Last weekend I was sitting out in my garden, drinking coffee in a T-shirt and shorts. The sky was a vivid blue speckled with fine clouds and the temperature had languidly risen above 20 degrees for a third successive day. It was October. And my thoughts drifted inescapably towards the peculiar relationship the Dutch have with their weather.
There’s a website called Stuff Dutch People Like that’s a bible for new arrivals trying to negotiate the quirks of Dutch customs: the Byzantine birthday rituals, the lethal staircases, the mystifying things they spread on their sandwiches. But one major omission from the list is “pretending it’s cold”. As soon as the mercury dips below 21 degrees for longer than five minutes the Dutch dust down their puffer jackets and cycling waterproofs, head for the nearest cafe and huddle around mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows, planning their next Mediterranean break, while the Scots and Norwegians look on in bemusement.
When I arrived in The Hague in April I spent a week with my in-laws at a beachside chalet while the builders put the finishing touches to the house. One afternoon I went out to the patio with a cup of coffee. It was maybe 18 degrees, a few podgy clouds were making a half-hearted attempt to conceal the sun and a gentle breeze was wafting over the dunes – the kind that might inspire a newspaper to drift up from the table momentarily before settling down wearily, like an old dog reacting to a scuffling at the door. But my mother-in-law greeted my announcement that I was going outside as if I was stepping onto the deck of a ship in a force 10 gale. When I suggested it was fine weather she declared: “There’s a cold wind”, pulled her arms around herself and scrunched up her face in a parody of someone battling to carry their groceries home on a blustery February night in Shetland.
A few weeks later I met my next-door neighbour for the first time. After introducing himself he said almost immediately, unprompted: “Well, you can’t have moved here for the weather.” This was odd, because one of the things I was looking forward to about moving to the Netherlands was the long summers and frequent sunshine. And so it proved. Since early May I’ve been taking the children to school by bike every morning, and in all that time I’ve been in danger of getting wet about three times.
In Glasgow shorts and T-shirts were things that came out for holidays and went straight back in the drawer once the fortnight’s respite was over; here they serve as standard school-run wear before and after the summer holiday. In The Hague it’s a disaster if the sun doesn’t show for three days, a phenomenon which in Scotland is known as a decent July. Once when I lived in Glasgow, in the middle of an unusually tepid summer, the TV reported that the mercury had soared to 27 degrees for the first time in four years. The Dutch are scandalised if it hasn’t hit 25 by May.
And the statistics back me up. Over the course of the year The Hague basks in more than 1800 hours of sunshine – that’s nearly 50% more than Glasgow manages (1280). The average temperature in August is nearly 3 degrees higher (22.3 degrees to 18.5). To be fair, Scotland’s best months are usually May and June, after which the rain arrives, just in time for the school holidays, and continues to pelt down until mid-March.
Granted, the west coast of the Netherlands sees a fair bit more rainfall than its Scottish counterpart – 828mm per year compared to 668. But again there’s a key difference. Rain in the Netherlands falls in concentrated bursts – sometimes extreme enough to cause major flooding – after which the skies clear and the pavements are usually dry within an hour. Scottish rain can linger for weeks at a time, as persistent and irritating as a swarm of midges. Dutch rain, typically, is more efficient. It comes in fast, puts in a heavy shift and then clears out.
Moreover, there are little clues that the weather isn’t quite as unforgiving as the locals would have you believe. If you look at an aerial shot of a Dutch city you’ll see that every available scrap of roof space is crammed with potted plants, sunloungers, candles on sticks and miniature sheds. In Scotland anyone who regarded the top of their house as a suitable place for recreation and entertainment would be committed to a psychiatric institution, if the wind didn’t take care of them first. Dutch houses are also equipped with zonwering: colossal shades overhanging the giant upstairs windows that are diligently lowered at the first hint of sunshine. Because the one national pastime that marks the Dutch out even more than pretending it’s too cold is pretending it’s too hot. As soon as the temperature juts above 24 degrees for longer than five minutes the Dutch pull on their vests and shorts, crank down the zonwering and sit about drinking iced tea, planning their next skiing holiday, while the Spaniards and Australians look on in bemusement.
