I wrote this two years ago, traveling back to Houston from Amsterdam on May 5, 2015, after visiting my very sick dad. I felt torn going back. Perhaps I was in denial, too, wanting to believe I would see him again. And so I made the decision to go back to Houston, sort out work commitments, and then travel back to the Netherlands to be with my dad.
It didn’t work out quite like that. A little over 48 hours after I took off in Amsterdam, he died.
How brave he was. He had no fear of dying, he said: “When it’s your time, it’s your time.”
He’s had a great run. He’s seen the world from large container ships working as a machinist, and had stories to tell that lasted a lifetime, even if, like a good fairytale, the same story was told over and over again. “I’ve had an adventurous life,” he said, smiling at the thought. A moment I cherish.
In the Netherlands, May 4 and 5 are days in which we commemorate the end of World War II. With a moment of respect on May 4 for the fallen, and with celebrations on May 5.
Ever since he died, whatever else May 4 and 5 are hopelessly intertwined with images I portray in my head: my dad as a young boy running in the street, welcoming the liberation army. My dad hugging me farewell. He didn’t die on May 4, but it was the last day that I saw him, hugged him, kissed him goodbye.
My dad was just 8 when the war ended but he remembers wartime vividly. The year before he died, perhaps because he had a premonition, or maybe simply because he thought as a writer I might be interested, he emailed me several anecdotes, things he remembered, about his wartime life in The Hague.
World War II taught him to be independent at a very young age. His mother largely absent, his dad not part of his life, he grew up living with his grandmother. Towards the end of the war, after D-Day, the western part of the Netherlands where my dad lived, suffered a harsh winter. The Germans had put up barricades to keep people in, and food out. My dad was one of many kids who tried to sneak through the barb-wired barricades in search of food in the countryside. Sometimes successful, mostly, they were caught, and food was taken away.
Here’s one of his favorite stories (translated from Dutch) to tell. Remember, he was barely three when the war started, and not yet eight when it ended:
“During the war, I didn’t always know who the enemy was, or what was going on. In the final year, when famine had struck in our city, I had to go to the countryside to get vegetables etc. We had to walk [10-15 miles] but that was normal then. They gave me something to pay with, like a watch or something, and a warning: be careful of the control posts: they take your stuff away from you!
One time, on the way back, before the control post, a truck with German soldiers stopped, and offered us a ride. Me too I got to ride in the back. The truck bypassed the control post, and so helped us keep the food we had gathered at the farms.”
My dad is the proverbial Vrolijke Frans (his name is Frans, and the Dutch proverb Vrolijke Frans is used to describe a cheerful, jolly person).
He has an incredible sense of humor, and even in the face of Death, he sings in a raspy, tired voice: Alles hat ein Ende nur die Wurst hat zwei (everything has an end, only a sausage has two).
I cherish the memories I have, the father he was, the love I feel for him. Here’s to everyone who’s lost a loved-one and felt helpless and hurting!
Cheers to a sweet man, my dad!