Thanks to the enduring suspension of our host’s old Mercedes, our descent of the winding drive to the riverside clearing couldn’t have been smoother. Phyllis, who collected us from the station, had invited us to spend a night at her family’s water mill. The once-dilapidated seventeenth-century mill had been restored by her father Bastiaan and he had also built several outhouses nearby for the children. We were to meet Bastiaan later, over afternoon tea.
By all accounts, Bastiaan had been a formidable man. Fluent in four languages, tall, handsome and athletic, this one-time German labour camp escapee had been an international lawyer and legal advisor to the European Commission for over a quarter of a century. Now aged 93, it is all very different. Over the last few years he has become increasingly confused and now has little memory, hardly recognises close family members and spends most of his time sitting silently in a wheelchair, or in bed. His moments of lucidity are now rare. Most of the time he needs to be looked after, or more precisely, nursed.
Tea was served in the large stone-paved ground floor room in the mill. We sat in front of a log fire. Soon, our hostess went to collect Bastiaan from his bedroom. When he had been asked earlier if he wished to come to tea, he had flatly refused but now, at the second time of asking, he was more compliant.
Bastiaan sat very upright in his wheelchair, a slim man with ruddy skin, a full head of silver hair and piercing blue eyes. When we were introduced he shook my hand with great firmness. I asked him how it was that his grip was so strong and, without a moment’s hesitation, he answered “rowing”. He added his other hand to our handshake and I was subjected to an extended two-handed squeeze during which time he looked at me intently and smiled warmly. It was as though he was grabbing on to me and, with that gesture, we bonded.
He was wheeled across the room to be closer to the fire. He kept looking over in my direction and soon indicated that he wanted to be wheeled back to my side. We shook hands again, in fact held hands, for what felt like minutes. I helped him drink his cup of tea and eat a biscuit, then helped him wipe clean his lips and fingers. He commented that I was bald and “like a pin” (hopefully, “as sharp as…”) but said little more than that. Speaking seemed such an effort, and the sense of what he said, with words from all of his four languages, was often indecipherable.
Soon he was wheeled back to his bedroom and his departure left me saddened. Our moment of bonding was quite special. Inside this husk of a man something had happened and something similar had happened inside me too. It wasn’t just me who felt that a closeness had occurred, others at tea had also noticed the way Bastiaan had warmed to this complete stranger. I felt both honoured and touched that he had identified with me; for a few minutes we had forged a most unexpected rapport.
Later that evening we all dined together but the closeness he had forged with me at tea was now forgotten. Our fleeting and almost intimate moment had passed. For his part, he will have gone back to being cared for in his now tragically diminished world. For my part, while the memory of our moment together has remained, I would soon return to the hustle and bustle of my everyday life.
After we left I found myself thinking of an event that had happened three days earlier. I was pacing up and down in the office of our local garage, waiting to collect our car. The woman at the desk looked irritated and asked why I was so impatient, adding, “Are you always in a hurry? Were you like this when you were born?” After some reflection I had to say, “Probably, yes,” adding how I was born a few days early, with my mother’s waters breaking unexpectedly while she was – or we both were – on a bus.
“So will you also be in a hurry when it comes to dying?” she asked.
That question was more difficult, but after a pause, I replied, “Yes.” As a passionate believer in assisted dying and feeling confident that by the time I reach that stage in my life I will have access to such assistance, I reckon that I would indeed chose to go before the bitter end. I am pretty sure that Bastiaan would think much the same.