Jack the sound barrier. Bring the noise.



Last week my father's best friend, Rien Bonte -- or Bonte, as my father always referred to him as -- passed away. They met as teenagers and became close friends, bonding over art and their love of psychedelics. They lost touch when Bonte married, supposedly because his wife didn't approve of the influence my father had on him. Luckily, they rekindled their friendship years later when Bonte divorced his wife.

When my father passed away, Bonte spoke at his cremation. He recalled how they met as teenagers on a hot summer's day. He immediately thought my father was cool, and edgy and daring. At the end of the day, as the sun went down, my father spontaneously jumped into a canal. He remained underwater for a very long time. Bonte waited for my father to reemerge, and he remembered feeling panicked when moments had passed. He couldn't see any movement in the dark water, and he knew he'd have to jump in after my father.

He thought that was a fitting metaphor for my father's death. My father had disappeared in the dark water and he felt like he wouldn't see him again until he had made the plunge into that same dark water.

I'm not doing his words justice at all. He was a poet, and I can only recall so much from that emotionally taxing time. I remember right after he said those beautiful words, my mother called out from the audience, saying that she hoped it would be a long time before he took that plunge. Eight-and-a-bit years later, and he took that plunge.

Besides writing novels, writing poetry, sculpting and painting, Bonte was a teacher of Dutch language at a high school. For two years, he was my teacher. He was considered an unusual teacher and a bit of a contrarian. He was considered cool and funny, and his teaching style appealed to a lot of teenagers. Because he was such a well-loved teacher, the turn out for his cremation was big. A lot of alumni showed up. I got to talk to my French teacher, who also spoke a few words at the ceremony, and I got to see my English teacher again, whom I was very fond of.

Because it was so busy, I wasn't too keen on standing in line to offer my condolences to the family. I wanted to, but I felt like I'd be intruding and bothering people. When I noticed the line of what must have been many strangers shaking the hands of Bonte's family, I decided to go and say something.

The first person I offered my condolences to was his son. I introduced myself, gave him my condolences and was ready to move on. He hesitated and then asked me if I was related to Ben. I told him he was my father. He smiled and said he had gotten to know my father well before he died. That was really nice to hear. I moved down the line, and got to Bonte's sisters. I again introduced myself and gave my condolences. They immediately recognised me as the my father's son and were delighted I had come and entertained me with a quick story how they had played with me as a young boy.

The last in the line was Bonte's father. Old and frail, sitting in a chair. I waited patiently and got annoyed at other people talking down at him (literally). It seemed so... unpleasant. When the old man was free, I shook his hands, squatted down so that we could look each other in the eye. I introduced myself, said that I was my father's son, and the man's face lit up. I told the old man that Bonte had been incredibly important to my father, and in turn to me. The man started to cry and said that he wasn't long for this world, and that he would tell that to Bonte soon.


I've been to several funerals and cremations in the past few years. Most of them were friends of my father. A group of people who lived hard and died early as a result. I was unusually emotional at this one. I think there was some simmering sadness to do with my father, but it was also the realisation that the group was getting smaller and smaller, and that my step-father, Ruurd, was one of this ever-shrinking group of people.

When I got back to the table where Robin, Jody and Ruurd were sitting together with some of the usual suspects, I explained it to Ruurd, who in an uncharacteristic move of affection, pulled me in close for a hug and a kiss.

There is still so much sadness that I still haven't really processed.


Eight Years

It's been eight years since the hardest day of my life. Eight years since my mother died in a hospital in northern Italy, sedated and lonely, with only myself and a nun present, who had just happened to walk in to see how I was doing. My siblings were still in the Netherlands, but were on their way to the airport when I called them. I was so happy to hear that they would come anyway.

Her dying was rather peaceful compared to much of the morning and night, where she was upset and confused, likely due to a delirium. The doctor in charge had gone home for the night, and I couldn't speak to the nurses properly because they only spoke Italian. When my aunt, who worked as a senior nurse at the hospital, came to check up on my mother after her shift, she was visibly upset that the doctor hadn't been called by the other nurses. Within an hour the doctor was present and told me he would make sure she wasn't going to feel any more pain.

He knew my mother had documented wishes on how she wanted to have her life ended, but couldn't oblige her. Italy doesn't allow euthanasia, but that didn't mean he didn't have options to help her. When he told me that he would take away her pain, he gave me a look that said, "do you understand what I'm saying?" He couldn't say it, but I knew what he was doing, and when she started to calm down, stopped moaning in pain, and fell asleep, her breathing rhythmic, I immediately felt better. I sometimes wonder if I was happy for her or happy for me.

