What would she think of us?
What would she think of us, I often wonder, as we meander through our daily routine. Get up; shower; breakfast; boys get dressed as I make the sandwiches and pack the school bags. A rota in the kitchen keeps me straight on what gym kit is needed. Then brush teeth, climb on the bikes and off we pedal, warmed by the morning sun. I like to think Magteld would be pleasantly surprised at how, since the summer holidays, these rituals have become almost automatic. She worried openly about how I would tackle the task of bringing up the boys, especially when it came to their schooling, a job she approached with the firm resolve of a farmer preparing to wring his chickens’ necks. And I could hardly complain or feign indignation, because I worried about it even more.
Sorting out the boys’ schools took up much of the last months of Magteld’s life. On top of emigrating and adjusting to classes in their second language, both have the extra challenge of being on the autism spectrum. She secured a place for our younger son at the local primary school after meeting the headmaster. But his older brother needed more specialised instruction. Over several nights the two of us sat at the kitchen table, Magteld in her wheelchair, and ploughed through a mountain of multiple-choice forms designed to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses. And then we waited. The day after she died, the phone rang. It was the school phoning with the news that he had been granted a place.
That was the good news. The bad news, I discovered in a meeting the next day, was that he couldn’t start until the new school year in September. By then he would have gone five months without any education or the habit of getting up for school in the morning (I had made a point of taking both boys out on the morning school run every day, for exactly this reason). I asked myself: what would Magteld do? And the answer was plain: she’d have put her foot down. So I said: “In that case, we have a problem,” and explained, patiently, in my best Dutch, that sitting about the house for five months, abruptly deprived of his native Dutch-speaking parent, was no path to progress. For good measure I cited an email from the education department, whom I’d been in touch with the previous week, that supported my position that he should be found a place before the summer holiday.
There was a brief pause. The teacher picked up the phone, spoke briefly to a colleague, and a minute later our son had a place in class after the Whitsun holiday the following week. I was happy. Not just for his sake, but because I had finished a job that she started months earlier, in a manner she would surely have approved of.
There was one more issue. The school was nearly two miles from home, so too close for us to be considered for bus transport. We’d have to make our own way. The easiest option was to go by bike, were it not for the minor detail that our son had never learned to ride one. I hatched a plan. It seemed at once logical and wildly optimistic. Magteld and I had hired a nanny, who was due to start the following Tuesday. Her first task would be to help our son learn to ride a bike in a week. On the Monday I took both boys out on their bikes, along the cycleway, the younger propped up by stabilisers. But the side wheels dragged and scraped and held him back, while the resultant outbursts of rage stopped me from concentrating on his brother. On the Tuesday we tried again, on the pavement outside the house, with the new childminder and without the younger brother in tow. Asking an autistic child with poor co-ordination to learn a new skill in a couple of days with the help of an untested stranger may seem like a desperate and daring enterprise, and in many ways it was. But some instinct told me it would work. And the stars must have been in alignment that day, because within half an hour our son was pedalling up and down the pavement unassisted, roaring with delight as he did so. And the next Monday, after a few more days’ practice, we set off for school on our bikes, through the traffic, and covered the mile and a half to the dunes in little over 10 minutes.
What would she think of us? At such moments I dare to think she would be proud of how we’ve kept going as a truncated family of three. The survival tricks we’ve picked up, the rhythm of our days. Occasionally I’ve had to tackle the uncomfortable proposition that some things are easier now. There’s no longer any wearying discussion of whose turn it should be to cook or take the boys to bed or take the bins out. In the past there were plenty of days when neither of us fancied the job, and both tried to pass it off or argue that it was the other person’s turn, and the result was that whoever eventually took it on set about it steeped in resentment. All wasteful ado about nothing, I think ruefully, because only in Magteld’s absence have I come to realise how wretched and trivial these altercations are.
Sadness, too, tinted the experience of seeing one of Magteld’s ambitions – helping our son to learn to ride a bike, a rite of passage for Dutch children – achieved by someone else. But she would have chastised me for such sentimental melancholy – it’s about him, not you. Nevertheless, I spent the summer ticking off the items on her wish list: joining the folksy celebrations that mark the new herring season (vlaggetjesdag) in Scheveningen, or going on a camping trip to Zeeland. It was easier than trying to think for myself, and besides we were in her home country now. What better guide could we have?
Late in August I sat outside our tent in Zeeland, clutching a book in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, watching the children revel in the freedom of the open flat space, and contemplated once again the question that thrums in the recesses of my mind like the note of a ship’s engine seven decks below: if she could see us now, what would she think?