Ede, Holland, Tuesday, May 3 Ellen put her appointment card on the counter at the clinic and glanced at the clock. Ten to eleven. She was fifteen minutes too early. Usually she rushed in at the last minute, but this morning she had felt the urge to go earlier. She had no idea why. Maybe because she wanted to put the visit with the specialist behind her. She had seen the inside of this waiting room more often than she'd cared to, and had sat here quite a number of times with her husband or her sister. Thankfully today was only a routine visit, something she could easily handle herself. Now that she was early, she'd have to wait a bit. There were only two others in the waiting room so it shouldn't be too long. She sat down on one of the red chairs lined up against the wall and searched her purse for a comb to fix her short blond hair after the bike ride, to no avail. Then it dawned on her. She had given the comb to her daughter Marilou, because she had swimming lessons this morning and had lost her own brush. Oh well, she'd go to the appointment with windblown hair. To kill time she grabbed a magazine off of the table beside her. She was just getting into an article about the pros and cons of vitamins supplements when the door to the doctor's office opened. She looked up, even though she knew it couldn't be her turn yet. A woman in her mid-forties exited the room, pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair. Father and daughter, Ellen surmised. The doctor followed them out of the room and handed the file to his secretary. With a few words he bid them farewell and called for his next patient. To Ellen's surprise the specialist had spoken to the man in English, something which had piqued her curiosity. She observed the man closely. A first impression told her he was well into his eighties, although his sad appearance could make him look older. He had nearly lost all his thin, grey hair, and the dark vest that clung to his thin shoulders was at least two sizes too large. Maybe it had gotten too big? His hands, marked by protruding veins, rested motionless on his thin legs, which were dressed in pyjama pants. He wasn't wearing any socks, and somehow these bare feet in slippers endeared the elderly man to her. The man appeared sedated. It made her think of the wounded sparrow she had recently rescued out of her cat's claws. In hindsight it would have been better to let nature take its course, because half an hour later, after having sat in the corner of a box, traumatized and weak, the animal blew out its last breath, its beak open in a silent cry. She couldn't see the man's facial expression because he kept his head bent forward, as though it had become too heavy to keep upright. It was obvious he was quite sick. She was therefore not surprised to hear the secretary call one of the wards to arrange the man's admission. After the phone call the girl, for she was rather young, turned to the woman behind the wheelchair to discuss some practical information. The man seemed oblivious to the conversation. Ellen wondered if the secretary didn't know enough English to speak to the man himself, or perhaps she did not want to bother him. Or maybe it was normal for her to talk about patients as if they weren't even there, she thought wryly. That had happened to her during her appointments
often enough as well. “Do I have to go along to the room, or can a nurse take him?” Ellen heard the woman ask. She couldn't really hear what the secretary answered, but it appeared as though the woman was expected to accompany the patient, because she moved the wheelchair ahead, nearly parking it in front of Ellen's feet and without saying a word she seated herself on one of the chairs across the waiting room. Guess they weren't father and daughter after all, Ellen concluded. Maybe they aren't related at all, and she's a neighbor or a volunteer who came along for the visit. Somehow the woman did not fit the picture of a concerned neighbor or volunteer. She didn't display any kindness, and what was even more remarkable, it seemed as though she wanted as little as possible to do with the man. Why else would she go and sit so far away? Ellen glanced at the other patient in the waiting room to see if he had paid attention, but the man appeared to be engrossed in his newspaper. Ellen's gaze was drawn back to the man in the wheelchair. He touched something inside her. He hadn't looked up at all and seemed to offer no resistance. Was he this passive because he was ill, or was he used to this kind of treatment? Was he afraid to become a burden? Maybe she was his daughter, and had he somehow destroyed her love? Were kind, loving words a thing of a distant past? This thought nearly broke her heart. TELL HIM I LOVE HIM. Ellen sat upright, startled. Not because the voice was a stranger to her. It was the unexpected but clear message that shook her. You can not mean that, Lord! I don't know the man. What will he think of me? TELL HIM. Yes, but my English! It's not that great..... I WILL GIVE YOU THE WORDS. Sweat trickled down her back. Once more she studied the man, threw a quick glance at the woman who kept staring straight ahead, before her eyes wandered back to the man. The thought of having to speak to him caused her hands to be clammy. At that moment he lifted his head and their eyes met. The overwhelming sadness she read in those eyes disturbed her. But still she lacked the courage to speak to him. Instead she smiled at him. For a second she thought she'd get a reaction but then the man dropped his head once more. Again she heard the voice. TELL HIM I LOVE HIM.....AND AM WAITING FOR HIM.. The message was clear, but it seemed as though her mouth had been taped shut. Every time she inhaled deeply and tried to form the words, a sense of dread overtook her. Her pulse and respirations accelerated and she could detect a whooshing sound in her ears. Was it her own bloodflow, or was it the silence that created it? If only it was her turn, or if someone came to get the man, then the dilemma would be solved. But nothing happened. After a few minutes which seemed to last forever, a health care professional entered the waiting room. “Mister Smit?” The man looked up and faintly nodded his head. The nurse walked up to him and placed a hand on his fragile shoulder. “There is a comfortable bed waiting for you on the second floor. I'll be taking you there right away.” He barely reacted, most likely he didn't understand since the nurse had spoken in Dutch. The woman got up and walked over to him. “You are with this patient?” the nurse asked. The woman nodded, reluctant. With heavy eyes Ellen watched as the nurse grabbed the wheelchair and took the man, now no
longer nameless, with her. A few feet behind them the woman followed. Too late. The words pounded through Ellen's head. Now it's too late. Who knows how important this message was for him. And I didn't pass it on. Because I was afraid to make a fool of myself. Discouraged she slid further into her seat.
