It was a truth only in the moment.

Maik, Dennis, and David

Despite their squabbles for the bathroom in the morning or cheap shots in the garden, the Hawelkas never questioned their love for one another. On one occasion of ride-or-die loyalty, David overheard two bullies threatening Dennis on the bus. If they wanted a piece of him, they would have to take on David, too. He stepped between the boys and his younger brother, evening the odds and forcing them to back down. Though it may not have been spoken in their younger years, this care for one another was expected. The boys knew it was family first.

Being closest in age, David and Dennis spent the most time with one another. For awhile, the two even shared a room — a nightmare for their parents. Hours beyond bedtime they whispered and joked. From giggles, to chuckles, to howls in the night, the boys’ laughter grew with each unsupervised moment. As the sound of angry footsteps approached, the two brothers played their favorite game of chicken, to see who would literally have the last laugh — and get all of the blame. A flurry of quips and lines flew from their mouths in the final moments before the door opened, and the loser would get an earful. Sometimes, however, it was just David reading Dennis a good night story. He still has those books today.

Maik carrying Dennis in their hallway

While all three of the boys had a similar comradery, Dennis' relationship with Maik took a different turn. Maik carried a coolness granted to eldest brothers by default. Dennis didn’t have a hero in an athlete or artist as a child — rather, it was his brother Maik who he most wanted to be like. Maik was his role model, his hero, and a guardian when Dennis dug himself into a hole.

“Maik, Maik, help me!” Dennis screamed, with a scowling David close on his tail. Whenever he earned the second brother’s ire, he came running to the eldest brother’s room. He would end up spending a lot of time in Maik’s room regardless, as the adolescent Dennis found a place within Maik’s friend group. He cracked jokes and joined in the banter, determined to be the cool younger brother. It culminated when Dennis was 14, and Maik smuggled him into a disco — of course, at Dennis’ insistence. The teenager was curious about what happened inside those neon-lit bars, and Maik fortunately knew the bouncer. Suffice to say, Dennis loved the experience, like every other new experience he stumbled into.

As his role model, Maik was also Dennis' greatest opponent. Not even he could avoid the tenacity of his youngest brother. The two often came head-to-head, bringing the professional wrestling moves they saw on tv off the screen and into the living room.

“Wait until you’re old and sit in a wheelchair, then I’ll beat you up,” Dennis cried out in defeat.

Dennis Hawelka
Dennis as a child