The odd thing about all this is that in winter the Netherlands gets properly cold. Most Januaries the canals freeze over and the rooftops reverberate to the sound of Dutchmen rooting around in their sheds in search of their long-lost skates. (If you think Dutch bikes are the terror of the highway, incidentally, wait until you’ve seen them out skating.) Every couple of years it gets so bitterly cold that the country spends weeks in the grip of a near-mythical event known as the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a mass skating marathon, last staged in 1995, that depends on the province of Friesland living up to its name. Only when the ice along the entire 200km route is 15cm thick can the race go ahead. Hence winter news bulletins are often given over to shots of lycra-clad middle-aged men pulling measuring rods out of the ice and scrutinising them as if they contained the formula for eternal life. Competing in the Elfstedentocht is the Everest of Dutch sporting achievements and, like scaling Everest, chiefly involves trying not to freeze to death in a hostile snowbound terrain. The most famous race was in 1963, when 10,000 people set out in the silvery pre-dawn gloom but just 69 finished. On the plus side, sales of hot chocolate and marshmallows went through the roof.
My doctor asks if I’m coping. I say yes but I don’t really know. I get up in the morning, take the kids to school on time, keep myself fed and watered, drink in moderation and go running a couple of times a week. None of it feels arduous or overbearing. But Magteld’s absence envelops me like a cocoon and puts the wider world at a distance.
To begin with I was surprised by how easy it was to keep going. Just before the World Cup I went to interview a former Dutch footballer. We sat and chatted pleasantly for an hour, and just before the end I mentioned that my wife had recently died. Quite casually, the way you’d comment on the changing of the seasons or a new one-way traffic system. This was two weeks after Magteld had died, which might, in hindsight, explain his slightly startled reaction. But at that point the finality of losing her hadn’t kicked in. The raw shock had scabbed over: I was no longer waking up in the middle of the night in helpless floods of tears or standing in the supermarket willing the cucumbers to divert me from an attack of grief. The shadow of her last moments was no longer burned on the inside of my eyelids. But the memories of her last days were still warm and nourishing.
After the initial shock came a sense of enveloping numbness. I didn’t read a book for months: even when I mustered the energy to pick one up, my mind refused to take up the thread of the story. I could flip back through the pages and not recognise a single word. Outside events seemed to occupy a different universe. In June nearly 300 people died when a plane was shot out of the sky. The Netherlands declared a day of mourning. I bought a Dutch flag and hung it from my front door at half-mast, like everyone else in my street. On the television a line of limousines glided up the centre lane of the motorway like a giant black caterpillar. Still none of it seemed real. Other family members had the same sensation of living with the dimmers down. It was more akin to surviving – getting up in the morning and following the path, drone-like, to bedtime.
Four months later some things are still too daunting to face – a kitchen cupboard is piled up with cancer medicine and her handbags sit gathering dust in a plastic crate in the bedroom. Conflicting impulses are at work: the need to build a new life versus guilt at neglecting the old one. Sometimes I manage to stay busy for a full day working and running the house, then realise with a shock that I haven’t thought about her once. And that fills me with shame and remorse, because she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. She deserves to be here, filling the empty chair at the end of the table.
Yet the past isn’t the hardest thing to cope with. What really intimidates me is the future. How was I supposed to raise two children on the autism spectrum, in a new country? How do I shoulder on the bureaucratic burden of their education and development, a task that Magteld had embraced with a strength of will and purpose that surprised even those closest to her? And how do I handle all this without losing myself in the process – how can I live, work and socialise as a single father and widow? In short, how do you rebuild after an earthquake?
Take dating. I’ve tried to envisage it once or twice, but having known Magteld since we were teenagers, it fills me with terror. (What am I supposed to put on a dating profile anyway? We should probably go back to your place: mine’s covered in pictures of a dead woman.) And isn’t dating for the over-40s the domain of divorcees and the serially disappointed? I don’t feel equipped to handle a long conversation about somebody else’s ex, or face the suspicion that I’m comparing a living person with a hallowed memory. But the alternative prospect, a half-life of solitude, is even more dreadful.
