For papa, with love

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January 9th 2014
Published: January 15th 2014
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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 1942My dad in 1942My 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 1946On a boat in 1946On 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 1955Family photo 1955Family 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 1965His degree in 1965His 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 1966With family in 1966With 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,
Bangkok 1967Bangkok 1967Bangkok 1967

Looking cool at a party in Bangkok
to compensate.

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
Cambodia 1967Cambodia 1967Cambodia 1967

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
Bangkok 1968Bangkok 1968Bangkok 1968

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
Wedding 1968Wedding 1968Wedding 1968

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
Japan 1968Japan 1968Japan 1968

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.
Bali 1969Bali 1969Bali 1969

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.
Penang 1969Penang 1969Penang 1969

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.


I have thought a lot about death
Bangkok 1970Bangkok 1970Bangkok 1970

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 1970At work 1970At work 1970

In his office
find comfort?

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
Bangkok 1971Bangkok 1971Bangkok 1971

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 1972South Vietnam 1972South 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
Bangkok 1972Bangkok 1972Bangkok 1972

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.”

Additional photos below
Photos: 78, Displayed: 35


Bangkok 1973Bangkok 1973
Bangkok 1973

My brother has arrived!
Bangkok 1974Bangkok 1974
Bangkok 1974

Playing car with my brother and sister
Burg-Haamstede 1974Burg-Haamstede 1974
Burg-Haamstede 1974

Our first house in the province of Zeeland in The Netherlands.

15th January 2014
Home 2013

You've put in words how we all feel. It is a beautiful tribute to Pappa. Both Jan and I are so thankful that you were able to help Mamma and find it such a comfort that you both were there with Pappa at the very end. Love you loads, Linn
15th January 2014
Home 2013

Thank you Linn
Couldn't have done it without Jan and you. Love Ralf
15th January 2014

Thank you
Your father's wanderlust lives in you. My father was in the merchant marine, and loved travelling the watery parts of the world. He married my Danish mother, and settled in the US, but I'm not sure that he wouldn't have been happier had he continued his sea-faring life. When he died he was cremated. I've been scattering his ashes in bodies of water around the world ever since. Karen
15th January 2014

We haven't decided what to do with my fathers ashes yet. We will decide sometime in the summer, when my brother and sister will come for home leave.
15th January 2014

so sorry
I'm really sorry for your loss... from the photos, it looks like your Dad had a well-lived life, something that, unfortunately, not everybody can say, I hope that's what will stay with you and your family once the pain has gone away a little bit...
15th January 2014

Thank you
Yes he made the most out of his life, and it gives my family and myself a lot of comfort to know that.
16th January 2014

Your blog is a beautiful tribute to your Dad...
Someone once said that a man dies twice. Once when he dies physically. And the second time is the last time his name is uttered. So it's true that he lives on in his his family and his projects. Reading your blog reveals many similarities between our upbringing...I also was born in Thailand and spent my youth in Southeast Asia and travel the world with my Dad who was a passionate traveler. My Dad passed away on August 2, 1988 at the age of 66 after spending the day hiking with our family in Rocky Mountain National Park. We also mourned his passing at such a young age. In our case, we knew we would see him again in you said, faith can bring peace. I look forward to your blogs from Peru...we plan to be there in September.
16th January 2014

Perhaps the saying should be changed to incorporate the newest technology, a person dies thrice. Once when he dies physically, a second time the last time his name is uttered and the third time with the end of internet. Because these days everybody has a profile online.
16th January 2014

With love to you and your family
Thank you for sharing your experience Ralf despite the sadness of your situation. A family of travellers, an honest story of a good man. I love the old photographs too. X
16th January 2014

Thank you Danielle
I guess writing this blog was another way for me to come to terms with my fathers death. It helps me cope in a sense. Glad you liked the old photo's.
16th January 2014

As you said, your father lives on in the genes and traits of his offspring, but also the projects he has completed, the people he has helped, and touched, and the memories they share. And now thanks to this honest and reflective blog your papa lives on in us too. Thanks for sharing, Ralf.
16th January 2014

Yes, I suppose my father has now spread out over the internet as well, touching even more lives, through this blog.
16th January 2014

wonderfully down.
I just finished reading your tribute. It brought a tear to my eye. It was wonderfully written. In one sense he will live on for as long as his memory is alive and well in those that knew him and loved him. It seems he lived a long and fulfilling life. My condolences to you and your family. T
16th January 2014

Thank you
I am glad the blog touched you. Yes his life certainly was fulfilling, though I would have liked it to be longer...
16th January 2014

Hi Ralf, sorry to hear about your loss. I appreciate how fortunate it was that you could be there for your Pappa at such an important time, we lost our elderly mother on the 2/1/14 and though we'd all been hovering, only my sister was their at the end and I missed by 2 minutes. Your tribute is an inspiring read, truly your Pappa lives on in you, if those photos are anything to go by. Thinking of you mate.
16th January 2014

Thank you and condolences back
I am so sorry for your loss, and I am very grateful that in a time like this you still found the time to read my blog and comment on it. Glad that your sister was there in the end, even if you just didn't make it for those final moments. It is always a comfort to know somebody was there at the very end. My thoughts are with you.
16th January 2014

Your description of your father makes me remember that all the families experience similar things. It´s life, just that. Hugs from Argentina.
16th January 2014