Friday, May 6 â€œWell look here, today the mail brought you something as well.â€? With a gracious swing of the arm the brown-haired health care aide placed the envelope on the dresser beside Steven Smit's bed. Even though he understood perfectly what was being said, he did not respond. He felt little like talking. He only wanted to lie in bed. And sleep. To think about nothing. Not to feel anything. Let them think he didn't understand Dutch. Such a language barrier was sometimes wonderful to hide behind and that was why he let people think he could only communicate in English. When the health care aide had left the room, he turned his head to the right. His gaze was drawn to the ivory-colored envelope on the dresser. He wasn't sure if he should take it and open it. He had no idea who'd be sending him mail. Except his neighbor Sanne and his daughter Kathy there was no-one who knew he was in hospital. But the neighbor lady had already come to visit him and his daughter would be the last to send him a card. Thinking of Kathy made him forget about the envelope for a minute. He remembered her rejection painfully sharp. The hope he had harbored was gone completely when she had looked at him with the same look that had haunted him for years. A range of emotions had been hidden in that look--blame, anger, and pain. But above all a look that had told him she'd never forgive him. How he had hoped her feelings toward him would have softened somewhat after twentyseven years. But that hope had been in vain. A loud squeaking noise behind him made him jump, but he let himself fall back against the pillows when he realized it was only the intravenous pump. Something probably had to be replaced again. Strange that after three days this sound still makes me jump. Guess I can't handle anything anymore. He waited until the noise drew the nurse's attention, and came to change the nearly empty IV bag for a full one. He kept his eyes closed, pretending to be asleep, but as soon as he knew the nurse had left the room, he opened them. Again he glanced at the envelope on the dresser, and reluctantly he reached for it. He wasn't sure if he wanted to find out who sent him a card. But curiosity got the better of him and he picked up the envelope. The writing on the envelope was done in neat letters, probably done by a woman's hand. The address surprised him. Except the name of the hospital, there was only his name and the floor he was on. No room number. It appeared the sender knew he was on this floor, but not which room. But what surprised him the most was the way his name was written. Mr. Smith. Mister Smith, the English version of his last name. The sender assumed he was English, adding the 'h' to Smit. Although the stamp bearing the queen's image told him the envelope was mailed here, in Holland. His curiosity grew. He flipped the envelope over, but there was no return address. He'd have to open it. Being in the habit of using proper etiquette throughout his life, he searched for something
sharp to open the envelope. Ripped envelopes were a pet peeve of his. He raised himself up a bit to see if Sanne had placed his pocket knife in the drawer. Wherever he went the knife went with him. Not only because of practical reasons, but because he had received it long ago as a father's day present from Kathy. 'Cat', he'd sometimes call her if she was in a bad mood or if she wanted to dominate her friends. Yes, she could sometimes show her claws like a true cat. He forced himself to put thoughts of Kathy aside for now and concentrated on the contents of the drawer. There it was, his pocket knife. With effort he was able to grab it and somewhat out of breath he lay back down. The smallest tasks seem to require more stamina than he possessed. After catching his breath he lifted the envelope with his one hand and with the other he carefully opened the envelope with the knife. In the envelope was a card. He slid it out and folded it open, and read the sentences, written in partially broken English. Dear Mr. Smith, the letter started. While he read he automatically translated the sentences back to the Dutch language, something he subconsciously and in opposite to many other immigrants, had continued doing. Dear Mr. Smith, You don't know me and I don't know you, but I saw you on Tuesday in the waiting room at Dr. Baaij. While you was waiting to go to your room in hospital, I looked at you. Then God began to speak to me. I don't know if you know God, but He knows you. He wanted me to tell you that He loves you and is waiting for you. Because I was afraid to make a fool of me, I did not come to you that morning. But I could not forget the meeting and that's why I decided to send this card. I heard the nurse say your name and that she was taking you to the second floor, so I hope this information was enough to deliver the card to you. If you are reading this it means it worked and I can give you the message now: God loves you! And He is waiting for you..... Whatever happened in your life, His love is always stronger! I'm praying for you. Just a woman from the waiting room. Steven read the text a few times, but it wouldn't sink in. It was as though the words bounced against the wall like squash balls and bounced right back, without reaching its target. Overcome, he stared at the writing inside the card, then closed it, dumbfounded. Only then did he see the picture and words written on the front of the card. It was a painting by Rembrandt, the painting where the prodigal son returns and falls into his father's loving embrace. Underneath the painting where two words written. Welcome home. With these words the wall which had kept all the other words out for many years, succumbed with thundering noise.
