Saturday, May 7, 2016

My Opa and my Struggle with Vulnerability

My Oma and Opa live in a gingerbread house. When I think about my visits there I taste cinnamon, spice and everything nice. They seem an unlikely pair. Opa smells like Fishermen Friends peppermints. He carries them in his pockets, a habit formed after he decided to quit smoking. He is a jolly man from Holland very keen on puns. He also has a defiant personality; a characteristic I’m told is typical of the Dutch. Oma is much more sensible and headstrong. She makes no show of pain. I watched her suffer through breast cancer and beat it: in my mind she is unwaveringly strong, never weak or faltering. Even now, as I write, Opa lies in hospital after more than a month with far too many problems to count, but Oma firmly believes in the next day and the improvement it may bring.

I told Opa that when he gets out of hospital we would have to make pannenkoeken and his face lit up. Pannenkoeken, a typical Dutch pancake, requires just flour, salt, egg, yeast and milk. The mixture is runny so it cooks into a thin disk, but simple additions transform it into the ultimate comfort food. Think: rich, nutty, gooey cheese and salty ham cooked into hot pannenkoeken. For something sweet, icing sugar and lemon juice.

When I was about twelve years old we spent an afternoon making them. We prepared the ingredients and read our recipe with acute precision, but despite our expectations things didn’t go to plan. No matter how hard we tried, our pannenkoeken turned out to be more like roerei (scrambled eggs), and it wasn’t until our last attempts that we produced a few perfect pancakes. But our dismal efforts were not in vain; rather, they became something we still joke about. That afternoon provoked the kind of laughter that could tone your stomach and make it sore for days; joviality that makes you laugh so much you cry.

This is what I love about food, how it creates lasting memories over shared preparation and consumption. It doesn’t matter if things go wrong in the kitchen. In fact that can sometimes be an integral part of the process; one you remember more than the meal itself.
Two years ago I wrote this piece for a creative non-fiction assignment at university.

Two years ago I left for France afraid that I would come home with my Opa no longer with us.

One year and 3 months ago, I was relieved to find that he was better; not the best he could be, but better than we could have hoped for.

Less than a year ago, I got the above piece published as a part of my full 'autobiography' in an anthology by a small independent press. I attended the launch party in Sydney and went back home to a very proud Opa. However, due to his deteriorating eyesight, he didn't get a chance to read it. I thought that one day I would read it to him.

Less than one month ago, I wish I did, because I'll now never get the chance to again.

I've been lucky to have not experienced much loss in my life. My nonna passed away many years before my Opa, but I always felt a little distant from her, due to language barriers. We were all anticipating my Opa's passing over the last couple of years, but it was still a shock when it happened. Nothing can prepare you for that.

My Opa was very special to me. Words can't describe how much I appreciate having had him in my life. I am lucky to have had him here for the time I did. It goes without saying that I was, am, devastated and yet, I have not cried in front of my family; nighttime is when the tears come. I fear that through this whole ordeal, I have appeared too insensitive, too positive. It seems like everyone is openly grieving but something is inherently preventing me from sharing my grief with them.

In a way, I have always struggled with vulnerability. I'm afraid of people seeing me in that state, and I think that boils down to my less than perfect childhood. Growing up with a chronic medical condition, I've learnt to deal with pain, and as I grew more, I became aware of the pain of loved ones when they saw me in pain. I've cultivated my own armor to protect myself, but also to protect the ones I love, and this has become the natural way of things. I suppress my emotions, I suppose without even forcibly doing so.

As much as they say that strength is an admirable quality to have, sometimes I wish I weren't so ashamed at the prospect of being vulnerable. I didn't want to do a reading at the funeral because I knew I couldn't handle it. I never read the above extract to my Opa because I knew that if I did, I would break down crying; that memory, such a seemingly simple thing, is so clear in my mind and it breaks my heart that I won't be able to make pannenkoeken with him again. I wish, more than ever, that I had just removed my armor, for once, and read those words to him.

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