"Kim! Kim pick up the phone right now! Kim pick up the phone!" The phone had been ringing, drawing me slowly and reluctantly out of my peaceful slumber. But my sister's hysterical cries on the answering machine, the terror and panic in her voice, forced me upright in an instant. I picked up the phone, suspecting, strangely enough, what she would say.
"Opa," she said, bawling uncontrollably. "He collapsed, isn't breathing, you need to get over here right away."
I don't remember hanging up the phone or throwing my clothes on. I don't remember driving to my parents house. The only thing I remember after that phone call is running through my parents house to their backyard, which connected with my grandparents' backyard. I remember seeing the bright yellow-green fire truck, the flashing lights. I remember racing through the gate and to the front of their house, just in time to catch my mother, who left me with this:
"Kim, you're the oldest. You have to be strong."
Rewind to about four weeks before that. I was sitting in my mother's kitchen, proofing programs that would be handed out to one-hundred-and-twenty-five guests at eleven a.m. on a Saturday. The program highlighted my thoughts about love, referring to the great love that is shared between my grandparents, whom I call Oma and Opa. They began our family here, foreigners in a strange new world, and now, twenty-two years later, their oldest granddaughter would be saying "I do" and beginning her own adventure.
Mom was working on something, I don't remember what, as I read over the program. I could hear the buzz of the sewing machine in the background. Her voice mingled with Oma's; they were disagreeing on something, their voices getting louder and louder until I thought I would go deaf. No, this wasn't a fight, this is simply the way the Dutch disagree -- make your voice louder until it eventually drowns out your opponent, and everything else within one-hundred feet of you. I looked across my backyard to my grandparents' backyard. There was Opa, sitting on the porch, reading a book and smoking a cigarette, oblivious to any disagreement between his wife and his daughter. I smiled to myself. Things sure don't change.
You see, this is how I grew up. This is what I am used to, what I am comfortable with, what I call home. My parents and grandparents shared a fence since I was eight. Well, more than that actually. They shared each others' lives.
I glanced up from my proofreading and looked at a small picture sitting on my mom's piano. The picture was of an older gentleman in checkered brown pants and a big smile, and a small child with chubby cheeks and white-blonde hair. The child was sitting on a wooden rocking horse with an orange base, a rocking horse that now sits in the master bedroom of my house.
That child was myself at a year old. The gentleman was Opa.
He had made the rocking horse for me when I got out of the hospital for the first time after one of the many surgeries I had in my youth.
That was just Opa. He was always painting, or carving, or sawing, or staining. He made furniture for his kids and grandkids. He did lovely paintings on canvas that he then gave to his family. His emotion, high spirit, his life were captured in the things he created.
Part of why I am so close with Oma and Opa is because of my heart. My sister and I were both born with congenital heart defects, and so Oma and Opa became our second caretakers. We were their first set of grandchildren, and here we were in and out of hospitals for years. I was the one "blessed" with the more severe defect. At one point the doctors told my mother I had about a twenty-percent chance of making it.
That, I am told, was the only time my Opa cried.
Twenty-some-odd years later, my family grew, our dutch heritage being passed from the oldest grandchild, me, down to the youngest, seven grandchildren later. Every New Years Eve we would spend the day baking Dutch delights, the men in the family squished into the greasy, tin-foil covered, smoky kitchen, with Opa at the helm, directing everything. The women and kids would be downstairs cutting and coring apples so they could be immersed in the fattening, delectable mixture of grease and pastry. Hours later we would gather around a large table and play board games and eat until it was midnight, when we could ring in the new year.
This was just one of many traditions I had grown up with. And the head of all these things, my incredibly close, loving family, was my Opa. He had come to America hoping to create a better life for his wife and children. Now, twenty-two years later, his oldest granddaughter would be the first in the family to get a four-year college degree. His dreams had come true.
The noise that is my mom and Oma disagreeing is finally quieted,
and as I continued proofing programs, I think of how far my family has
come. Two weeks later, their eldest granddaughter would walk down the
aisle, ready to start her own life. She would be hired at a reputable high
school to teach English. Opa is proud.
It's amazing how life can be at it's greatest, how everything can be so wonderful and everyone so happy, and then one fleeting moment, one tiny slip of fate, shatters and destroys everything you've ever known.
Back at Oma's house -- after I had received the "you have to be strong" speech from my mother -- my sister, cousins and I sat around thinking this is just another obstacle we'll get through. We are a strong Dutch family and have weathered many storms. Of course we'd weather this one as well. We've been through sickness, accidents, incidents; you name it, we've seen it. And we have always managed to come out the other side with our heads held high and our family closer than ever before. Nothing could destroy that. We would be around forever, fighting together like always.
Then my aunt's van pulled in and she, my mom, my other aunt and Oma got out. Wait, if Opa is in the hospital, then why aren't they their by his side?
It was at that moment that I knew. Nothing would be the same anymore. The family would be forever changed, stricken with grief, a hole carved into our hearts that would never heal.
An aneurysm exploded in his head exactly a half-hour after he got off the phone with my mom early that morning. He was gone the second it hit. He didn't feel a thing.
