Friday, August 10, 2012

Goodbye, Tante Benine

"And now I'm going to die,” said my Tante Benine in a matter-of-fact tone. Her small, capable fingers straightened the edge of her red and black tartan dressing gown. She sat in her favourite gold upholstered armchair opposite the hospital bed lately installed in the bedroom. Behind her, slate blue drapes were drawn back. French doors opened onto a balcony lined with window boxes of bright red geraniums. Rain pelted the sweeping manicured grounds surrounding the house.

In April of 2011, Benine had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Up to then, she had been a vibrant, healthy woman in her mid-70s. Less than three months later, the cancer had spread rapidly. Nothing more could be done. At the beginning of July 2011, I flew to Holland to say goodbye to this special aunt of mine. It was now mid-afternoon on Thursday, July 14; Benine and I were saying our adieux. I would return to Canada the following morning.

It wasn't as if I had known her for a long time. I remember the occasional visits she and her husband Frans made to our farm in Mount Forest.  A photo exists of Benine standing in front of our farmhouse. During the 1980s, I had a couple of opportunities to go overseas on business, and stopped in at Benine and Frans's home near Arnhem for family gatherings. Benine was always in the background, serving food, milling with guests. Our lives went their separate ways. Then, in 2008, she sent my mother a manuscript consisting of letters that her older sister Hans had written in the late 1940s while in Canada housekeeping for my father who worked as a farm manager. My mother agreed to translate the letters. I offered to edit and polish. Benine and I exchanged a few e-mails – friendly, family-oriented, nothing more. But then, in one of those e-mails, she remarked on the lack of a role for women in the Catholic church. In my reply, I asked her what she meant...and so began the blooming of this late friendship between aunt and niece. Benine was blessed with a lively curious intelligence that took nothing for granted. We explored our views on religion, God, the psalms, poetry and music. We talked about what it meant to be human, and mused on the balm of forgiveness. We shared news about family, trips, and other day-to-day goings on. I asked her about her volunteer work with refugees; she asked me about my visits to the dementia patients in the local hospital.

Just as I reached out to her, so she reached out to me. When I visited in 2009 to celebrate the publishing of her book of Hans's letters, we walked through the tall beech and oak forest that banked their house. Her dog Aafke ran on ahead, her small black and white body hugging the trail, her nose to the ground. “You feel like a sister to me,” Benine said and the air felt fresh and sweet. She told me what it was like growing up in the war. Her sister Hans was a wonder in the kitchen, transforming scare food supplies into tasty soups and stews. Benine rarely saw my father, one of her older brothers. He spent the war working on their parents' farm in the north of Holland, a good day's travel by bike to the family home in Arnhem. Benine and I learned more about each other later, leisurely sipping coffee at a local café. I loved her sparkling blue eyes, her crooked front teeth, her wide child-like grin, her eager, roving mind.

But on this visit, little more than two years later, Aafke and I walked through the woods by ourselves. Earlier in the week, Benine had come down for lunch in the garden. It had taken her more than 10 minutes to descend the 15 stairs from the bedroom to the main floor. Each step required a pause and several breaths while she leaned on  Frans's arm. Midway down, she stopped for a long time, gazing out the tall paned glass windows at the forest, her eyes drinking in the view of the towering trees. 
An entourage ushered her into the garden. Frans and daughter Benien supported her on each side. Tutti, the cleaning lady who had been with the family for 30 years, carried the lunch tray. I opened doors and moved chairs out of the way. Benine stepped carefully, frail as a bird, her lips set determinedly. At last she rounded the corner of the house. Her brother Frits had just arrived for a visit. He stood to greet her. A cluster of lawn chairs, padded with bright green cushions, faced out onto the large sloping lawn and the tangled edge of the lily pond. The fountain splashed. The air was golden.

Benine lay back in the chair, and looked intently at the faces around her. Aafke settled down at her feet. With family circled around, she ate a lunch of brown bread and herring, washed down with her daily glass of buttermilk and sweetened with some fresh cherries. Her eyes brightened as the talk swirled around her. She stayed in the garden close to an hour; then, it was enough. The long trek back through the living room, up the stairs. One last gaze at the forest. Then the slow march to the hospital bed and finally, the sweet ambush of sleep.

It was the last time Benine sat in the garden, the last time her feet touched the earth.