Like the post-earthquake city, I can rebuild, but the old maps are useless. Needs and priorities have shifted with the landscape. Magteld’s memory is imprinted on my heart: I need to make space for it, tend and preserve it, without letting it grow rampant. Her constant presence is not always comforting. Will she be a guardian or a ghoul – a reassuring presence or a reproachful one? Recently I was buying clothes for the children and her voice resounded so forcefully in my head (“no, don’t buy those, they’ll look awful”) that I had to check myself from turning to reply. Yet in the end it probably helped me make better choices.
I miss her, in part, because I need her. It’s something you tend to undervalue in a relationship. Until she was seriously ill neither of us realised how intricately entwined our lives were. And only when she died did I realise how much I depended on her. To be honest, I’m still finding out. It’s a big adjustment, but I’m coping. At least I think I am.
Magteld had ambitions right until the end. On a shelf in my living room is a double box set of the last series of Breaking Bad, still wrapped in its cellophane. I’d ordered it on the final Friday, blissfully unaware her life had just over 72 hours left to run, and looked forward to watching it with her the next week, once she had recovered from her first round of a new chemotherapy regime.
We watched Breaking Bad at the rate of one episode a night. Perhaps it seems odd for a terminal cancer patient to become engrossed in a drama with a terminal cancer patient as its protagonist, but TV drama was one of her great passions, and one she could still enjoy in her wheelchair. She’d considered writing a blog about what it was like to follow Walter White’s Icarus-like rise from the point of view of someone with cancer, but time was against her. As an observer of both, I saw parallels between the progress of Walt’s illness and his burgeoning career as a drug dealer: a rampant aberration that consumed him from within, changed him essentially and ravaged his life.
When Magteld’s cancer returned in January she made it plain she had no interest in her prognosis. It was the only piece of information she refused. She gorged herself on the details of her illness, possible treatments and their side effects. She knew the chances of her surviving for long were small, but refused to think in those terms. What she feared most, I think, was fear itself: we talked a lot about the future, and how uncertain it had become, and always came back to the point that the worst possible outcome would be to linger for years, paralysed by the dread that her end was imminent. We didn’t know how much time she had left, but we knew how we wanted to fill it: with walks on the beach, glasses of Prosecco at Scheveningen pier, perhaps a trip in a camper van to the more picturesque corners of the Netherlands – a last summer filled with golden memories. As it turned out, even those hopes evaporated before they could hit the ground. But they were a source of strength while we had them.
Only once did she dwell on the impending eternal blackness – quite unexpectedly, as we sat having coffee in Glasgow. She accompanied the question with a disarming smile, as if she’d just asked me to pass the sugar. I wondered later how much time she spent thinking about it, and what conclusions she came to, and why she didn’t share them more openly. Was she afraid to give form to her fears, or was her instinct to protect us from the raw horror of it? Neither of us was religious or saw any merit in deathbed conversions. I maintained the best approach was to concentrate on living a good life so that if any god showed up for the final reckoning I could make a plea in mitigation. That was about as reflective as we got.
She knew, too, how she wanted to see out her last moments, with me and the boys at her bedside, once the rest of her family had been dismissed. She spent her first weeks in The Hague in a hospice, because she was too weak to live in our house. Generally a hospice is the final stop on life’s journey, but she saw it as a place to gather strength. She spent her waking hours at her writing desk, organising the children’s new schools, or chatting with the volunteers, so that by the time I first saw her, a week later, she could give me chapter and verse on all her new companions. And after five weeks she discharged herself from the hospice and moved into the house she had found for us, three months earlier, when she was still able to climb the stairs.
The end arrived with such blunt speed that we almost missed it. But even in her last hours her determination was undiminished. The duty nurse happened to have a supplementary training as a Reiki therapist and offered Magteld an energising massage. Despite her weakness Magteld shook her head vigorously. At lunchtime she was in a hospital bed, wearing an oxygen mask and breathing coarsely, but alert and responsive. I told her father to take our eldest son home to have a break. Home was only 15 minutes away and she seemed stable. But soon afterwards Magteld began going downhill rapidly. She sent her parents away with another shake of her head. I came in and asked if I should fetch the boys. She looked up and nodded limply. I realised later that the look in her eyes, for the first time, was one of resignation tinged with horror. She knew.
