‘Now, five years is nothing in a man’s life except when he is very young and very old…’
Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth)
I don’t have any memories of the man in this picture. The bits and pieces of his life before I knew him as “Opa,” come in the form of stories woven together from the memories of others.
I know that he was one of many immigrants who came to Canada from Holland after the Second World War. After a falling out with his parents, he ran away from home to live in Germany. Eventually, he made the trip to Canada to start a new life. In Canada, he met and married a girl named Nell and worked for General Motors in order to save up enough money to start his own farm. In addition to running his own business, he bought and learned to fly his own airplane. He loved to hunt and paint. He loved to work in his gardens and to make wine.
Pictured above, my Opa is holding his first child in front of his own business, Maple Leaf Nurseries, that he had built from nothing. I imagine this was one of the prouder moments his life. If Facebook was around in the 60s, this would probably be his profile picture.
My memories of the actual man in the picture begin in his home, a shrine to his passions. Filled with hundreds of his own paintings, trophy animals, and exotic souvenirs, we grandchildren were hardly allowed to take a step in the house without threatening to destroy something of value. But he loved when we visited. I wish it was not true, but he probably loved our visits more than we loved visiting. This is most likely because we were so afraid of ruining his nice things.
My memories of Opa do not coalesce into a linear story of his life. Rather, they provide snapshots of a man as seen and understood by me at particular moments in my own life.
I remember his deep voice with a thick Dutch accent that was difficult to understand.
I remember how he sat with his arms crossed in front of his plate of beans, potatoes, and steak that he always seemed to eat for lunch.
I remember him being really excited that my twin and I were playing soccer. He bought both of us a soccer ball when we joined our first team and I remember him coming to a lot of our soccer games at Club Roma.
I remember him smoking cigarettes on New Years Day, making Ollie Bollen – a Dutch tradition of deep frying balls of dough – for all the grandkids who were skating on the pond in the back of his farm.
I remember staying at his house once for three days, and he bought me ice-cream. When I went to bed I remember seeing him swim lengths in his pool for a long time alone. I think he was trying to keep his weight and health in check.
I remember him taking me to a Sportsman show in Toronto. I remember being excited, not knowing that “sports” in this case, meant hunting and fishing; two passions, sadly, I did not share with my Opa.
For some reason, I remember him asking me if he could paint me a picture. I asked for a painting of an airplane, probably because I was 8 or 9 and this seemed like the coolest thing I could have in my room. I remember he forgot to paint this airplane for me and I was hurt and angry that he could have forgotten.
I am sure there are a million more memories of my Opa, but for some reason these are the ones that come to mind. These are the memories that have made a lasting impression.
He died on an Easter Monday. This weekend it will have been six years. Considering the speed at which those years have passed, I was reminded of a line from The Good Earth:
Now, five years is nothing in a man’s life except when he is very young and very old…
What did five years feel like for the man in the picture? What did five years feel like for the same man at the end of his life? When I consider my memories of Opa’s last five years, I imagine, those seemed as long to him as the previous forty.
While his mind was still sharp, it lived within a body plagued with arthritis and cancer and the other ailments that come from aging. I wish I had better memories of him during this final chapter in his life, but most of my thoughts are of him barking at my Oma or others in anger. He carried around an oxygen tank to help him breath in those last years, and I realize now that his anger was probably directed mostly at himself, and at his frustration with the reality that the younger man in the picture was not coming back.
Busy pursuing my own ambitions in Texas, I was not around to see the deterioration of my Opa’s body. For a number of weeks in the spring of 2009, I heard that he had gone in and out of consciousness. The drugs used to keep his body functioning were causing hallucinations. The family was gathering together to say their goodbyes. And then one night he called me in Texas from his hospice room phone. It was one week before Easter.
I remember being nervous to take the phone, feeling guilty at my absence from his life. When I finally did, I remember the shock at hearing his voice. Once such a loud man, larger than life, his voice had been reduced to a whisper. I remember how small he sounded in that moment.
Yet in his quietness, he sounded more powerful than I ever remember him sounding before. This was my second shock. He asked me: How are you doing? I honestly don’t know if he had asked me that question before. Knowing that I had been in a serious relationship that had just ended, he told me not to be bitter. He told me how much he had enjoyed my fiancee, but that if it wasn’t going to work out, then God had a bigger plan. Although my Opa went to church weekly, I don’t know if I EVER heard him talk about God’s plans so openly. Or with such assurance.
He then told me about his last hallucination. In it, he had come to a river and on the other side was a gate. He told me of the terror he felt, thinking about all the things he had done in his life that he regretted. He said he could not get across to the other side, and when he tried, he slipped under and began to drown. In the dream, an arm reached in and grabbed him by the neck, lifting him out and placing him in front of the gate. He told me that he had never felt such peace before, and that is when he woke up.
It is also when my Opa became too tired and we had to say good bye. It gave me goosebumps then, and it gives them to me now just thinking about it.
That was my last conversation with Opa. That is my last memory of him before he passed away.
I wish I had had a better relationship with my Opa. He was a stubborn and prideful man, and getting to know him was difficult. But I wish I had put in more work getting to know him and love him. When I look at that old picture, there are so many questions I want to ask:
What happened between you and your parents that led you to run away? What made you decide to come to Canada? What were some of the biggest challenges coming to a new country? What did you miss most about Europe? What were your biggest fears in becoming a father for the first time? What were your best memories of being a father? Did you ever reconcile with your parents? Were your parents proud of your accomplishments in Canada? What are your biggest regrets? What were you most thankful for?
And if you could go back to the moment of that picture, knowing what you do now, what would you tell your younger self?
We are only given so much time to ask these questions, listen to and possibly preserve the stories of the people we love. We only have so much time before those stories leave the world with the ones who lived them. If we allow five years to slip away, again and again, it will be too late.