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Leaving Earth

Friday morning, May 22nd, the alarm goes off at 06:00. We get up, get dressed, and head towards the Hei; the six of us, Papa, Rowena, Christiaan, Marjolein, Coen and I. Our last walk. A cloudy morning, but the temperature was soft. The Hei basically empty, save for a few dog walkers and two rabbits that hopped by.

The idea was for us to film moments of our walk, just like Rowie and my dad had done earlier that week. We hung the camera in a tree to film us strolling through the field, we had Coen film the five of us walking. After Rowie compiled all the footage and edited it at record speed, it was ready to be played on the TV that afternoon, meant to fill as comforting background footage and sound.

A big breakfast after taking a stroll on the Hei.

By 08:00 we were home and made a tasty breakfast, fresh croissants included. After that it was time to get showered and dressed in something colourful, cleaning up and preparing the house. There’d be twelve of us in the house later and wanted to ensure the space felt comfortable.

Once we were all showered and dressed in reds and blues, we headed to my dad’s bench to have a cappuccino and some apple pie. On Thursday, May 21st, the local government of Hilversum, due to the initiative of some friends, named the bench the Christiaan Caanen bench. It is recognised as a place where, in the times of COVID and having to keep distance, he said goodbye to his friends. This is the bench we have sat on daily throughout the past couple of months. The sun poked through the clouds as we enjoyed our morning coffee and apple-pie ritual.

Dad seeing his bench before leaving for a different world. This bench will forever be the Christiaan Caanen bench.

After we continued organising the house, making it look happy, filled with flowers and photos. My dad cancelled some last accounts, unable to disregard his urge to organise and help us out. He had already organised basically everything, prepared all information and documents we would need post-mortem. Now, in the aftermath as we start to organise the last few things, I am so grateful for his organisation. Besides existing and an occasional phone call, which has been exhausting enough, it feels like there is not much left for us to do.

Once everything was organised and ready, we took a moment with the six of us, before the arrival of the rest of the family. We opened a bottle of wine from 1958, which one of my dad’s closest and oldest friends had bought for him. A wine the same age as my dad. Unfortunately, when we opened it we quickly realised it had gone bad. Laughing about the situation, we switched over to a glass of cold champagne.

The wine from 1958, 62 years old.

Three o’clock. The church chimes its bells, loud and intense. The bells we usually hear every half-hour sound different today, like a heavy warning. Two hours left…

The family arrives, we check in with one another, see how everyone is doing. The only one that seemed incredibly calm was my dad himself. Half an hour later the ambulance arrives to prepare the IV in my dad’s arm. A strange sight.

Then, somehow, it’s a quarter to five. I don’t know where the time went, it felt like a giant blur. We go upstairs, my dad and the four of us. A last goodbye with just his kids. We tell him we love him, forever. He holds us tight one last time.

We head down the stairs and gather on the big, red couch, while my dad headed outside. The general practitioner asked him one final time if he was sure of his choice. But he was sure. He was ready.

He walked over to the couch, looking determined and calm. He took off his glasses and pointed to Marjolein, my eldest sister, implying “these are for you”. He sat down in his usual spot on the couch, his right arm, with the IV, on the arm rest. His left arm held eight hands on it. Rowena by his shoulder, Marjolein his upper arm, Christiaan his lower arm, and I held his hand. I held it tight with both my hands. As my dad looked around the room, calm and with love, the four of us held on a little tighter. “Dag lieverds” (goodbye dear ones). The sleep medication entered his veins, followed by a second dose to ensure he was in a deep sleep and would feel no pain. Then the final injection.

Off to another world.

It wasn’t the injections that felt like the hard part. My dad was calm, peaceful. This was what he wanted, how he wanted it. Surrounded by love as he goes off on a new adventure. This is how he wanted to leave Earth. After a rollercoaster of a life, experiencing deep lows and incredible high’s, he was now ready, serene.

The hard part for me was the two and a half hours afterwards. A third-party doctor had to come by, confirm everything went as it was supposed to. Then we had to call the funeral director, which somehow I managed to do. Then I went to lie next to my dad. He looked like he was asleep. As if it were any regular night of watching a movie and dozing off. But he wouldn’t be waking up anymore. That was the tough part. He looked so normal. He still felt warm too, except his fingers and his nose, but he wasn’t alive anymore. No more breathing, no more heartbeats.