Hours later, her breathing had become weak, but still rhythmic. The machine that helped her breathe was equally rhythmic, but strong, giving the impression that nothing had changed with her. But when I checked her pulse, it was barely noticeable. I also saw that blood was pooling around her joints, unable to push towards her extremities because her blood pressure had plummeted.

She died at 15:00, exactly, while I was talking to the nun. The nun gave me a hug. When she embraced me, I was a child. When she let go, I had to learn how to be a man.

I think about that nun quite often. See, because when I asked the staff at the hospital about her, because I wanted to thank her, they weren't sure who I was talking about. Don't worry, I'm not suggesting anything spooky, spiritual or religious. It just makes her presence at the moment of my mother's death even more special.

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Seven Years

IMG_3894Today just before 15:00, it will be seven years since I saw my mother alive. I must have told this story to you a hundred times in a hundred different ways. I tell the story to myself over and over so as not to forget anything. Somehow, the last few hours became very important.

She died in Imperia, Italy at exactly 15:00 after a hellish 24 hours, where she was taken to the hospital by an ambulance that was driving so fast I couldn't keep up with it. Especially considering I had little experience driving in Italy, using toll roads, or even knowing how to get to the hospital they were taking her to. I remember calling Ruurd, asking him for directions. Eventually I got to the hospital and found her in the ER.

It took a long time before I was allowed to see her. It was only until they found a staff member who spoke Dutch that I could explain everything and explain her situation. It was so frustrating that even highly educated hospital staff didn't speak English.

We sat in the ER for a long while. She was still conscious then, but not much. Eventually, without explaining anything, they took her to the women's ward. Wards were segregated and I was afraid they wouldn't let me be with her. Luckily, they realised I wasn't going anywhere and put her in a separate room.

She was put on oxygen, fluids and sedatives. She slept for a bit and I started calling everyone I could think of to get her back home. I was hoping they could patch her up enough for her to be admitted onto an aeroplane. Her situation never improved enough -- at all -- for that to become a serious option.

They told me she'd be out until the next day and advised me to go home and get some sleep. I still regret going. I was woken up at 1 in the morning and was told that my mother had awoken and was confused and panicked. I went back to the hospital and found her just like that; in a panic, crying and in pain.

For several hours I took care of her, trying to calm her down and comfort her, which worked to a certain extent. She was delirious, I suspect, but I found that the one thing she could focus on was childhood songs and lullabies. We sang In de Manneschijn together until she finally succumbed to her exhaustion. She never woke up.

As the night slowly turned to day, the only sound I focused on was the sound of the oxygen machine she was on, rhythmically following her laboured breath. It became hypnotic.

Eventually, the doctor was brought in to asses her situation and I tried to explain to him that wanted her in the Netherlands so she could die. He told me that it was not an option to discharge her, nor was it an option to let her die. There was something in his eyes that told me he understood she had to die. He sedated her even more and assured me that she'd feel nothing.

When we reached this point with me father a year before, he died after four hours. My mother held on much, much longer.

The morning came and went. The afternoon wore on. My mother's breathing continued but the rest of her body was deteriorating quickly. Blood started pooling underneath the skin around her knees, indicating her blood pressure was dropping.

And suddenly, out of nowhere, a nun walks into the room. The only people I had seen on the ward were nurses and doctors, who occasionally peeked in to see if everything was alright. The nun spoke English, which was a pleasant surprise. She asked me how I was doing. I told her I was tired. She asked me how my mother was doing. I told her she was too strong for her own good.

Just I had said that, I noticed that the rhythmic mantra of the oxygen machine had turned monotone. I looked at my mother told the nun I believed she had just passed away. I was really surprised for some reason even though I knew it was going to happen. The nun came up to me and hugged me very tightly. Then she left. I followed her out into the hallway to see where she was going. The nun walked down the hall and exited the women's ward.

I went back inside my mother's room and sat with her for a while, making sure she was dead. I walked into the hallway and stopped the first person on the hospital staff that came by. She checked on my mother and then calmly got several other nurses. I was asked to leave her room as they prepared her body to be taken away.

I was so sad, and so relieved at the same time.

