Sunday, October 1, 2017

Ata is gone


I usually skyped with Ata on Tuesday mornings. My 103 year old mother and I established this routine, since she lived in the Netherlands and I live on the other side of the ocean, in Boston, Massachusetts.

During what turned out to be the last skype conversation we had, we talked for quite a while about her upcoming 104th birthday and about more ‘philosophical’ subjects. She always had ‘big’ questions, whether the universe is infinite and how bees know how to find their way back to the hive. As she got older, Ata’s curiosity about the world had only increased. Her eyesight had deteriorated and she could only see blobs, but her photographer’s eye amply filled the blanks. A black blob in the sky turned into a beautiful phoenix, the clouds were angels floating by. A flock of birds were there to carry a message to her mother, who died at age 98.

The less she could see, the stronger her imagination became. She could no longer read about science or world events, but kept asking herself those big questions, marveling at the world as if she was just discovering it. She had turned her mind into a kind of perpetual mobile, which did not require outside sources for input, since she could no longer rely on them, other than talk to us and her numerous friends.

Both my brother Tom and my twin sister Juliette were going to fly over to celebrate her birthday. In fact, Tom was already sitting in an airplane. I had just returned from another trip a week before and felt I could wait till November to visit. We liked to ‘stagger’ our visits, so Ata would have more time with her three children.

That same afternoon, Marja called me. She was Ata’s guardian angel. She is part of a system of care in Holland called ‘mantel zorg’, a legion of unpaid volunteers who care for neighbors and friends. It saves the state a bunch of money and provides the elderly with superb support. She has taken care of Ata for the past 5 years, from reading her email, taking out the trash and making sure she takes her pills and eats her soft-boiled eggs every morning. Marja has become a true friend. Without her, we would not have been able to stay in contact with our 103-year-old mother.

She told me on the phone that Ata had fallen and broken her leg. She advised me to book a flight soon and there was urgency in her voice. Ata did not want to go to the hospital to have her leg taken care of. She did not want any treatment of any kind.

I was in shock and couldn’t make any practical decisions, but finally bought a ticket for that Thursday. When my oldest daughter Aniko heard the news, she immediately said: ‘but you don’t die of a broken leg. Why cannot they fix it?’ Aniko is a fixer, you see. Her motto in life is that if you approach things rationally, anything can be accomplished.

We both agreed that this was fixable, that Ata could be fixed, like all the other times that she had fallen, bumped her head, broken her ribs or bruised her arm. The superior Dutch health care system would surely come to her rescue. Besides we both knew that Ata was never going to die. She was about to turn 104 in 2 days. She would grace us with her presence for a long time to come. That’s what extreme old age does: it spoils people into thinking that you are immortal.

Tom was still flying somewhere over the Atlantic. He was going to arrive at Ata’s flat, expecting to see her sitting in her blue recliner near the large window, anxiously waiting for her first-born to arrive. He would say: ‘Bonjour, maman’ and she would say: ‘Aah, mon cheri, t’es la’ and she would hug him and smile.

Tom finally arrived at Ata's and called me. ‘She is asleep. Not really conscious. She is breathing slowly and has no pain’ He told me. It must have been a hard balancing act for the medical team to try to keep Ata conscious, while still numb the atrocious pain from her broken leg. I knew then that it was a matter of days.

The next morning, I arrived at Schiphol airport and immediately called Tom.

‘Hi Tom, I am at Schiphol.’ 
‘Ah, Madeleine, you are here.’ 
‘Yes. How is Ata? Is she sleeping?’ 
‘Ata is gone. When will you be here?’

The lump in my throat was so big, I couldn't swallow. I fumbled for my sunglasses to hide my eyes and maneuvered my heavy cart with my suitcases down the hallway in a complete daze. It took a painful half hour to arrange the rental car, talking to the clerk with a squeaky voice.

In the car on the way to Alkmaar, the pain was physical, as if someone had punched me in the stomach. Tom kept calling and asking when I would get there. Later, I realized why. They had already arranged for Ata to be moved to the mortuary and were waiting for me before that would happen.