Yes it is life, and a part of the cycle of life. It is the hardest part of that cycle, but it is inevitable.
16th January 2014

It is how we deal with our mistakes that we are remembered for
What a wonderful tribute to pappa. These memories will comfort you in the days and weeks to come. You will realize he is always with you--His legacy lives on, the genetic material, the things he taught. I'm thrilled to hear you'll travel to South America with your mother as you say your father would have loved that. One of the greatest gifts from our point of view is he taught you to travel, to embrace and understand others.... to be comfortable in this big world.
16th January 2014

Thank you
Yes, he is already always with me. I think about him all the time in one way or another. And I am looking forward to the upcoming trip as well, visiting places he would have wanted to visit. Like this he will in a way go to them, only differently than he or any us could have imagined.
16th January 2014

Really sorry for your loss...
What a beautiful way to say goodbye to your dad... It is sometimes difficult to put in words how we all feel in moments like this but you have done it incredibly... Thank you for sharing his life with us. Wonderful collection of old photos as well... Wishing you lots of strength...
17th January 2014

Thank you
I'm happy that I was able convey my feelings through this blog in a way that others would understand.
17th January 2014

Thank you for sharing
It is such a wonderful tribute to your dad. It was so beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing your story, love and pictures of your family. Your dad is a great person. His legacy and memories made with you will help you through this time. Do take care and travel more. I look forward to read more of your trip to South America.
17th January 2014

And thank you for reading and commenting
I will continue travelling, my father and mother's genes have ensured that.
17th January 2014

A touching tribute
My sincerest condolences Ralf, and thank you for sharing your papa with us. As someone told me recently when my aunt died, "Death ends a life, but it doesn't end a relationship".
17th January 2014

Thanks Jo
True words, the relationship won't end until I die.
18th January 2014

Hello mate. This brought a tear to my eye, and I am sure it did for many other who have lost a loved one. Thank you. John
18th January 2014

Thank you
Yes, I suppose the feelings will sound familiar to those who have gone through the same.
18th January 2014

Really Sorry
sorry for your loss:-( What a beautiful tribute though - made me feel like I got to know your dad and the family And the photos complement the story so beautifully as well. No wonder you have such a travel. Take care! Beata
18th January 2014

Thanks Beata
Indeed, the travel bug was passed on from one generation to the next.
20th January 2014

A beatufiul, touching tribute
Ralf I am deeply sorry for your loss - words seem so inadequate. My father died of a brain tumor in mid-2010 - he had just turned 73. Similarly, his situation deteriorated rapidly. It would be great to finally meet you on the road to share our experiences - including a discussion about death, and what, if anything, is afterwards. Nando Parrado was one of the rugby players who survived for 72 days in Andes after their plane crashed into the mountain. In his book "Miracle in the Andes" he wrote the following: "Death has an opposite, but the opposite is not mere living. It is not courage or faith or human will. The opposite of death is love. How had I missed that? How does anyone miss that? Love is our only weapon. Only love can turn mere life into a miracle, and draw precious meaning from suffering and fear." It was Nando's love for his family that drove him to survive in those cold and dark days. Remember that if dark days meet you at any time in the future, that love surrounds you from your family, your friends and from the virtual community that is Travelblog. Take care.
20th January 2014

Thank you Shane
Your words are certainly not inadequate, in fact, nobody's words are. The mere showing of sympathy through a kind word is enough, in that respect even one word could do the trick. I am sure we will meet up one day, somewhere on a dusty road, in a far flung corner of this planet. The odds are in our favour I would say, seeing that we both are constantly on the move. And when we meet we can talk about death, but mostly I think we should talk about life, because life is the more important of the two. I will never forget the love that surrounds me. It is impossible, it is what sustains me, keeps me happy when I travel. I am constantly aware of it, and of how lucky I am to have a loving family and friends whom I can count on.
22nd January 2014

In honour of memory of...
Please accept my condolences for the loss of your Papa...clearly loved...clearly a father of whom you are proud. Yet in your reflections...your emotions...your beautiful words...I could feel pride...not just in your father\'s achievements...but in your relationship with him. Your blog honours your father. He would be proud of you Ralf. You have done what I believe a loving son should have honoured your father as best you your case preserving his memory with the written word. His memory will endure. You his son has made sure that it will do so. Time will heal...may your memories of your father continue to be honour of him.
23rd January 2014

Thanks Dave
Yes I am proud of my dad, of all he did, of who he was. We had our differences for sure, but he made it possible for me to do what I do, and despite my choice not being the easiest for a parent to accept, he did. Not just my dad, but also my mum. Really, I am proud of all my family.
24th January 2014

A truly lovely tribute to your papa. His story is an inspiration to live life to the full. Sorry for you and your family's loss, but a great idea to continue his last trip with your mum.
25th January 2014

Thank you
Yes, I am glad to be able to make the trip he planned with my mum. The upcoming blogs will be about that.
11th February 2014

Very Touching
What an incredible photo journey of dad, this is truly amazing I know he would be proud of you.
11th February 2014

Thanks Bill
It was nice to be able to write about him and do this. Writing is something I love and to be able to write a tribute about my dad was amazing. Also brought back many nice memories.
12th February 2014

so sorry for your loss
Its great that you wrote about it. I'm sure it was therapeutic for you to reflect on his life. Beautiful story, the life of your dad.
12th February 2014

Yes it was therapeutic for me. I also talk about it a lot, it helps.

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