Death in Amsterdam
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One spring day in Hobart, I was having dinner with my son and Goshwin, my Dutch half-brother, who was visiting us, when the telephone rang. My son answered it. “Grandpa!” he exclaimed, as he always did whenever my father called. Yes, we were together, and he passed the handset to Goshwin, who listened, then stiffened. “I’m coming back,” he said and gave me the phone.
My father – Hugo, as we all called him – had been living with cancer for two years but in recent weeks it had spread. He now had difficulty speaking and his voice was a whisper. “There’s no need to come,” he said. “We saw each other six months ago and we had a wonderful time.”
This was true: we’d gone to concerts, walked and talked and laughed along the canals of Amsterdam under the summer sun, and talked about Surinam, where he was born and where his family had lived for nearly 200 years. But I wanted to say goodbye. I took a week’s leave. The night before I left, Diego, the younger of my Dutch half-brothers, called. “I thought you should be prepared,” he said. “It’s going to be Friday at 9 pm.” I was stunned; I hadn’t appreciated the urgency. I would be witness to my father’s euthanasia.
Arriving on a Tuesday night at Schiphol Airport, I walked into the arms of Diego’s wife, Sacha. “It’s been postponed,” she said, “until Saturday. The doctor was too busy on Friday night. He’s giving flu shots to elderly people and couldn’t make it on Thursday night either. So it’s Saturday morning at ten.”
She nodded and we clutched each other, shaking with silent, hysterical laughter.
We went straight to Hugo’s house. After embracing me, he asked if I’d be staying for the cremation. I looked at him, then nodded dumbly. “Good,” he said. “It will be on the Thursday afterwards.” All I could think was that I would have to change my ticket and take another week’s leave.
I was staying with Diego and Sacha. Goshwin stayed with Hugo, helping him to shower, massaging his feet to help his circulation, fetching and carrying for Dietje – his mother, my stepmother. I came and went to fit in with their routine. Hugo was up and dressed every morning, reading newspapers as he always did, listening to radio broadcasts about the American presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore, and watching the news on television. It was all so normal.
I wanted time to slow down, for Saturday not to come; yet the strain of waiting for it to be over was terrible. Hugo sensed it, telling me dryly, “I’m not going to be hanged!” But that’s how it felt, like an execution. Hugo, on the other hand, referred to it as “the departure”. The day before he died, though, he said quietly, as if to himself: “It’s been one day too long.”
A former High Court judge in The Hague, my father was opposed to capital punishment, but he was willing to pass a death sentence on himself. A secular Jew, he didn’t believe in God or an afterlife, although he had some sense of a universal consciousness, but I remembered him once saying that the only reason we sleep peacefully at night is that we know we will wake up in the morning. His had to be a brave death; he knew he wasn’t going to wake again.
Hugo had been adamant he wouldn’t undergo any radical treatment requiring hospitalisation. He did agree to a minor procedure shortly before he rang us in Hobart: the insertion of a small tube down his throat. If it had worked, it would have enabled him to swallow more easily. It failed.
Voluntary euthanasia was accepted practice in the Netherlands in the 1990s, under regulated tolerance rather than law: the judiciary and the medical profession had an agreement that no one would be prosecuted if procedural ethics and safeguards were followed. It wasn’t until April 2001 – five months after my father’s death – that a law permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide was passed by the Dutch parliament.
Despite growing public support for euthanasia, Australians shy away from the subject of death, and in Amsterdam I felt at sea with the rituals of saying farewell. People from my father’s wide circle of friends had been coming to the house for days to say goodbye. He said goodbye to others by telephone, among them my mother in Tasmania, but in his last 48 hours, he decided to see only the family. Meanwhile cards, messages and flowers continued to arrive.