By this point my brother and sister were on their way to Nice from Amsterdam in the hope of still being there as my mother died. I picked them up from the airport and we went to see my mother's body. They were very strong. Jody was in a bit of a daze. Robin cried. We hugged.



How Long Will This Last?

This morning, I woke up in tears because of a disturbing dream I had. As with all dreams, it's fading quickly, but what I do remember of it is that we had organised my mother's birthday party. She looked like she did before she got ill, radiant and beautiful, but we did know that this was going to be her last year, so we had made it a grand affair. Everyone came, from near and far, and I was mostly dealing with all the drama that would occur if ever such an event were to happen. Especially my mother's side of the family have a tendency to be volatile and explosive and any party that doesn't end in police because someone drove a car through the front of a building, well, that's a really tame party to begin with. At one point, near dawn, when a lot of people had already left for home, we noticed that my mother wasn't there anymore. I went looking but couldn't find her anywhere. She was simply gone. I suspected that she may have skipped out early because she thought the agony would be less. Kind of like when a doctor wants to set a bone and asks you to count to three, then sets the bone at the count of one. I don't know, but I know that I felt very sad when I woke up.

I wonder how long this will last. It's been years since she died and while things are getting easier, these strange dreams keep coming occasionally. I will likely never let go of the sadness, carrying it with me as proof of my love for her, but the burden of sadness has become easier to bear over time. Maybe this is a permanent addition to my life. Pleasant dreams with a sour ending to fill the void that her pleasant life (with a sour ending) left behind.


Smarter Mother

When my mother passed away in Italy on July 29th, 2008, she left behind a pretty comprehensive list of demands regarding her cremation. We had talked about it quite a bit throughout her illness and when she finally succumbed at 15:00 exactly, the only thing that was difficult was arranging for the repatriation of her body to the Netherlands.

One of the things she had been rather adamant about was the choice in music she wanted to have played to the attendants of her cremation. Each song was beautiful in itself and I thought they were good picks she had made, but only with time do I start to understand the message that she's leaving me. It rings so clear in each of those songs, what she was trying to leave us with and for who she meant each of them.

One song, she left to her children. It rings out so clear it's making the Machiavellian thought behind it almost overwhelming. Win by David Bowie is a song about perseverance, hard work and success. She wants us to succeed in whatever we choose to apply ourselves. She never had any real outspoken demands of us. She supported her children the best way she knew how. Slow down, let someone love you. She had so much love and she wanted us to experience that for ourselves. Wear your wound with honour, make someone proud. It's okay to make mistakes, it's life, you learn your lessons and you become a better person. Somebody lied, but I say it's hip to be alive. Live! Live your life with all the ups and downs and keep on living it.

One song, she left to her lover. She had been separated for a long while, but she still had a tremendous amount of love for the man who had been like a father to my sister and I and was the father of my brother. It had been a deep and tempestuous relationship that ultimately wouldn't last but I don't think either of them would've had it any other way. They cared so deeply for one another. Wild is the Wind by David Bowie describes the passion and deep connection that they shared.

Three years ago this was the song that I clung to when I was struggling with the loss of my mother. If my father hadn't died a year before, I probably would've clung to him, but instead, I seemed drawn to this song. Only really for one reason, one line; With your kiss my life begins, you're spring to me, all things to me. To me it became to mean how she had given birth to me, how her love nourished me to life and how it all started with her and that she was responsible for everything. Now, with time, I know that this song wasn't meant for me and that considering it as such is a little strange, but I can't help but be deeply moved still by this song and by that line, particularly.

Then there was the song that was for herself. Or rather, for everyone. No More Drama by Mary J. Blige is a song about being free of pain, problems and the weight of life. The weight of the disease that in 18 months had turned her from a vibrant and beautiful woman into an old woman. No more pain. God knows, she was so strong as she struggled with an unbearable amount of pain for well over a year. Surprisingly, the medication that allowed her to endure the pain (and the medication that allowed her to endure the medication) didn't diminish her somehow. But I know that when the time came, she was so tired. She had been strong in life and she was going to be strong in death. She was ready.

Voor mamma.

In de maneschijn, in de maneschijn,
klom ik op een trapje door het raamkozijn.
Maar je waagt het niet, maar je waagt het niet.
Zo doet de vogel en zo doet de vis,
zo doet een duizendpoot, die schoenenpoetser is.

en dat is één en dat is twee
en dat is dikke, dikke, dikke tante Gree.
En dat is recht en dat is krom,
en zo draaien wij het wieletje nog eens om.