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Published: January 15th 2014
Somewhere in Jordan in 2010.
My dad died. He died on Tuesday the 10th of December 2013 from lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain. This blog is about that event, but mostly it is about my father and it is dedicated to him and his life. For most people he was a friendly man, or a good colleague and friend, but to me he was papa. This simple word conveys everything that he was and still is for me. Final moments
He wasn't alone when he died, my mum and I were with him. We told him we were there, not to be afraid and, most importantly, that we loved him. My mum kissed him. He reacted to us in those final moments, so we know that he was aware of us being there. He died at home, and in the last couple of months of his life it was my mum and I who took care of him. He died dignified, he didn't really need that much help even in the end. Critically he was clear in his head right up to the final hours, so we had the chance to talk to him, and he to us, about
My dad in 1942
In the middle surrounded by his two sisters
whatever was on his mind. He died quick, he had no pain.
He made it past several milestones before he died, like my parents 45th
wedding anniversary, and his own 72nd
birthday. Crucially, he got to see all of his children in the weeks before he died. Important not only for him, but also to my brother, living in Peru, and my sister who lives in Switzerland.
I would have wanted my dad to live another fifteen years at the least, and the pain that his death has caused won’t go away easily. But there is one comfort for us, which is the way he eventually died. He died in the company of the ones he loved, knowing he was loved, and quickly. If you have to die, isn't that the way each and every one of us would like it to be? My father
My dad was born during the Second World War. His father shipped bulk down the Rhine and the other European rivers and canals. My father was one of five, with two older sisters and two younger brothers. They travelled a lot on those ships when they were young, through Germany and
On a boat in 1946
On one of the many trips with his father I presume.
France, and Belgium and who knows where else. Travelling was, as it was with me, instilled in him from a young age.
My grandfather died young, from lung cancer. My dad was only seventeen when his father died. It left a scar, for a long time he thought he would not live beyond his father’s age. But he did, he lived much longer, and yet he died too young; too young for us. And he died from the same disease that took his father.
My dad was the first in his family that went to university. He studied civil engineering, focusing on irrigation and hydroelectric power generation.
After university my father started his career and his life abroad. One of his first ports of call was Bangkok, where he would spend the bulk of his working life. He worked on the Mekong River Project, designing dams and reservoirs, for hydro and irrigation projects. It took him to Laos, Cambodia and war-torn Vietnam.
Eventually what he did in that time would become his legacy and something he looked back on with immense pride. Later in his life he encountered people who opposed the projects he had worked
Family photo 1955
He is the one to the left
on; damming rivers wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Be that as it may, I am proud of his achievements and of the person he was. Because I know he was an idealist, I know that he wanted to help people, help the poor, and help developing countries develop. And I know he did! Not only in S.E. Asia, but also in the many other countries he worked in, ranging from Asia to Africa. He made a difference in this world, something few of us can truly say.
It was in Bangkok that he met my mother. She was a stewardess, working for Scandinavian Airlines Systems, stationed there for a year. She introduced him to all kind of great things, like T-Bone steaks, Manhattans and dry Martini’s. They shared the same interests, the same love of travelling and the same sense of humour. I believe they had a ball those first few years. A young couple, no children, living in an exotic slice of the world, with the benefits that being married to a stewardess brought in those days: free tickets!
Eventually, after some years, the first of three children came, my sister. She was also the loudest of
His degree in 1965
Receiving his Civil Engineering degree in Delft in 1965
us. Next came my brother, an idealist, like my father. And eventually I popped out, too early according to my mother, who had preferred me to be a May child, instead of an April one.
Children meant more responsibilities, and the need to think about how to structure their lives. The inevitable decision that comes to all who live abroad with children had to be made. Continue living in various countries, or give us roots, a place to call home? My parents decided on the second choice. As for which country that would be, Sweden, my mother’s place of birth, or Holland, my father’s; it became Holland, because it was thought that it would be easier for my dad to find work there.
However as it turned out my father couldn’t find work back home, so he kept on working overseas, while my mother stayed at home with us. Looking back, I think my dad would probably have decided differently. Living abroad for long periods of time was harder for him, than for us at home. He missed a great deal of our lives and he suffered because of that. He felt estranged from us, and it put
With family in 1966
About to leave Holland for Bangkok
a strain on our relationship with him for a long time.
But apart from my father not being around that much when I was young, I don’t remember it as being a bad time. When he came home, which was mostly during summer and around Christmas there was always fun and laughter and a lot of travelling. During our summer holidays our parents took us around Europe, a different country every year. And Christmases were spent either at home, or in Sweden with my mother’s parents. We really had a fantastic childhood.