I finally arrived at the Rekere and found everyone sitting in the living room around the large table with all the photographs of children and grandchildren that Ata had arranged under a large glass cover.

I went into the bedroom and there was Ata, peacefully sleeping, her hands crossed over her belly. She had a nice dress on. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth was closed. She didn’t look very different from all the times that I had peeked in and seen her nap.

I wanted to shake her gently, as I had done in the past, to wake her up. I called her: ‘maman, maman, maman’. But the hurt was crushing me when I realized that no matter what I did, she would not react. My mother had left me forever. She left me on the steps of the world and would never come back for me. I kept repeating ‘maman, maman’ over and over again. All my longing for her and our past life together was in that one word ‘maman’.

I couldn’t leave the room. I was glued to Ata. I was waiting for her to react to my presence and walked around the bed to see if that would change anything, unable to accept the inevitable. I touched her beautiful wrinkled hands. Her delicate fingers that she used to tap on the armrests of her recliner, while she was deep in thought. But her hands were cold as ice. It finally sunk in. Were I to stay beside her for the rest of my life, looking at her beautiful face, at peace forever, she would not move, not stir, not react.

I finally opened the door and saw two tall Dutch gentlemen in suits standing in the living room. They were the undertakers. A box was wheeled in. They were so professional, asking if we wanted to help or witness the transfer. We watched as they lifted Ata, little breakable Ata, from her bed to the box. She was so willing, did not protest as she had done so vocally in the past when someone touched her or moved her. As they placed her gently in the coffin, her neatly folded hands slightly separated and revealed their stiffness. Like the doll in the Nutcracker ballet.

We jointly lifted the cover to place it over the box. They screwed it shut. They wheeled it down the hall towards the elevator, the three children in tow. L’equipe a Toto, as Ata used to call us. The Kando gang’s final trip together. It was all quite efficient and professional. They placed the coffin in a large hearse and both young men took a little bow to the coffin before driving off.

It was too much for me. We were supposed to leave Ata, not the other way around. Twice a year we came to visit her and watched her wave good-bye from her balcony, as we drove away, back to the airport. She would always be there, for our next visit. But this time she left us. For good.

It’s a terrible thing to lose one’s mother. Of course I knew she would go one day, but I was not prepared. Her extreme old age made us all believe that she would never die, hat I would always listen to her complaints, as we skyped. ‘Ah, Madeleine, je te vois pas. Quel desastre.’

With Ata gone, part of me is also gone. A door has permanently closed on a chapter in my life. My childhood, the strong bond Ata forged amongst her three children, the laughs and the fights that we had together, a long time ago.

As I write this on the flight back to Boston, a young father sitting in the row in front of me is talking to his silent wife. He is loud, full of himself, unaware of how his voice fills half of the airplane. Like most of us, he leaves no room for anything except his own self-importance. God forbid we would stand still for one moment, stop to listen, to just be. But that would leave a terrifying void in our lives.

A sweet little Chinese lady is sitting next to me, an Asian version of Ata. She keeps throwing side-ways glances, wondering what the hell I am writing about. She is curious, I can tell. During our brief conversation, I didn’t tell her that I was returning home after having lost my mother. I don’t want to share any of it.

It was both a tragedy and a blessing that we lived so far away from Ata. She became a success professionally, had a huge amount of friends and admirers and received the best health care that one could wish for. But right now, I even have mixed feelings about having shared so much of her for the past 20 years: Marja, Bert, Antoinette and the hundreds of people who were part of her life, while I wasn’t.

Who am I kidding? I don’t have the makings of a caretaker, especially one living on the other side of the globe. It’s easy to feel such strong feelings after the facts. I am a hypocrite, a fake daughter. I could have given my mother more of me. Should I feel guilty? Do I have regrets? Of course. But right now there is no room in my heart for any of this. I am so, so sad and I don’t think the sadness will go away any time soon. leave comment here