Monday, May 9 With a frown Kathy Smit stared at the telephone on her desk. What time was her appointment again? She couldn't remember a thing the last few days. Sighing she picked up the phone and punched in the number of her dentist a second time. “Goodmorning, this is Kathy Smit again,” she stated when her call was answered. “I just called for an appointment, but I cannot recall if it was a quarter to three next Thursday, or a quarter after three. Sorry to bother you.” “Oh, that's all right,” the voice of the secretary purred, “I'll look it up for you. What is your date of birth?” “March 21, 1964.” “Ah, so you were a spring baby,” the secretary laughed. “Neat.” Kathy didn't reply. Just look up the appointment. She could hear the secretary type something and waited in silence. “Thursday May 19 at a quarter to three,” it sounded a little later. “Would you like me to send you an appointment card?” “No, I've written it in my agenda,” Kathy answered while she scribbled down the time. “Thank you very much.” She mumbled a greeting and hung up. Actually, an appointment in the middle of the afternoon wasn't practical, she debated. Where was her head? Normally she attempted to make appointments at the start or at the end of the day. But she didn't feel like calling the dentist's office for a third time. So be it. She put her agenda aside and concentrated on her work. If she kept up a good pace she'd be able to finish the notes from yesterday's management meeting this morning. She enjoyed her position as secretary at Instalco, a company which specialized in climate control, but writing reports was not her most favorite task. Especially if she left her quickly scribbled notes too long, so she tried to prevent this. She had only just begun the second topic on the agenda when her cell phone rang. Now what? She grabbed the phone from her brown purse. Who would be calling her during working hours? Those who knew her even a little knew she thoroughly disliked being called at work. The screen indicated it was an unknown caller, so that didn't help any. “Kathy Smit,” she answered, irritated. “Goodmorning, this is Dr. Baaij's office calling. Are you Mr. Steven Smit's daughter? Would it help if I said no? Would I be able to sever all contact? “Yes, that's me.” “Good. I'm calling in regards to your father. Dr. Baaij would like to speak to you in regards to the surgery your dad is scheduled for on wednesday. Could you come to the clinic at four this afternoon?” No! “Ah... that won't work well for me. I don't know what Dr. Baaij has to discuss, but can't it be done over the phone?” “That is not usually the case, Ms. Smit. The doctor prefers to have important conversations such as this one in person. But if four o'clock doesn't suit, how about later? Would five o'clock work?” “No, not really.” “Maybe tomorrow morning? Would that be convenient?”