In the long run, however, my father became miserable from being alone all the time, tired of being sent out on long assignments far away from us. And so he tried to do something about his situation by accepting a job at home. It turned into a disaster. The company he ended up working for was run, to put it mildly, by a bunch of assholes, who made use of my dad, piling work on him like there was no tomorrow. Staff breaking down was common occurrence, due to bad management. The more of them that broke down, the more work my father had to do,
Looking cool at a party in Bangkok
Those were black years in our lives. The stress took its toll on my father, he landed in a downward spiral and did things which took a long time for all of us to get over. I won’t go into details on what happened, but I don’t believe in pretending my father didn't make any mistakes either. However it isn't the mistakes that he made that I remember him for, but the fact that he, with the help of my mother, managed to correct them and break the spiral. He was human, he made mistakes, we all do. It is how we deal with our mistakes that we are remembered for.
I admire my father because he was able to draw himself up again, and I admire my mother for sticking with him in those dark years.
He realised that the company he was working for, was the reason for his break-down and that it had achieved the exact opposite of what he had intended, which was bring us closer together. So he returned to foreign assignments.
By that time we, the children, were old enough to take care of ourselves. It meant my
On a field trip
mother could go out more regularly, and for longer periods of time, to visit him. This made it all much more bearable to my father. And so things calmed down again.
With time he could take on shorter assignments and eventually he managed to retire early, an old dream of his. And what did he do in his retirement? Work at home on the house he loved, as well as in the garden. Building a wood shed, a pergola, painting the woodwork on our house on the inside and outside, and much more. But the thing he really loved most was travelling, and now he had the time for it. So he and my mum went places, bicycle trips in Holland and in Europe, city trips, outings to Sweden to pick berries and mushroom, and bigger journeys further afield, lasting between two and three months, mostly at the beginning of the year.
We the children, have followed in the footsteps of our parents. My brother is living and working in Lima, in Peru; my sister has been living in various countries, the latest of them being Switzerland, and I? Well, you know my story; I am traversing the
He liked to water-ski
globe from country to country.
My brother and sister also followed my father in their choice of spouses, both going for somebody of a different nationality. My brother for a Finnish beau, and my sister for her South African charmer. Both also have three children, like my parents, and use English as their family language, again in sync with our own youth.
Only I have decided (for now, and maybe forever) to remain free and unfettered.
My parents didn’t mind their children living all over the place; in fact they found it a very positive development, because it meant they could go visit them wherever they were living. And the last ten years they alternated between visiting my brother and my sister, whenever making their bigger trips. Going either to Lima and using it as a base to explore the wider region, or going to Singapore/Dubai and doing the same there.
And once they came out to travel with me. It was a highlight in my travelling career, and I look back at it with great happiness. Most of the time, however I came back home to them, therefore there was no need for them to
He had a suit made, but it turned out shiny, it was too late to do something about it.
visit me. I came home often enough. Their home was still my home as well, as it is to this day.
Last year it was once again my brother they were supposed to visit, another sojourn to South America, combining seeing his family with travelling around the various countries nearby. They had booked their flights to Lima and the plan was to discover the charms of Paraguay and Uruguay while over there. But fate decided differently and in January my dad was first diagnosed with lung cancer.
I heard it while out on the road. I was in Malaysia and for a while was stunned by the news. I decided to come home early to see if I could help. As it turned out, I stayed home ever since. I wasn’t the only one who returned, my brother dropped by in February, my sister in March. But my freedom gave me the opportunity to stay for as long as was necessary. Here was the great benefit of my lifestyle.
My parents trip was cancelled, my dad went through chemo and radiation therapy and in June the cancer was gone. We couldn’t have been happier. We thought that
A study trip to Japan
my dad had slipped through the eye of the needle. We had a great summer, my brother and sister coming home for a longer period than usual. September came, and my parents went to Sweden to visit family, and they went to help my sister settle into her new house in Switzerland.
I found a trial, planned another journey, and booked flights. My parents did the same, they decided to go for the cancelled South America trip again. Then disaster struck a second time in a year. When I got out of the clinic, some two weeks after going in, things had changed dramatically. It was as if my dad had become dement overnight. My mother was in a panic. An MRI was taken and we got the terrible news that the lung cancer had returned, but this time it had spread to the brain.
More radiation and special medicines that take the pressure of the brain ensured that my dad got his wits back. But it was made clear to us that curing was not possible anymore, the treatment was aimed solely at lengthening his life and ensuring a good quality of life till the end.
Their honeymoon took them to Indonesia and Malaysia
Even if they tell you the end is inevitable, you still hope for a miracle. Rationally you know he will die, but you still fool yourself. For two month we believed that against all odds somehow things had stabilized again, that maybe he would again get through this. He wasn’t exactly fit, for sure, but in all other respects things were kind of normal.
