A week ago I received news that was a long time coming. “Your grandfather is back in the hospital dear…” my mum said over the phone, and then carefully “he won’t be coming back home this time”.
I am not sad. I didn’t rush back to Belgium to say goodbye. Whenever I visited Belgium in the past 5 years, I kissed him and said goodbye – thinking each time might be the last. You see, he has lived a full life. Probably fuller than most of us will. 101 years. There’s a saying life is too short – but for some it can be too long.
Some people might have memories of their grandfather playing with them, running and hugging and all those other things I see in Hollywood movies that I don’t recognise at all. From as long as I can remember, vovo (Flemish for grandpa) was old. But for as long as I can remember, he was strong. He was – and always will be – a survivor. Some might have learned tenderness from their grandparents, I learned strength and determination from him. There was always a twinkle in his blue eyes, a sparkle of life. And every year on Christmas day, his birthday, he would tell us stories of how he survived. World War I, his mother, World War II, the concentration camp, the hard labour, his friends, his wife. He wouldn’t talk about it any other day. I think some of the memories were so brutal they needed to be contained. Just like the tattoo that goes with it.
He would always finish his plate. And if there was anything left on ours, those as well. He held on to life with the most intense hunger I have ever come across in another human being. While he could get furious at times – I’ve seen him looking at others with eyes that could kill – he always wore a little smirk when he looked at me. Even when I told him how I hate hunting… his biggest passion. He hated the Greens with a vengeance, was judgemental of anything strange or alternative and stubborn to a fault. But when I look down, I see his stubby hands (thanks dad!). When I look at my family, stubbornness runs through it. His blood is in our veins. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The photo above is the only portrait I made, back in March 2010. His health started deteriorating then and I didn’t dare ask for more. But I wish I had. The bottom ones are the only other ones I have – one at our wedding (that smirk!) and one of his pride and passion. I wish I had more. His hands. His pipe. His eyes. His hat. His birds. I wish I had more.
Make photos of you and your loved ones. Often.
One day they might be the most precious things you leave behind.
Vovo, I promise whenever I see somebody stuff their pipe, or drink a little jenever (Flemish gin), I will think of you. I’m sorry you couldn’t go the way you wanted to, at home and in peace. I know you wished that more than anything – and we are all sorry.