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An ode to Opa, before he's dead

Everybody dies one day. And so will Opa. The ultimate grandfather.

One of the few men, if not the only one, who I genuinely look up to.

Opa raised me. He lived around the corner from us. He held my hand as we strolled through our village, and he'd walk along the other side of every lamppost, after which we would crash into each other.

Some jokes never get old.

Neither would Opa. At least, that’s what Mum had promised me. He would turn a hundred.

He really would. Even when he got cancer in 2020, because he recovered in no time. Even when he caught Covid in the hospital and found out in a beach house, because the ham and egg no longer tasted like anything.

Not that Opa would want me to write about this, of course. He’d prefer me not to say a word about illness and grief, but about the little adventures we had together.

How many times haven't we been to the ancient Teyler’s Museum together, where I knew every detail in every room by heart?

Then we’d go get ice cream at Aunt Saar along the Spaarne, the Seine of Haarlem.

Or we’d browse the market in the centre, looking for good cheese and apple pie. The same town square where we would celebrate his birthday and Christmas at once, as the city turned into one huge Christmas market.

Other times we went for food at a Chinese or Thai place, where I had to try the fish cakes.

I'm sure I inherited my (lack of) cooking skills from him, and to spare my mum, I'll just say that it skipped a generation. We would make old nasi or some other nasty dish, and everyone was content.

Also in our bloodline, a talent to which I quite literally owe my life, is the art of writing. All three of us know how to handle words, from de Volkskrant to Malta and The Brussels Times.

Grandpa’s oeuvre lives mainly in Haarlem, where as a journalist, editor, illustrator, and photographer, he can do everything a journalist is expected to be able to do in 2023 – and that at the age of 80.

Books, exhibitions, articles, his own newspaper – Opa does it all. An artist.

An icon, to me (to put it mildly).

We are journalists in heart and soul. I owe that to Opa.

He taught me how to “computer”. My laptop now, is what his typewriter used to be.

I received books for birthdays, the only present that, to this day, truly makes me happy.

We are minimalists too, the ‘de Jongs’, but nothing beats a good paper book.

Sometimes it was creative, a workbook by master painters, sometimes a story with a moral, like the book about a girl who adopted near-dead animals so that the chance of a dead dad became increasingly smaller. Because who has a dead mouse, a dead dog, a dead bird, and a dead dad?

If it worked like that, I would have a pet cemetery in my Brussels garden, as long as Opa stays with us.

An ode to Opa is endless, the way I thought he would live forever.

At least until I grow up, big enough to bear this loss. (I am, now.)

Dying is never fun for the people around you. Not now, but in five, or ten, or twenty years it would have been just as shit. There is no good time to leave your loved ones.

Grandpa is the fittest person I know, who still effortlessly beat tennis players well into his eighties and cycled dozens of kilometres a day. Who never said no to good pastries, but had his daily portion of meat, fish, and veggies.

Someone who, as Mum and I firmly believed, would certainly live to be a hundred.

When I turned 20, I wondered how a person lives. What does someone do in the decade between their 20th and 30th year of life, how do you fill in your life? Of course, I asked Opa, who knows better than anyone how to live life.

A few days later I received an answer: two pages of text and a black and white photo from the army. He’d had a great time there, in the middle of the Cold War, before he started his career as a journalist.

I graduated that year, 2020, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, only to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps via a completely different path.

I had no idea then that three years later, in May 2023, I would be told that Opa would not live much longer. He had cycled to the doctor with some issues and – so Mom said – returned in true Opa style, with a bag full of pills, jokingly stating that they had "really written him off this time".

Over the years, he became close friends with Sir Godwin, my mutt from Malta. He gave me the book “Dogs for Life” by Arthur Japin, which makes me cry every time. Because no dog is there for life, but you are life itself for your dog.

It’s the same with grandparents. They just aren’t there forever. So neither is Opa.

As a child of a single mother, you are naturally dependent on your grandparents. And that is great, because grandpas and grandmas are, as far as I know, much more fun than two parents.

Grandpas and grandmas are almost never strict, and know everything, because they were born such a long time ago.

My grandpa was what a dad is supposed to be, for me.

He was always there, and he always would be.

That is, of course, not the case.

There is one downside to being a grandpa, and that is that you die. He himself is ‘indifferent’ about it. It is what it is. “It’s not over until it is over.”

And that’s right. The last few weeks have been beautiful, full of love, peace, and humour. I couldn't wish for it to be any better.

Opa will always be there for me, in every word I write. He lives in me.



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