Still, bearing in mind his condition, my brother decided to come home quickly and took leave from work. For my sister things were slightly easier, since she had moved from Dubai to Europe earlier in the year. It made it possible for her to come down to Holland more frequently than it would have been in the past. In retrospect, it was a good thing my brother came home when he did, because after he left things again took a turn to the worse.
My dad started getting pain in his shoulders, then in the lower back, resulting in him not being able to get out of bed without a lot of pain and help. We got a special hospital bed in our house. And we started on pain killers, mostly morphine based derivatives.
At a beach in Penang
My sister dropped by to help as often as she could, my brother called all the time from Peru to see how things were going. The truth of the matter is that neither me nor my mum, could have done what we did without their support. The knowledge of them being there, even if they were not able to be with us physically all the time, gave us the energy we needed. I also know for a fact it was of great comfort to my dad. The calls from my brother and sister gave him great pleasure.
A few more weeks he lasted, and my mum and I made it as comfortable and painless as possible for him. But death can’t be stopped and so he died.
It is strange, I write this, but I still haven’t grasped the fact that he is gone forever. Nothing prepares you for this. How do you deal with it? I don’t know, I don’t have the answers. We are just trying to cope, and I think on the whole we are dealing with it as well as anybody else would. Death
I have thought a lot about death
Contemplating, my mother wrote in the photo album
lately. As an atheist I don’t believe in a supreme being, or in heaven or hell, or in an afterlife, nor do I believe in reincarnation or nirvana. I don’t believe there is some ultimate purpose or design to us being here. But I am not a strict or radical atheist either, and would never push my beliefs or opinions on somebody else. I would normally not go around telling people what I do or do not believe in, the reason for doing so now, has got to do with the specifics of this topic.
You see, those who do believe that there is something more out there, that there is a purpose to life, the universe and everything, have the obvious advantage that in a time of death they find comfort in their beliefs. If you are sure there is a benevolent God out there and a place called heaven, you can tell yourself that your loved ones have gone there and you will meet up again when you die. Similarly reincarnation is a nice thought for many, because the soul moves on, never dying.
But how does somebody who thinks that after death there is nothing,
At work 1970
In his office
For me, I look at biology and pro-creation and thus know that in a sense my father is still around. The only difference is that now he is spread out, instead of concentrated in one person. His genes are in us, his children, and to a lesser extent in his grandchildren. All of us have got traits and habits that come from him. You could say that if all of us who have got his genes would come together, than my dad too would be back. Our combined behaviour, customs and even looks would probably approximate my father pretty well.
Much more tangibly his legacy of dams, irrigation schemes and other civil engineering projects which he designed and worked on around the world are a testament to his being.
Finally he lives on in our hearts and memories. I will always carry him with me, and so he will continue to travel the world as long as I do.
More philosophically, I have thought about the fact that in the last months he felt that time was moving very slowly for him. A minute felt like an hour, he often said. He continually asked
At the pool at Chand House, which was the name of the apartment block they lived in in Bangkok
us to look at his watch because he was sure the hands were moving in slow motion.
It got me thinking. Time is relative, so Einstein said; time depends on the observer, to be precise. So if that is true, and my father was the observer of his own time, who is to say that his time was indeed not slower than our time? And if time was going so slow for him, it figures that in his time, he is still alive and we are with him. For us, in our time, we have long overtaken him, and he is truly dead. We can’t reach back into the slower time he was living in, but for him we are still there, and he is still there, and that is what is important.
If time kept on going slower for him as he said, maybe the last moments last for a very long time? And in his last moments he was surrounded by love, by his loved ones, in the house which he loved. Or maybe his entire life flashed in front of his eyes, but since his time was so slow, it didn’t actually flash by, but
South Vietnam 1972
A field trip near Cam Lo, close to the DMZ.
went by so slowly that it lasted another life time. He might be sipping Manhattans with my mum as I write this, or perhaps he is on one of the many holidays with us.
It is obviously of no use to us, even if it is true. For us he is gone, we who live in our time, but it is a nice thought, and it doesn’t require a supreme being, or even any special purpose to life in general. The future
How do we continue? For my mum and I, we started off by going for Christmas and New Year to my sister and her family in Switzerland. We needed to get out of the house for a while, away from where it all happened. There are a lot of good memories in that house, but at the moment a little bit of distance is required.
A little further in time, I have decided to make the trip my parents were planning on making. The one to South America. I will accompany my mother in my father’s stead. He would have liked that. I want my mum to keep on travelling, as she did with
With my sister on the balcony
my dad, and so would my father have. This first trip I will go with her, and in other years to come? Who knows…
Finally I will leave you with a quote a friend from the road sent to me, it’s from Richard Dawkins: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.”
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