Friday, November 4th 2016. Zuzi and I are getting on a yellow bus, one of those Regiojet busses that look more like a mini-cinema on wheels than a means of transportation. Zuzi is crying a little bit, and I’m wiping away a couple tears, faster than my shadow, because I’m still a member of a ‘boys don’t cry’ generation. We are travelling from Bratislava to Banska Bystrica, because we have classes on Saturday ánd Sunday. I guess, we like to keep busy.
My mum has just called us to inform us that my grandfather is about to breathe his last. 1,200 kilometers from here and I’m talking to him over the phone, with lots of eyes staring at me, perhaps trying to decode the language I’m speaking, a Dutch dialect they’ll never guess. She says he’s waited to see us one last time before dieing. For a while now he’s been seeing deceased relatives standing round his bed beaconing him to join them. We saw him last weekend, during a blitz visit to Belgium, and we knew this was coming.
He’s 81 years old, also named William, and for the past four years he’s been confined to his bed. He can’t do anything on his own anymore. He can barely use the remote control, and can barely move a glass up to his mouth. Four years ago he had a bad stroke, and the doctors used the latest technology to revive him, but at a cost. His vision is impaired, I have the impression he’s missing a wide angle. I think he can’t see anything through one eye and very little through the other. He can’t move his body, unless you ask him to. When you put the bed up, he falls to the side. His knees hurt, his left arm and elbow are constantly sleeping because of the awkward position he always falls into. They gave him a root canal, because he’s got a very bad case of decubitus. He basically has a hole down his back large enough to fit my fist. If his intestines would be working the normal way, he’d be at a high risk of sepsis. The root canal overflows at least once a week, something he can’t do anything about and he has to wait for a nurse to come and clean it. Sometimes he has to wait a couple of hours. He also has a catheter. He never leaves the bed. I picked him up a couple of times to put him in a chair, but sitting is torture to him, because of the open wound in his lower back. A massage therapist comes once a week and together with an uncle of mine they carry him through the living room for couple of meters. His feet barely touch the ground during this process, but hey, this is his work-out.
When we were still in Belgium I used to go there and put a laptop on his bed, so he could watch some old movies he liked. He particularly liked movies with Mario Lanza, such as ‘Because you’re mine’. I must say he bore a striking resemblance to this actor, especially when he was younger and especially in an army uniform. I also downloaded music for him. He liked Joseph Schmidt, with songs such as ‘Dein is mein ganzes Herz’ and ‘Ein Lied geht um die Welt’ and Nelson Eddy. Not exactly my cup of tea, I must say, so I’ve heard those songs more than I would, ehm, require in other circumstances. His favorite was ‘Ave Maria’ by Pavarotti.
He had four other grandchildren, all boys, but they never went there for some reason, even though two of them lived only 500 meters away, in the same street. Moving to Slovakia was hard in only two ways: leaving my mum behind, and leaving my grandfather behind.
‘I was in that explosion, down at the Saint-Anna bridge.’
Before he was in such dire straits, he could be fairly distant and rather proud. He loved to talk about his time in the army, when he was stationed in West-Germany, in the neighbourhood of Kassel. He was a tank driver and an expert when it came to explosions. He blew tunnels through mountains for example. He made it to sergeant, and could have risen a couple rungs higher still, but the pay was so low, and he had two daughters with a third on the way, so he resigned. Still, his time in the army was by far his favorite topic. And while he was in his hospital bed in his living room he kept repeating that he had been drafted and would have to report to army headquarters any time soon, because they needed him. I can’t say he was demented, but the stroke did cause some brain damage, which made him strangely oblivious to certain things (such as the fact that he couldn’t walk), but at the same time he was very up to date as to current events, he still followed Belgian politics, yet at the same time he claimed he still cut the lawn and did the cooking and the washing. He was also convinced he was in this bed because he was in that that explosion down at the Saint-Anna bridge. I can’t remember any explosion ever taking place there, but who knows, he could have mixed up some childhood memories. A local bridge, the Dender bridge, was bombed during World War Two and it’s possible he had some vivid recollection of that event.