“No.” Before the secretary could come up with another suggestion, Kathy decided to speak openly. “Listen, it's not so much if it suits me, but if I want to. And to be honest, I have no need to speak to the doctor. At my father's admission he made the diagnosis clear and also what risks were involved with the surgery. I don't need to know any more, and if the doctor is looking for more information I won't be the person to talk to because until last week I had not seen or spoken to my father for twenty-seven years, so there is no point for me to come by. She realized she must sound rather abrupt, but she didn't feel like sugar-coating her message, even though the silence at the other end of the line proved that her words had upset the secretary. “Ah.....all right, I will pass it on to the doctor,” was the final reply. “Bye, Ms. Smit.” Kathy placed the phone back in her purse. Determined to put the conversation behind her, she concentrated on her computer screen. Where had she left off? Suddenly someone cleared his throat behind her. She spun around and noticed the regional manager for whom she had been working the last three years, in her doorway. “Paul, I hadn't heard you come in.” Usually he knocked first before entering, even though her door was seldom closed. He shrugged his shoulders and walked into the room. It was obvious he had no meetings with clients today, because instead of his usual two-piece suit he was wearing black jeans with a tshirt, which made him look younger than his forty years. “You were on the phone so I didn't want to disturb you. When I heard it was a personal call I wanted to leave. Before I could do that you were finished your call.” How much did he hear? “Yeah, but it was only a short call. Tell me, what can I do for you?” “Are you doing okay, Kathy?” Paul asked, ignoring her question. “Of course, why wouldn't I be okay?” She avoided his brown eyes and pretended not to understand what he was hinting at, although she knew Paul well enough that he most likely wouldn't fall for it, but it was worth a try. “Yeah, well, it's none of my business, but I overheard the tail end of your phonecall.” Kathy didn't reply, and pulled her writing pad towards her as if to indicate she wanted to continue working. Paul remained where he was. “And,” he went on, “because I have seldom or never heard you use such a tone, I was wondering if you were all right.” With a glance at her notes she had made during the meeting, Kathy weighed her options. She could say she didn't feel like discussing the matter, but strangely she felt a need to explain to him why she had been so abrupt. “Well, um, it's about my father. And then it takes little to make me mad.” Paul grabbed the stool which stood on the other side of her desk and sat down. “I didn't know any better or your parents had both died.” That was to be expected. She never spoke about her father. Only two close friends knew he was still alive, but they repected her wish not to speak about him. “A few months before my mother died my father moved to the States and we lost contact.” At least, I broke it. My father continued to send letters for years, but I sent them back, unopened. Paul remained quiet, waiting to see if she'd go on. “Last week tuesday morning, while I was preparing the necessary reports for month's end, I was all of a sudden called by a Sanne. She explained she was a neighbor of my father, who apparently had returned to Holland. She had heard some unusual noises, and went to check things out. My father had become unwell and was lying on the kitchen floor, with the table partially on top of him. She called emergency services and the ambulance took him to the hospital to be seen by the specialist.” Kathy grabbed a paperclip and played with it while she
continued. “The neighbor lady had asked my father if she could call anyone and apparently he mentioned me.” “How did she know where to reach you?” “No idea, really. He probably gave her my address. It makes sense the address was still current, because I still live in my mother's house.” Kathy pauzed as her thoughts went back to that morning. The phone call had caught her completely off guard and she hadn't known what to do. Without stopping to think she told the neighbor she'd go to the hospital. She had assumed that her father had already been admitted and she only had to speak to a doctor. But when she got to the hospital they'd only just finished the first tests and he was sitting in a wheelchair, in his pyjamas, at the specialist. Against her wishes she had to arrange the admission. Thankfully the neighbor lady had been so wise to send an overnight bag along, that had made a bit of difference. She had felt trapped when she so suddenly came face to face with her father. The emotions that had washed over her had been so powerful that she'd had to block them from her memory in the past week. This was a skill she had practiced for years, and it had helped her this past tuesday to act as though he hadn't rocked her world once again. “Anyway, to make a long story short,” she continued, “the specialist wanted to see me about my father. But I don't see the use, and I explained this to his secretary. Probably at the same moment you came in the doorway.” “Exactly. And now?” “What do you mean, and now?” “What are you going to do now?” “What I am going to do? Absolutely nothing. He'll have his surgery on wednesday, which he may or may not survive. But Paul, as harsh as it may sound, it won't change anything.” “Because...?” “Because whether he survives the operation or not, he's been dead to me for a long time already.”