I hung on for half an hour while my father-in-law performed an about turn. Then I led our younger son into the room. Magteld’s eyes were closed, her head tilted back, her mouth open. The dials and gauges all told the same story: the end was closing in like an offshore storm. I panicked. I had sent our son away just at the moment when she had decreed he should be with her. Her breathing became more laboured and slow until it was a gurgle. Spit bubbles formed between her lips. She was drowning in her own phlegm.
Her breathing stopped. Just then the curtain billowed open and our elder son appeared. I shouted at her: “He’s here.” And Magteld summoned the energy to suck in two more shallow, rasping breaths. Her eyelids flickered. “She’s looking,” whispered the nurse. And then, her final wish made good, she fell still.
Grief is cyclical, I keep reading. The first year is the worst, a succession of broken milestones – the first birthday without her, the first anniversary without her, the first Christmas… and so on. But it doesn’t come in cycles so much as waves, building up on the horizon before crashing and surging towards you, leaving you breathless and disoriented.
The hardest emotion to deal with in the beginning was not anguish or grief, but relief. The fear that had been my companion for a year and a half was suddenly gone. The night Magteld died was the first time in months that I managed a full night’s sleep. I had come to dread every twitch and murmur from the other side of the bed, fearing it would be the start of the end. The last weeks of her life were a blur of mundane chores: making breakfast, pouring water, fetching medication, lifting her into the wheelchair, lifting her out of the wheelchair, helping her into the bathroom. Getting up three times a night to fetch water, or medicines, or the pear ice-creams that she devoured, a dozen a day, to soothe her throat. And all the time that lurking awareness that this was the better option.
The relief I felt on waking that morning dissolved into guilt, which aggravated the sense of devastation. The end had come, suddenly and violently, yet I was still here, and the boys were sleeping upstairs, and life just went on, on a kind of autopilot: wake up, coffee, breakfast, school, a bit of shopping, a bit of typing, a bit of TV (it helped that the World Cup was on), a sketchy thought now and again in the direction of work.
After a while I noticed people were drifting back to their old lives. Their work, their friends and their families. It was good to watch them find solace in their familiar routines. But at the same time I was deeply, madly jealous, because that option was closed to me. My old life was Magteld. I couldn’t go back to it. I had to somehow devise a new one, even though I barely had the energy to plan a trip to the supermarket. Her illness had given me a premonition of old age: the frailty, the fear, the exhaustion, the experience of witnessing someone’s strength and vitality ebb away. Cancer had enslaved us. But her absence triggered a devastating sense of isolation. If I’d felt helpless before, it was nothing compared to the looming vortex that threatened to sweep me away now.
A few weeks later I was taking some packing boxes out to the recycling bins. I’d almost finished feeding the crushed cardboard into the container when an elderly man appeared beside me in a rage. He spluttered that the bin I was using was a private container he shared with the local hardware store, and not for general use. As I stammered an apology, he wagged his finger and accused me of deliberately flouting the rules. I picked my dignity off the floor, hauled the cardboard out of the container and took it home.
At first I was baffled and enraged. But as I thought about it, I started to understand the old man’s point of view. I knew what it was like to sit indoors for hours on end, wrestling with mortality, feeling misunderstood, isolated and vulnerable. I realised how daunting it must be to watch the world go by and know that it is totally oblivious to your pain. And feeling at the same time the terror of succumbing to it. To hear in the echo of every footstep the dread that someone might come along tomorrow and decide I could no longer cope. How easy it must be to fall into a downward spiral of bitterness and hostility, where every encounter with a stranger is weighed in terms of its potential to humiliate you.
David Attenborough once said old age is not for cissies. I believe him. It’s not a pretty place that we’re all heading for. After reflecting on this, I went to the florist around the corner and bought the old man a plant as a neighbourly gesture. I included a note with a brief but polite apology. The next morning the doorbell rang. It was the old man, wearing a warm, effusive smile that transformed him. It was only then that I realised I had acted out of solidarity. We were, after all, both single men in the second half of life, trying to keep one step ahead of fate.