It was necessary for a doctor who didn’t know my father to visit, to ensure he was capable of making a rational decision on his own. This doctor came late one afternoon. Goshwin, Diego, Sacha and I sat in a bedroom, leaving Hugo and Dietje with him in the sitting room. Time passed and eventually Goshwin slipped into the kitchen to get a bottle of wine. We sipped our drinks quietly but were startled by the sound of laughter and the clink of glasses. After a while, my stepmother came in to apologise: they had forgotten about us. The doctor was interested in Hugo’s Japanese woodblock prints and they had been talking about his art collection.
The day before he died, Hugo discussed family affairs and talked calmly about what had to be done in relation to his death. There were arrangements to be made. He wanted Mozart at the funeral service and a live performance by a Surinamer flautist he admired. He asked Diego to engage him: Diego called and left a message but there was no reply. Annoyed, Hugo took charge. He rang, got the flautist and discussed what he would play. And he asked Dietje if she had selected clothes for him to wear when he was dead. “You know I don’t like to be cold,” he said.
On his last night, Hugo decided to sort through a trunk in his bedroom and asked Goshwin, Diego and me to join him. He started giving each of us papers, letters and photos, with some for my son, but had barely skimmed the surface when Dietje called us for dinner. He had a taste of chicken soup – he could barely swallow and had been kept alive by a special fluid developed for astronauts, which he hated – and a sip of wine. Afterwards, he wanted to listen to Mozart. It was a clear night with a full moon. We drew back the curtains; he put on the hearing aid he wore when going to the theatre and lay back on the sofa. A farewell concert.
Saturday dawned. I knew what to wear to a funeral, but what do you wear to the death itself? Sacha was going to wear a miniskirt and tights. She has great legs and thought Hugo would like her attire. I decided to wear a skirt, too, but a long black one with a slit up one side, leopard-print patterned tights, a black cotton top and a sleeveless woollen jerkin in taupes and olives, which I knew Hugo liked. I always wear earrings and chose a pair of beautiful black pearls, which I had bought in Rarotonga a couple of years before with money he had sent for my birthday.
We arrived at the house at a quarter to nine. Hugo was sitting on the sofa in his pyjamas and dressing gown. He welcomed us and then asked me: “What earrings are you wearing?”
Hugo did most of the talking. He said he’d enjoyed the previous evening and had a good night. He’d read a book by an ancient Chinese writer; he’d listened to the news at 1 am, taken only one sleeping pill and slept well until 5 am. When he woke he had quite forgotten that it was to be his last morning. He had no regrets. He had no great thoughts. His mind was empty. He looked at us and laughed: “This is like waiting for Godot!”
Glancing around the room, he said that a small stone statue was looking at him. It was from our trip to Afghanistan in 1977. It was a Gandharan sculpture: a Buddha head with Greek influence. “A beauty,” he said. He asked me to pass it to him and, holding it, he told Dietje how amazed he had been to find such a wonderful museum in Kabul.
Then he went to the bathroom and shaved. Goshwin made us coffee while Hugo had a sip of apple juice, saying he’d had coffee earlier that morning. Precisely at 10 am the doorbell rang. Two doctors were there: one to administer injections, the other to ensure the protocols were observed.
It all happened swiftly. Hugo went into Dietje’s bedroom, lay down, and one by one we kissed him and he held us briefly. Dietje sat on the bed; Hugo turned on his side; she held his hands and the doctor gave him an injection. In the brief seconds before losing consciousness he spoke a few light-hearted words in a lilting tone, as if to reassure us.
We sat there, immobile, until the doctor picked up a second syringe, and looked at us for our assent. We nodded. The first injection put him to sleep; the second put him into a coma. I don’t know how long it was before the doctor held up another syringe, looked at us again, and again we nodded. The third injection stopped my father’s heart.
Some time later, the doctor said he was dead and we went into the sitting room. My stepmother produced a tray of hot, spicy meatballs from the oven and to my surprise I found I was ravenous. Shortly after, the doctors took their leave and I had to get out of the house, to get some fresh air and to cry alone. When I returned, the others were sitting with Hugo, and I joined them. We stayed there quietly until five o’clock, when two men arrived, as arranged, to take his body away.