He was only sixty-seven. He and Oma were planning a three-week trek in Alaska. They were supposed to leave next month.
I never thought that one day I would be without Opa. The idea was
just inconceivable to me.
During the funeral, I felt numb. I felt as if I was walking under water: everything was muffled and slow. My sister and I held onto one another as we walked into the room where Opa lay. Nothing could have prepared me for this sight. Opa had never wanted a formal funeral, never wanted the fan-fare, only wanted to dedicate his body to science, one of his life-long passions.
And so he lay on a table, covered in a blanket, with my aunts, uncles, cousins and parents slowly forming a circle around him. There was no service; there was just his family, trying to support one another and make sense of something that couldn't be made sense of.
Oma stood there brushing his hair back, begging him, pleading with him to wake up. Dad was telling my sister and I that he was still Opa, that we can kiss him on the cheek. I looked at the lifeless body on the table and remembered his laugh, his smile, the way he danced the Macarena in black shades with all the youngsters at my wedding, the way his comical voice carried across a room, the way he could tune out what was being said and then suddenly join a conversation, not realizing we were on to him, the way he played soccer and basketball and taught us how to dance and sing and paint and draw -- and live.
No, I thought. This lifeless, waxy looking form on the table was not my Opa. No way, this was not him. I began to shake, and ran out of the room sobbing, nearly shrieking. I was angry. Angry at life, angry at the world, angry at this awful, heart-wrenching twist-of-fate, angry at the supposed God that had taken him away from us.
I don't remember much after I ran out of there hysterically, but one thing will always be a splinter in my mind. As we were leaving the funeral home to go back to Oma's house, my dad lingered by the door of the room where Opa lay. He gave a single salute, and walked away, head down. I knew he was teary-eyed, something my dad has never been in front of me.
All I kept thinking on the way home was "now what?" What happens next? How do we continue?
And now, four years later, I am still asking those questions. I am still angry. I have sunk into a deep black hole of depression that I can't seem to find my way out of. Since that day, life changed. I changed, and haven't been the same since. I once was ambitious, driven, always full of laughter, and now I am a mere shell of that girl.
I spent three years on anti-depressants. I partied, drank alcohol daily, smoked pot, did anything to numb the pain, because being drunk or high or taken advantage of was better than feeling this pain of my family's loss. According to my messed-up mind, my wounded emotions, self- medicating was the only way to deal with grief. I went completely against everything I had ever believed in. I lied, I cheated, I overspent, I over drank, I did everything to excess. I told myself that if I could just destroy me, everything would go away.
The lowest point came this past November. I had taken double my dose of Zoloft and hours later had a few drinks. I was driving home after messing around with some young guy I barely knew, not caring that my husband was at home waiting for me.
As I drove down the expressway, music blaring, I felt the anger, the rage bubbling up in my throat. These intense emotions washed over me like a tidal wave, and I began to shake. I was heading toward an overpass, and I looked down underneath at the cars rushing by. I knew that it would be quick and painless. I knew that it would end this emotional prison I was trapped in. It would end this self-destructive behavior. It would end the grief I was causing my parents and my husband.
I began to turn the wheel toward the bridge, imaging my car going over, crashing into the ground, exploding into other cars.
But something held me back.
I drove home, sobbing, afraid, wondering who I had become, wondering where the old me had disappeared. I really believed that my former self died when Opa died, and that killing myself meant I'd really only be killing the shell that once housed this girl so full of life.
I went through more months of struggle, of refusing to accept what
life had dealt me, of battling my overwhelming need to drown the pain, but
that lowest, darkest moment came once and only once. That moment
scared me and forced me to understand that I was so much more than this
tangled web of confusion, anger and deceit.
Recently I looked at a picture that was taken of Opa and me at my college graduation. It was a last minute shot -- I think Opa was giving me a hug before we left for the ceremony and my dad had managed to capture it on film. I looked at the picture and I remembered all he stood for, all he had fought for. I remembered what he saw in me, how proud he was of me. I remembered a time when my family was one.
And I realized that sinking down into this abyss of self-pity is not what he would have wanted. Especially not from his oldest granddaughter. So instead of blocking the pain with alcohol, drugs, and whatever else I could get my hands on, I began to feel it. I decided that his memory should not be tainted with my own self-destruction. The pain had to be dealt with, and I had to move on, tucking him away in my heart.
Through support from my family, my loving husband and a therapist, I began to recover. And as I recovered, I began to write. I wrote poetry, short stories, longer stories; I wrote as an outlet for the pain, for the loss, for the destructive path I had chosen. And now, when I read what I have written, I see him. I see myself in him. I see myself continuing what he had started. Writing has forced me to be honest with myself, to deal with the pain, and as a result, writing has literally healed me.
Opa was always creative. His blood, sweat and tears, his life, went
into the things he created. Now I am the one creating, and he is in me, in
my words. Finally, after years of denial, I am able to grieve. And in
grieving, I discovered that he is still right here with me.
© 2003 Kimberley Cocklan, all rights reserved
appears here by permission