It’s just over a month now since Magteld went away. Thirty-eight days that have gone by in such a haze that I often suspect time has gone haywire. The house that the boys and I moved in to nine weeks ago is already packed with history: the two weeks we spent going back and forth to the hospice, the two weeks we lived here as a family and celebrated Euan’s birthday, and the last five weeks, when we’ve had to cope with the shock and aftermath of Magteld’s abrupt departure.
I say ‘went away’ in the absence of any more suitable words. She died, obviously, but that fails to cover the impact of her loss. The day she died, when the boys and I stood by her hospital bed and watched her take her last breaths, seems etched in history, already distant, like a picture in a school textbook. The frantic days afterwards, of arranging the cremation and writing and translating eulogies, and drinking prosecco in the sunshine in the back garden, in keeping with her last orders: all this too is locked away in the past. But in other ways she is still present. I still leave her half of the bed unoccupied; there are three dressing gowns hanging by the door (Magteld had a summer and a winter one) and drawers full of her clothes; her shoes lined up neatly on the floor, her jewellery in a box on her bedside cabinet, next to her iPad and the books she will never finish. None of it has had time to gather dust.
This staged withdrawal is in many ways the hardest thing to deal with. It defies reconciliation. A few weeks ago I chucked a punnet of mushrooms out of the fridge and realised I’d bought them the last time we went to the supermarket together. How did these mushrooms manage to last longer than my wife? I wondered as I flung them furiously into the bin. Every time I call a bank or a utility company or a government office to tell them what’s happened I come off the phone dazed and exhausted by the sheer effort of articulating the words: she died. I tick boxes marked ‘one-parent family’ and ‘widowed’ and shove the papers in the envelope in haste, before the grief becomes endemic.
It’s commonly observed that death is not an event but a process. Like an earthquake: there is the immediate impact, the chaos and disruption, followed by a long, grinding process of recovery. Grief is always there, lapping at the shoreline and occasionally breaking through in waves before retreating just as quickly. The need to let go clashes with the urge to resist anything that offers proof of finality: I cannot entirely banish the absurd idea that I should keep her possessions in order, ready for the day when she strolls back in the door, a bemused smile on her face, and asks: “Where did you think I’d gone?”
The first things to go were the last to arrive: the wheelchair and Zimmer frame she was given just before leaving Glasgow, which meant that, curiously, nobody who knew her in Scotland ever saw her in the chair, while those who met her during her short time in The Hague had never seen her out of it. Only a month earlier we had gone to Edinburgh, for our copper wedding anniversary, and walked for nearly two miles through the city’s crooked streets. Hard as it might sound, I hated her disability. I despised what the cancer had reduced her to so swiftly: a cracked caricature of a healthy young woman who couldn’t get out of bed or use the toilet without assistance. And I can say it because she hated it too, and our shared loathing mutated into some fearful rows. On the first night she stayed in our house – Magteld’s house, the gorgeous, spacious apartment she found for us – we woke in the middle of the night and fought like cat and dog. It escalated to the point that she started hitting me with her arms, by now so crippled by cancer that she couldn’t raise them above the elbow. I remember the desperate, awful, pathetic (in the true sense) slaps, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the argument was about, and that only deepens my shame. Is this the start of the process of forgetting? And is that why I find it so hard to say goodbye to her clothes and shoes?
I came across a book lately: Klaas ten Holt’s The Complete Widower, by a Dutch newspaper columnist who lost his wife to cancer and wrote about the aftermath. (You could call it fate: I call it the human instinct to seek order in chaos. But let’s not quibble: the important thing is I bought it.) In one of the first entries Ten Holt describes how he has to fight the urge to call up the first woman he can think of “in the hope that she’ll stay with me and keep me from this debilitating loneliness”. I was reassured by that, because all through Magteld’s illness, and especially in the days after she died, I often felt like jumping into the arms of the nearest female friend and pleading with her to take me away from all this horror. And I can see how that could be misinterpreted. Even now that I know she will never again complete the other half of our bed, it feels like a betrayal. Even though she said to me, a few months before she died, that I deserved to be loved. Yes, really: my dying wife, in her final months, was trying to ease the pain of living. That’s another reason why I can never replace her.