I curled up by his shoulders and face, stroking his hair, kissing his head, continuing to talk to him as if he was still here. It’s strange, you imagine all these things about how you don’t want to see a dead person, don’t want to touch one, but then it happens and somehow it feels like the only natural thing to do, to be as near as possible for as long as it’s still possible. After this moment you will never get to see someone again. When the world isn’t admits a pandemic you get to make someone look pretty, you can have an open casket at the funeral, but currently these options aren’t as simple to undertake. In all honesty, I wouldn’t want to see him anymore anyways, not inside a coffin.

Eventually the team from the cemetery came to take him away. They were two incredibly professional but gentle men, dressed in suits, talking us through the whole process of moving my dad from the couch into the coffin. They explained how they would have to move him to the coffin and that they had to turn him facedown for a bit. For this I had to look away.

Once in the coffin, we got to decorate it. Photos, messages from each of us, a drawing from his grandson, two special coins. Then it was time to say our last goodbyes and close the coffin. I gave him a last kiss on his head. When we were little kids and my dad would bring us to bed or say goodbye at the airport, we’d always give “het laatste kusje” (the last kiss) a million times, now was no different. But after a final look, we closed the coffin and put in the screws ourselves. There were eight, so each of us put in two.

A few days prior, enjoying one another’s company.

It’s strange to write about it. It sounds so heavy, so odd to be doing an activity like that. But in the moment, it all feels so natural. You can imagine things before hand all you want on what you do and don’t want to see or do, but once you’re in the moment it is all different. It feels natural, something you don’t want strangers to do and you would rather do with your siblings. As if doing the action with love and warmth will give him better send off.

Then the tricky part. Getting the coffin out of the house and into the funeral van. The apartment is on the (European) first floor and the stairs leading up to it are already tricky when you’re wearing sneakers. Image with pointy suit-shoes while carrying a coffin. My brother, uncle, brother-in-law and two uncles-in-law helped the two professionals in carrying it down the steep staircase and into the van. They drove an extra round around the Kerkplein (the square by our house), us walking hand in hand behind it. Waving him off. Some dad’s closest friends came by and waited to see him off as well. Giving him flowers and shedding tears, providing warm hugs for us. Then the van left the square and turned the corner at the stoplight.

In that moment it felt like he was forever gone. We returned upstairs to the house. I went to take a hot shower, something to counter the shivering from the cold and the emotions. By the time I had showered most of the family was gone. Something I felt glad for, in that moment I didn’t feel the ability to communicate, no desire to talk with anyone.

My siblings had gone for a stroll so I decided to clean up, my aunt helping me. I needed something to do to take my mind off of everything. Some simple busy work. After cleaning up I went back upstairs and curled up in my dad’s bed. My head aching from the crying, my body feeling physically sick from all the emotion. I called someone I love, needing to hear a comforting voice who I know can always cheer me up. When I almost fell asleep, around 21:00, my sister came to get me from upstairs and we shuffled down the stairs together, joining my other two siblings and my brother-in-law outside.

There we were. And somehow in that moment, after my tsunami of sadness, I felt calm and loved. I was surrounded by the people who have infinite love for me, with whom I just shared one of the most impactful experiences of my life. We talked about dad, we laughed about dad. We looked back at how the day had gone and realised that it had been beautiful. It was what he had wanted. He did it his way.

A family polaroid from that morning; dad and his kids.

The next morning was quiet. We all slept nearly eleven hours, until 09:00, and then slowly got up and made some coffee. No one hungry for breakfast. We looked through the folder my dad had prepared for us regarding documents we needed and people we had to call, and divided up some of the small tasks. Then Marjolein and Coen headed to Eindhoven, eager to be with their kids again.

At 11 AM the cappuccino and apple-pie ritual continued. This time just the three of us on the bench, Rowie, Christiaan, and I, but we saved a space for dad.

The morning after, flowers and coffee with dad.

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