Now, as the afternoon darkened and the sky wept, we talked about her life and her coming death. I couldn't connect the dots. Benine looked like someone recovering from a bad flu, not someone who was dying. The only hint of illness showed in the subtle plumping of her cheeks from the medications, and the faint yellowed skin on her brow. And the catheter's plastic tube snaking underneath her robe to the bag clipped to the metal bed frame. And her fatigue. She could sit in a chair for perhaps 20 minutes, hardly more.

"I'm no longer the person I was,” she said, shaking her head in puzzlement. “That person – going by bike into the village, doing all kinds of things. I've changed completely. I'm now an invalid, a sick person, someone who has to be taken care of. I accept that. But I'm no longer the person I was.”

"Are you at peace?” I asked her. “Yes.” The reply came immediately, without hesitation. “More than I've ever been before.”

Still, death was a mystery to her. “No-one knows what will happen,” she said. “It grows more mysterious the closer I get to it. But I've never been one to get all worked up about the future. I will take it as it comes.” She distinguished between faith and hope. “I'm not one to have blind faith. But I hope, like the psalmist says, that I won't fall into nothingness.”

There was a long pause. We considered the vase of pink and white sweet peas on the rolling hospital tray table. “I've had a full and satisfying life,” Benine smiled at me. “Seventy-six years. A privileged life. I've been able to do what I wanted. I married a nice man. I have four beautiful children, eight beautiful grandchildren. I've had my own interests, lots of travel. I've been fortunate, and I feel very grateful.” 
Half an hour had passed. She rested her head against the chair back and closed her eyes. I rose from my chair. Benine opened her eyes. “Wait,” she said. “I have something for you.” She picked up a gold pendant with a delicately carved ivory embedded in amber. Her mother had given her the necklace on Benine's 16th birthday. My throat filled as I held my hand beneath hers, and felt the amber connecting me to my Tante, and through her, to my Oma. 
I gazed at her as she had gazed at the forest. “Come to me in my dreams,” I whispered. She laughed. “I will, if I can,” ever honest and practical.
She died a year ago today, on the morning of August 10, 2011. Everything about her lies in the past tense. I can no longer say, “she laughs,” “she writes,” she speaks.” Now it is “she laughed,” “she wrote,” “she spoke.” Language buries her. My mind seesaws between 'before' and 'after'. I will never receive another e-mail from her. I will never again look into her lively blue eyes. I will never again see her eager wide smile. I will never again hear her lilting Dutch-accented English.

I woke up this morning and looked out the window at the green forest, at the oaks and beeches, smaller and more densely packed than the ones in Benine's forest. Good morning, God: my daily mantra. With a half smile, I wonder if God has tucked Benine under his brilliant gold wing. And then it comes to me: I have no idea. Benine has become part of the mystery. I hope that her soul has found its home in the all-consuming ecstasy that the mystics speak about in their poetry. But, at the heart of it, I simply don't know. I can only imagine and hope. Hope and imagine. 
A dump truck rumbles by, its deep throaty bass contrasting with the sharp razor cries of the blue jays. Mist lies heavy on the fields after the night's rain. The day's schedule rolls through my mind: an important meeting in the afternoon. I don't know how it will unfold. I can only imagine and hope. I can only stay open to the unknown which surrounds us as thickly as the air we breathe.


  1. This is a truly wonderful piece of writing Mary Lou. At once a heartfelt tribute to a unique soul and an honest meditation on the deepest mysteries of life. How fortunate you were to have experienced this connection with Benine.

    1. Thank you, Sherry. It's a tender time, remembering Benine. I feel grateful for having known her, and miss her quite a bit.

  2. This is beautiful, Mary Lou. She sounds like a very special woman.

  3. Thanks, Allegra. Not having aunts and uncles close by, she became quite special, and through her, I've reconnected with family in Holland. It's interesting how lives weave together. By the way, your writing -- your mastery of language as well as the wide-ranging perspectives you take on your subjects -- is quite wonderful!

  4. well, I've been blogging for a long time and I can't remember ever reading anything as good as this before this! It was as if she was my Aunt! Great writing. She was lovely!

    1. Hello Celeste! Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Yes, my Tante Benine was indeed a lovely person. I'm glad to be able to pay tribute to her. Regards -- Mary Lou