6 Wednesday, May 11 Somewhere, far away, a melody played, and it woke her from her sleep. The tune was vaguely familiar to Kathy, but she was too sleepy to place it. A few minutes later it was quiet. She turned over in bed and tried to sleep some more. When her alarm clock went off, it'd be early enough to face the day. But just before she drifted off the melody played again. She wasn't able to ignore it and with an angry movement she covered her head with the pillow. Who in his right mind would make such a racket? And where had she heard this tune before? Suddenly it dawned on her where she knew it from and sat up in bed. It was a phone. Her phone. In the dark she felt for the switch on her bedside lamp and glanced at the old clock beside her bed. She had always preferred the clock's ticking instead of the convenience of an electric alarm clock with its lit-up numbers, but it was a hassle to have to turn on the light before she could see what time it was. Three-thirty. She closed her eyes and opened them again, to make sure she was seeing it right. It truly was three-thirty. Who would be calling her at such a bizarre time, and on her cell phone to boot? She pushed the blankets back and quickly got up. In her rush to get downstairs she nearly tripped on the stairs, but before she got to the bottom the phone had stopped ringing. Why hadn't she taken it upstairs with her, like she usually did? O yeah, she remembered. It was charging in the kitchen. To ignore any thought in her head, she had been playing some silly game last night and had changed some of the settings and had also picked a different tune. By the time she was done the battery was nearly dead and had to be recharged. She turned on the kitchen lamp and grabbed her phone. She had missed two calls. One at 3:27 am and the other at 3:30. Both came from an unlisted number. It wouldn't be.... She rushed over to her stationary phone which was sitting on top of the cabinet beside the piano in the living room and noticed the caller had tried to reach her twice on this number as well. She couldn't see what time, but it would have been during the night because last night there had been no message. It was hardly surprising she hadn't heard this phone; with the room door closed the rather quiet ring wasn't audible upstairs. Altogether she had missed four calls. Combining that with the unusual hour it had to be something urgent. All kinds of ideas rushed through her mind, but she could think of only one plausible explanation why someone with an unlisted number would call her in the middle of the night. Something had to be up with her father. While she entertained this thought, the phone rang again. With shaking hand she picked up the receiver and answered. “Kathy Smit.” “Ms. Smit, this is Saskia Terweij, I'm a nurse at the Juliana hospital. I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm afraid I have some bad news.” The woman paused, possibly waiting for Kathy to reply, but when this didn't happen, she continued on. “About half an hour ago your dad died in his sleep, most likely due to heart failure. This will need to be confirmed, but it appears to be the cause.” Feeling weak, Kathy sat down on the stool in front of the piano, trying to comprehend what
the nurse had told her. Your father. Passed away. In his sleep. Heart failure. Her brain understood the message, but her emotions were lagging behind, not knowing what to do with it. Kathy still had no idea how to respond, but the woman appeared to interpret the silence as an encouragement to keep talking. “Earlier tonight I had gone and woken him, in case he had sustained a mild concussion after all during his fall out of bed yesterday, but he was asleep soon after and ....” “Where is he now?” Kathy interrupted her. She did not want to hear he had fallen, not to picture him how he had possibly smacked his head on the floor. All she wanted to know is were he was and what was expected of her. “We have brought your father to a separate room, but still on the same floor, 2-D. He can stay there until you get here.” “Until I get there?” “Yes, we like to give the family of a deceased patient the opportunity to say their goodbyes in private, before matters need to be taken care of, such as arranging the funeral.” “Do people always make use of this?” Is there a way out so I won't have to go? So I don't have to stand beside my father in a small hospital room, all by myself? To be able to return to bed, pull the pillow over my head once more, and pretend this phone conversation never happened? “Um, not always,” the nurse admitted. “What happens if I do not come?” “Then we bring your father to the morgue where the funeral director will come to get him later on in the day.” “And who will that be?” “That is up to you, Ms. Smit. Such arrangements are made by the family, not us. Although there is the possibility your father has documented his wishes in regards to his funeral. But you'd probably know that better than us.” “No, I wouldn't know either if my father wrote these things down.” The one thing she knew for sure was that she'd have to take care of business in the next few days. He had been her father after all, and she his daughter. His only child. And she was bound by a promise made to her mother twenty-seven years ago. Oh mama, how could you love him so much? “Give me half an hour and I'll come,” she decided. “Good, take your time. And Ms. Smit...” “Yes?” “My condolences.”
Forty-five minutes later Kathy stood beside her father's bed, and stared at the hands which were folded on his chest. Even though she had planned to throw him a quick glance and walk away, she had remained and her eyes were held captive by those hands, not even straying when the nurse left the room, gently closing the door behind her. Kathy wasn't sure what emotions she had expected coming face to face with her deceased father. Of course, there was the bitterness and anger she always felt when thinking about him. But maybe she ought to be relieved now that he had permanently disappeared from her life. Under no circumstance had she been prepared for the feelings trying to surface at that moment.
Feelings she couldn't give a name. Was it sadness? Longing for days gone by? Perhaps a mixture? The hands she saw now were not the same hands of the father she had bid farewell years ago. It were the hands of a father who had lovingly stroked her chestnut curls when she came to him as a little girl with anything that grieved her back then. Hands which lightly stroked her cheeks when she kissed him goodnight at bedtime. Hands providing a sense of security when she learned how to ride a bike. Hands that clapped with enthousiasm at diploma ceremonies. These hands had sheltered her. And first and foremost, these hands had wrapped around her own when they recited the evening prayer together. The images came with such force that Kathy involuntary reached out with her own hand to touch his hands one more time. Suddenly it hit her what she was doing and she jerked her hand back. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply in an attempt to slow her pounding heart. When she opened her eyes a short while later, the images of the past had disappeared and she could see his hands just as they were. Blue-veined and covered with age spots. And folded. Most likely they hadn't been in years.