For a nation that’s supposed to have raised itself above petty nationalist sentiment, the Dutch have a curious affinity for flying the flag. Since moving to The Hague less than two months ago I’ve lived through four official flag days and a host of unofficial ones. Red, white and blue flags flutter from balconies, from the roofs of shops (the hardware store round the corner has
three six), from restaurants and cafes. When teenagers pass their exams they ‘hang the flag out’ in celebration, often with their old school bag perched on the end of the pole. The first herring batch of the season is landed with much pomp and ceremony in mid-June, on a day known as “vlaggetjesdag” – Flags Day – when the Dutch congregate on the quayside in Scheveningen to eat raw fish with onions, drink beer and potter around traditional market stalls without buying anything. And, of course, there is a football tournament on at the moment, which means streets are festooned with orange bunting, ribbons, banners – and flags.
This being the Netherlands, the etiquette of flag-waving is meticulously regulated. There is even a page on the Dutch government’s website dedicated to the question: “When can I hang out the national flag?” The short answer is “whenever you like”, but the full text runs to 700 words detailing the difference between “limited” and “extensive” flagging, the buildings where flags are obligatory, and the correct proportions for the standard (a ratio of 3:2, should you be inclined to obtain one). Flags should not be raised during the hours of darkness, touch the ground or impede the flow of traffic. Because if there’s one thing even more sacred to a Dutchman than his flag, it’s his bicycle.
The flag is flown on the birthdays of the king and queen, their daughters, Veterans’ Day at the end of June and, perhaps most poignantly, Liberation Day – May 5 – which marks the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945. The day before is known as Dodenherdenking (Remembrance Day) when all the victims of war are remembered, and flags are flown at half-mast. And yes, the Dutch have a protocol for that as well:
“If the flag is to be flown at half mast, it should first be fully raised. Thereafter the flag should be slowly and stately lowered until the middle of the flag is at half its normal height. The flag is then secured to the flag line. The flag should not be tied. On lowering a flag from half mast it should be slowly and stately raised to full mast before being taken down in the same manner.”It’s fascinating to move from a country where any display of national flags prompts dark mutterings and gnashing of teeth about “nationalism on the rise” to one where flag-waving is seen as an unashamedly joyous gesture. To quote the government’s website again: “The Dutch flag is the symbol of the unity and independence of the Kingdom of the Netherlands”. It would be easy to conclude that the Dutch flag is less tainted by its history than others, but to do that you have to turn a blind eye to the Netherlands’ grim colonial escapades in Indonesia and elsewhere. What is true is that the Dutch have come to associate their flag with moments of liberation –from Spain in the 16th century, Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th. Hooligans, isolationists and religious zealots have been unable to claim it as their own.
The other curiosity is that while most households seem to own a flag, I’ve yet to see one for sale. Are they handed out on the last day of secondary school? And why are they all so clean and impeccably preserved? I imagine that on May 3, the day before Dodenherdenking, the Netherlands reverberates to the thrum of washing machines as every Dutchman and woman over the age of 25 diligently washes, irons and presses their flag ready to hang it at half-mast the following morning (but not before dawn, obviously).Perhaps the answer lies in the instructions regarding the colours, which are specified as “vermilion, clear white and cobalt blue” – I can only assume there are special washing powders to preserve the correct shade. The good news for migrants is that other national flags can be flown alongside the Dutch banner, but heed must be paid to the correct order, which is decided by the first letter of the country’s name in French. Yes, French. That means that Scotland (Ecosse) should properly take precedence over the Netherlands (Pays-Bas), which sounds like a diplomatic incident waiting to happen if we Scots vote for independence in September (both countries, incidentally, would trump the Royaume-Uni, but defer to Angleterre). In any case, I’m storing this information away safely, in preparation for the day when I finally track down a flag stockist.
Correction: This article originally stated that the hardware store close to my home had three flags flying from its gantry. In fact it sports six pristine, well-manicured tricolors. My apologies to the owners.
My beautiful, dearly beloved wife passed away on Monday, less than two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer and eight weeks after our family moved to her native Netherlands. This is an edited version of the eulogy I delivered at her cremation yesterday, May 31, in The Hague, with an English translation below. Read more…