Anton van der Jagt
my beloved Opa
March 12th 2016
Almost seven years to the day since Oma died.
His obituary was very nice, words to sum up a life. The funeral service was beautiful, the most beautiful I have witnessed
It is hard to say goodbye but much, much easier to say goodbye when the staying brings so much pain and difficulty while the going so full of promise and hope and healing.
When I got home from the funeral, I felt the sudden urge to buy orange flowers (which I did) in honor of him. And I scrounged some old photos I borrowed in order to make copies. Can I celebrate and share this man and his enormously large life with you?
After the funeral and while eating lunch, many people said many beautiful things in his memory.
When I first heard about Opa passing away I began writing- writing is therapeutic for me. I didn't know if I would be able to stand before a group of people and read it in my grief but, surprisingly, I was able to do it without blubbering at all.
This is what I said:
The day that Opa died was the day that my daughter Corynn’s chicken died. It was devastating to her that her beloved Pinecone would die and she sat on the couch, all weepy and forlorn about her chicken. I thought she was ridiculous that she would mourn so profoundly the loss of a chicken as I inwardly mourned the loss of my own dear Opa.
I admit I was a bit unsympathetic as I rebuked her for caring more about a silly farm animal than her own great-grandfather. And then she said something that was pretty revelatory. She said “Mama. I only knew Opa as the man who said I looked like a ‘nice-looking girl’.”
Wow. A sucker punch to my soul.
It’s true- as Alzheimers progressed and his memories became more and more elusive, he himself grew more and more clever at disguising his forgetfulness with generic terms like “M’lady” and “You’re a smart cookie” and “You look like a nice boy...” With each passing season and each subsequent visit, Opa had lost a bit of himself, a bit of his greatness, until he was merely a shadow of who he once was.
Long life is a great gift from God…but the tragedy of time is that those promised generations that you have helped create, those branches and shoots of children and grandchildren and great grandchildren cannot know the vibrant and glorious and capable person behind the dull eyes and the tired bones and the weak muscles. They cannot see the passions, the playfulness, the principles, the experiences, even the little idiosyncrasies that drive a person to be singularly their own.
I cannot blame Corynn for not cherishing Opa…Corynn had no opportunity. Even I, as his tomboy granddaughter, didn’t often take the time as a young girl (when I did have the opportunity) to cherish who he was. And when I grew wise enough to realize I wanted to know him, I had grown into a woman who had a husband and a household and a gaggle of children to care for and exponentially less opportunity to take the time to do so.
The man who was confined by lack of strength and fog of memory in the nursing home, that shadow of a man, is not the man who Opa was and I choose not to remember him that way.
For my childrens’ sake, and my own, let me tell you who I knew Opa to be.
I know that he was adventurous and brave. Not the kind of pseudo-adventure and bravery we find so often today, seeking opportunities out like skydiving or mountain climbing but the kind of adventure that doesn’t need being sought after but find you anyway. The kind of adventure that forces you to hide inside a church organ, escaping death in order to continue the work of helping those persecuted Jews flee to safety during World War II. The kind that causes you to leave your family, your country, your home and everything familiar to you in order to make a better life for your family. The kind of adventures that beget bravery.
I know he loved fiercely. He adored his ‘Bep’ and remained faithful and steadfast to her every day of their 62 years together and beyond. He brought her flowers every single week and would steal kisses as Oma scolded.
I know he loved truth and fought for it, debated it, sought it, reflected it. He was intensely proud of his children.
He sipped tea with a handled cup atop a porcelain saucer and stirred with a dainty spoon. He walked miles and miles...on all sorts of days, in all sorts of weather. “Fresh air is good for you!” His stride was hard to match; his long legs were quick and steady and strong.
He sat with knees crossed like a Dutch gentleman, not at all like the other, American men I knew. His smile lit up his whole face and his laughter filled up a room. He spoke with that wonderfully foreign Dutch brogue and the beauty of those sounds is one I will miss tremendously.
He would debate and discuss and ask you questions and then wait…wait…wait for you to have an answer (that he could then refute). He made you think things through, even when doing so made you squirm.
He was a storyteller and could spin a tale as if it was nothing at all. I loved reading the Escape and The Secret Mission and took such pride in knowing that it was MY grandfather who had written them...real books! He left a piece of himself in the books that he has written and the stories he has told.
His life was an adventure story of epic proportions. Son of shoestore owner defies evil dictator, works in an underground movement risking life and limb for the sake of humanity, leaves home and nation for a land of freedom and plenty for his children, works tirelessly with a team to create a lens for the Hubble telescope- a scientific breakthrough for the whole world to glance higher up and further in to God’s glorious masterpiece.
As C.S.Lewis once said… “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”
Opa’s life was full, his accomplishments were many, his legacy is great. He was a good and faithful servant.
It was so heart-breaking in the end, he did not even know or remember those things about himself. Alzheimer’s robbed him of his memories and of his past and truly, of who he was as a person. He couldn’t console himself that he had lived a long life and lived it well. With no past to remember and no future to anticipate, it became, in the end, simply a time of waiting to die.
He didn’t remember then what he knows now. That death is not the end…but rather, the very beginning. He lives again.
This moment…this very moment…He lives. And because of Christ in his life, he is smiling. He is overcome with wonder. With joy. He is reunited with Oma, with his family, with his brothers and sisters in Christ. He is in the presence of God, his father. His strength is renewed. His mind is more clear than every possible even at the height of his life. That wonderful laughter of his is filling the heavens.
It is not true of everyone who dies, but it is gloriously true for those who seek after and live for Christ. For those who understand the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. And Opa emphatically did.
While I mourn the loss of Opa for myself, for my mom, for his children and loved ones, all of us here today who have been touched by him in some way... I rejoice with him, knowing that his joy has finally been made complete. He is living his reward…and he will, for all eternity.
To quote Lewis once more, Opa is “beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
I’m so happy for him.