After the army he went to work for Volkswagen and became an overseer. A feat he was extraordinarily proud of, because he had left school at the age of 14, even though his teacher had come begging his parents to please let him continue. He had a knack for languages and a good memory, so Volkswagen sent him to Germany to study new types of cars, so he could explain how to build them back in Belgium. On these business trips he went to fine restaurants, cheated a little with the bill (asked the waiter to overprice things), so he could pocket some extra money. As a soldier he and his wife used to consider dipping a piece of bread in a Coca Cola a full-blown meal, so you can imagine that food was always on this man’s mind. That’s also what killed him in the end, of course. Though I’m sure he wouldn’t have preferred to live to 95 on a healthy diet. Better to go at 81, but to have wined and dined like a duke of Bourgondy.
I can’t say he was a particulary sweet man. He liked to argue for the sake of arguing. He always voted for the most extreme right wing party in Flanders. Not because he was a nazi or anything, but he had a strong dislike towards people who were unwilling to work and he also hated the Belgian royal family and he thought this right wing party would solve both these issues. At the same time he often recalled how as a young teen in the army he had been forced to watch movies depicting the liberation of the concentration camps and nazi medical experiments on prisoners and how shocked he was. He also couldn’t stand any disrespect towards disabled people and hated money-grubbing politicians.
I also can’t say he was a harsh man. He always shared food (no small feat for a man who links so many emotions to food), liked to cook for the entire family, faitfully gave his entire paycheck to my grandmum and never bought any excessive luxuries for himself, even though he had the money to do so. I have the feeling he was mostly of the philosophy ‘live and let live’. When I was a child we went to the beach together, we did some cycling and I contributed to his clogged arteries by bringing him hamburgers, kebab, French fries and pizza which he thoroughly enjoyed.
He taught me my first words of German at the beach, perhaps before I could read, because the coastal village of Bredene, Belgium is usually packed with German tourists and we talked quite a bit about history and Belgian politics, though in later years I found myself disagreeing with a lot of his opinions, differences I only voiced during the last couple of years.
During his -for all intents and purposes- paralyzed era he got much softer, and I managed to rub his arms and shoulders for example, which is the only physical form of affection I can remember. He wasn’t the hugging type. He always asked the same questions, which were almost always related to work. His philosophy for life was work hard, eat well, and watch television in your spare time, preferably in a cabin not too far away from the beach. The Second World War -he was 5 when it broke out and ten when it ended- must have had a profound effect on him. He remembered playing soccer with skulls of soldiers in a bombed out Church, and the lack of food during the war years surely contributed to his obsession with food. He was also very keen on saving money and was very deft at cutting out coupons.
He was fair in games, took losses in stride, and wasn’t boastful when he won. When he was younger he liked beer, but he lost his taste for alcohol around the time he retired. He liked to have things neat, but his wife drove him crazy by being a dictator when it came to cleaning the house. He mostly loved watching sci-fi series and movies, and he loved listening to classical music. He had his own contradictions, because he had been a tank driver in the army, he had driven all kinds of tanks, including the Patton and the Chevy, but in civilian life he never wanted to drive a car. His explanation being: ‘When you’re driving a tank, everybody immediately clears the road for you’.
It took me 33 years to tell him I loved him, which I finally did on the phone, seconds before he died, when he had already lost his speech, and my mum and aunt could only confirm that he had nodded, so he must have heard me.
He had a self-confidence and healthy pride that is nowhere to be found in the rest of the family, was mentally stabile all his life, was the father of five daughters, and apart from not being the most nurturing parent and voting for an extreme right party, I can’t say anything bad of him. He was a child of his time. He was of a generation that still had ‘civitas’ and ‘virtus’ and thought of his actions in relation to the larger society, something the highly individualized I-generation seems to have lost. He was a catholic, but never went to Church, because as a child he had once become sick from the smell of burning incense, and a priest had told him he didn’t have to go to Church if incense made him sick. The local church has long since stopped burning incense, but he kept using this reason to skip mass. He did make a priority of regularly going to Lourdes, France and walking the calvary way there.
As far as men go, he was one of the better ones.