When I enter the room, he calls my name. I’ve never known that just this can be enough to be happy for a moment. It is evidence of his presence in the present, with us. But he is tired and confused. The only thing he keeps saying when he’s asked or suggested something, is ‘good night’. He annunciates it in the same, somewhat imperatival way as in the past, when he thought it was time to go to bed and we weren’t initiating yet. That is his text for today and he repeats it with great persistence and with emphasis on the first word. It isn’t much, but i’d rather hear that than quick prayers. With this, one could have thoughts of wanting to say goodbye, or as far as i’m concerned a request to be left alone.
When he wakes up from a short sleep, he indicates that he wants to be helped up. He can no longer do this by himself. Yesterday he made it to the side of his bed, when he tried for a last time to escape from the bed pan and the bottle and make it to the bathroom by himself. We lift him up and put him in a chair by the bed.
‘It is so far away,’ he says with eyes wide open. I don’t know which distance he means; he doesn’t offer explanation. With my arm around his shoulder, because i’m emotional and because I don’t want to see him fall forward again and again, I carefully try and talk with him.
‘Did you sleep?’
‘Did you dream?’
‘Did you see someone?’
‘Nobody.’ He pronounces it a bit plaintive and disappointed.
My brother calls out that I should stop it and starts to cry. He can’t take it anymore. Neither can I, really, but I think I have to, for I want to know what he experiences and be involved in his visions. He sighs deeply and gives no further answers. I almost feel that as a reproach for my indiscreet questions.
My soul, and probably those of all of us, is composed of his sighs. With those he spoke the most imperatival and inevitable language. All of the tiredness, disappointments and reproaches that his fatherhood brought him, were expressed in them. I remember a vacation day at the beginning of the war. I went to the field where he was starting to mow the wheat. Sighing, he put down the sickle. Without getting up all the way, with one hand touching his painful side, he hobble to the side of the field. There was a blue enamelled can of cold tea in the shadow of a bush there. He twisted off the lid and poured it full. Only then did get get all the way up. With a pallid look he took in his work. Hesitatingly his lips, grey with stubble, laid a ring against the sharp edge of the lid. He rinsed the tea long and loudly in his mouth before he gulpingly swallowed it. Again he sighed, this time to indicate that a new phase of a tiring job had to begin. While he used the sleeve of his smock to wipe the sweat of his brow, I realised again that I wouldn’t be able to heartily respond to the question that had to come and was in effect already asked with that sigh.
‘So, Cornelis’ he would say; he’d always use that formal name if he wanted to hide his intentions, , a form of mischief that had become a clear code throughout the years, ‘so, Cornelis, would that not be a nice job for you?’ He remained hopeful that one day i’d start to think of the work as nice. The wheat that he had sown had to be bound. Because I was on holiday and therefore had seas of time, because I was still young of body and limbs and could bend down well, because I already costed so much and could do something in return, for all those reasons i’d heard from others, it was obvious I should join in. A good son helps his father with his work, that goes without saying. But he never commanded. It might sound nonsensical, but I would have been grateful for a command from him, for one unambiguous command in my whole life. I never had a command, nor a slap or a direct reply. All it ever was were propositions, suggestions and reproachful sighs. I hated to stupid coincidence that precisely children of farmers always got involved in their dad’s work and that they were judged by their willingness to do so, but I also knew that he hated the work of a farmer as much as I did. It was thrust upon him by his lineage and his irrevocable fate. That’s why I could only after a long time of practise get a careful refusal from my lips, and that one still got punished from within with painful guilt, the answer to his sighs.
But that afternoon I didn’t let it get that far. I think my guilt had driven me to that field. Even before father had closed his can, i’d already bend over for the first sheaf. I saw him smile apologetically.