Before I moved from America, I had noticed that I was going to more funerals than ever before. If not going, then I was sure knowing more of the names on the obituary page. That is a predictable fact that as we age, so do our friends. The more friends you have, the greater chance that you will have friends with illness and then also lose some friends as well. I did know in my emotional preparation for the big move, that there was a likely chance that I would not see some people again. People who were much older than me, might not be around by the time I could come back for a visit. And I was right. Since moving to the Netherlands, I have lost friends to illness, mainly to cancer. Some deaths have been very hard to accept, especially long distance.

What I did not expect was that I would face this same situation here. I have made new friends here and have also been fortunate enough to be included into a wonderful family. My new family are warm, generous and extraordinarily kind. When I moved here two and a half years ago, I met Uncle John and we became instant friends. He knew a little English and he and I were able to have some really good conversations at family parties. When he found out that I was interested in the Second World War, we found a bond. He tried to educate me about the war and how it impacted the Dutch. He remembers, as a little boy, the airplanes flying over his home. He remembered so many specific things that it made me see the war in a whole new way. He was very proud of the town of the town of Borculo, where he lived.  It was because of Uncle John that I found out new details about the occupation of the Netherlands and how it devastated the Jewish population. He and I enjoyed each other’s company and he was always a pleasure to see. The first thing that I remember about Uncle John was that he spoke a little English and he tried so hard to talk with me. I loved that he made such an effort, it made my transition so much easier.

Uncle John died this past week and it is still shocking for me to even type this. He had been ill for a short time and then he quickly got weaker. We were told that he had only a matter of days to live, so this family of eleven traveled to his part of the country for the weekend to say farewell. All of us had special stories about Uncle John, and most of them were pretty funny. I, of course, knew him the shortest time, but I am so grateful that he was in my life.

I want to just share what happened the afternoon we had our final visit with him. He was going to receive the last rites. This is something I was not familiar with, as I am not a Catholic, but I have seen plenty of scenes in movies where this is done. This was not like the movies at all. We all got to speak privately with Uncle John and he was quite alert. As a matter of fact, he was quite charming. Uncle John is famous for being an excellent host and he was almost like a maître d’. Then the priest arrived and we all gathered in a semi-circle in this small room and watched to see what happened next. I found later that no one really knew what was going on either, but we knew to be quiet and let this young priest run the show. But really, Uncle John was in charge. He is a former priest. He told the priest in the middle of the ceremony that he had quit the priesthood because of the many stands that the church took that were opposite of John’s beliefs. He said: “I did not quit because of a young chickie, I left because I disagreed with the church.” We all smiled at that and the smart priest never interrupted.

We then were invited to lay our hands on top of Uncle John’s head. I am not sure what this meant, but we all did this. One at a time, we went to him and as we placed our hands on his head, we quietly spoke to him and he responded. I must say it was a beautiful moment for me and the others. It was so intimate and loving. Eleven people could say anything they wanted to him and no one could hear anyone else. Except we could all hear Uncle John, as his voice was loud and clear. Throughout these last rites, there were many smiles and laughter. And there was not a dry eye in the room. Most of us were crying most of the time, but John was strong and became our comfort. It was hard to believe that he was going to die, as he seemed so full of life. A few prayers were said, and then it was over. Uncle John wanted us all to have some coffee and tea that had been brought in for us. He could never stop being the host, even from his bed. We then all said goodbye or goodnight.

His sister and her husband came back later that night as they were told that he had gotten worse. They sat with him as he struggled to breathe. We were all called at 3:15am to get to the nursing home as the time had come. The place is five minutes away, but by the time we got there he had died. We all went in to see him, to touch him and to kiss him one last time. He was so still and he no longer had to fight for a breath.

In my first year here, Uncle John invited us to his beloved town of Borculo so that he could give us a historical tour. He was focusing on what happened in this town during the second world war. He and I had already discussed the history, so I had  a good sense of the town. In fact, I wrote two blogs about this visit called THE TOWN and THE TOWN, PART TWO. We were walking down a quiet cobblestone street, he and our son and me. A man walked by and greeted Uncle John. Our son looked up at Uncle John and said “are you the mayor of Borculo?” Uncle John seemed to get taller and a little puffed up, he smiled and shook his head no. I said “no, he isn’t, but he should be.” I think Uncle John floated on air for the rest of that walk.

I have lost a friend and a member of my family, but so many people have been touched by his life. He was so generous and kind to his friends and in love with life. He had a passion for good food, for classical and choral music, he was a very serious stamp collector and he loved his family. Over and over again, on his last day of life, he said “this is my family.” And we were all so proud to be part of a family that Uncle John was in. It was truly an honor to know him.

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  • Holly Anne  On August 12, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Blessings to you and your family on your loss. May God be with you.

  • Jean Langley  On August 13, 2013 at 2:42 am

    That was a beautiful story. You convey so well what a special person John was.

  • Cecile Cote  On August 13, 2013 at 3:16 am

    My condolences to you and all of Uncle John’s family and friends. Thank you for sharing this loving tribute. It touched me deeply.

  • Stan  On August 13, 2013 at 11:04 pm

    Hi Jane,

    I just got to this.  Very, very moving.  But if you’ve got to go – and we all do, I suppose — this is the way to do it!  What a man.



  • karyn  On August 15, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    What a wonderful commentary you have honoured him with. This needs to be printed out on fine parchment paper and stored for posterity. Don’t let it disappear into cyberspace.

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