THURSDAY, October 22, 2009
15:50 ‘Papa, you have to come. Mom’s had an accident.’ Sander calls me at work. ‘She was hit by a motor cycle cop,’ is all he’ll say. All he can say. I have to come right away.
16:10 On the way, Sander gives me more details. How they had gone to our local park with Elsa, our new dog. Elsa had dropped a toy and Jennifer had gone back to get it. While in the crosswalk she was knocked down by a police motor cycle.
16:15 ‘Mom is on the way to the Amsterdam Medical Center in an ambulance,’ Sander reports. The hospital is my next exit driving from Hilversum. Oma has been notified and she’s on her way to Amsterdam. To be on the safe side.
17:00 I have Jennifer admitted to the hospital. Her information dates from the early nineties when she was living with me in the suburbs of Amsterdam. While biking her tire got trapped in the train rails and she fell. Her fractured foot was encased in a purple cast. Her first name is misspelled: Jenefer. I correct the mistake.
17:10 An ambulance nurse comes over to reassure. It was a nasty smack, she said, but everything’s going to be all right. I feel the tears coming. Relief. She goes to get me a glass of water.
17:35 Jennifer emerges from the first-aid post. I’m shocked by her appearance, but I don’t let on. There’s an enormous bandage around her head, but she’s conscious and looks at me in a kind of daze. I take her hand and say, ‘Hi honey. It’s all going to be okay.’ She asks me what happened. I tell her about the motorcycle cop. She looks back at me, slightly dazed.
18:15 Pain, excruciating pain. She throws up. Understandable, with a severe concussion. I’m more worried about the basal skullfracture. It’s small, but still… The blood coming from her ears strikes me as suspicious. The nurse in the neurology department has her doubts, as well, and has her transferred to Medium Care.
18:30 I call her parents in the United States. Try to explain as factually as possible what happened. I stress that everything’s going to be all right and there’s no reason for them to rush over to Holland. There’ll be time enough to consider that later.
19:00 The pain persists, but Jennifer remains conscious. We talk softly, not saying much, since I don’t want to tire her. I wash her face, clean up the vomit that keeps coming. The stickers intended to monitor her heart rhythm keep falling off because she moves around too much. The pain.
21:15 You really must leave now. ‘Visiting hours are over,’ says the nurse, to my consternation. I protest. I want to stay with her. But I know the boys are waiting for me at home. ‘Trust me. She’ll get the best possible care here.’
21:25 I give Jennifer a gentle kiss on the forehead. I love you, I say, and the children love you. She looks at me. I kiss her on the mouth, which is twisted in pain. I love you all, she says. Everything is going to be all right, I whisper. I promise to come back tomorrow morning. And the children will be there in the afternoon. When she’s feeling a bit better.
22:15 I stop the car at the intersection of Stadion Road and Diepenbrock Street. The remains of the red and white police tape are still hanging from trees and light posts. On the asphalt, just beyond the crosswalk, I see the contours of a body outlined in white. That’s where Jennifer was thrown to the ground. Just like the crime scenes you see in police series on TV.
22:45 Sander reconstructs the accident for me. On paper, with different colored felt pens. That’s his way of dealing with it. I don’t say anything, but I’m horrified by the details. Eamonn wants to go to bed. He’s tired, but anxious. I tell them everything’s going to be all right. That’s what they told me. And I believe them.
23:50 I call the hospital. Everything is fine, given the circumstances. I have no trouble falling asleep.
FRIDAY, October 23
4:40 The phone rings. They want me to come to the hospital, as quickly as I can. Ms Nolan’s condition has worsened.
4:55 It’s foggy and still dark as I turn onto the highway. The hospital is only ten minutes away. I slam my hand against the roof of the car and start shouting. ‘This is not going to happen! ‘This is NOT going to happen!’ I curse and curse and curse.
5:40 But it is happening, I think to myself, as the neurologist comes out of the operating room to bring me up to date. Hemorrhaging in the cerebellum, loss of consciousness, resuscitated, X-rays taken, now on the operating table. And yes, Mr. Overdiek, the situation is life-threatening.
5:55 A strange calm comes over me. I call her parents. It’s not quite midnight over there. I give them the facts and tell them to come as quickly as possible. The bewilderment on the other end of the line is tangible. I must make it clear to them. I hear myself say that I am ‘extremely concerned’.
6:20 In the waiting room, on top of a table, I assume the lotus position. I meditate, with Jenn in my thoughts. Inhale, exhale. My thoughts permit me to think of the motorcycle cop. No anger, no rage, just thoughts of her and thoughts of her. I try to suppress him for a moment, but I can’t.
7:15 I call my mother and tell her that the children have to come to the hospital. For now, all they need to know is that Mom’s been operated on. I make a round of calls to friends, to let them know how grave the situation is. Disbelief. The phone calls are necessary to convince me that this is really happening. I still don’t believe it, but I know better.
8:30 The curtain slides open. ‘Oh, dear Jennifer, my dear, dear Jennifer,’ I murmur. She’s in intensive care, hooked up to various machines. She’s in a deep coma, her head quite still, and her eyes half-closed. ‘Dear, dear Jennifer,’ I whisper, as I sit down next to the bed and hold her hand. ‘I love you. You know that, don’t you?’
8:55 A nurse hands me a plastic bag with Jennifer’s rings. Wedding band, engagement ring, her funky mood ring – dark now.
9:45 The boys have arrived. I explain what’s going on with Mom and tell them that there is a fifty percent chance that she’ll wake up. That means that it’s possible that Mom won’t wake up. Be clear and honest with the children, that’s what I resolve. Eamonn and Sander look scared. Eamonn has a drawing with him. Graceful letters: Get well soon, Mom! We miss you.
9:50 They look mainly at the devices, the screens, the tubes in her mouth, her nose, her arm. The nurse explains what they’re for. Then, they take her hand, very gently.
12:00 Lunch in the hospital. A policeman calls, it’s the criminal investigator who’s conducting the police inquiry. He wants to know how things are. He’s shocked to hear that Jennifer is in a coma. That changes everything, he says.
12:45 Oma and the boys go home. No use waiting around in the hospital. What are we waiting for? The question shoots through my head and I know the answer. They shouldn’t be there then or should they? What is the procedure? I don’t know.
13:00 Parents and brothers do everything in their power to get a flight from Philadelphia to Amsterdam tonight.
13:30 The doctor tells me chances are diminishing that Jennifer will awake from her coma. Because she’s in excellent health, they are giving her another 24 hours. She’ll have to wake up on her own, but we have no idea what the extent of the damage is. This means that if she does wake up, we don’t know what she will be like. A brain haemorrhage makes a different person out of you. I don’t care. Just as long as she’s a living human being.
15:00 Five percent, they say. No neurological response. I know enough.
16:31 The medical team is waiting for me One of them tells it like it is. Jennifer is brain-dead. I ask my questions. I want to know whether there is any chance that… Whether that is one hundred percent certain… Whether the person who’s brain-dead isn’t in some way alive… No, she is brain-dead, and that means you’re really dead. ‘We live and learn’ shoots through my head.
16.31 I turn the switch in my head, and start thinking about the children. About her parents and brothers who are already on their way. Then the doctor asks about organ donation. I prick up my ears. Yes, I say, we’re both donors. But, I immediately add, ‘I want the family to be able to say their goodbyes. If that interferes with the transplant operation, so be it.’ No problem: the body must first be ‘optimalized’. I can’t suppress a wry laugh… optimalized.
16:45 I reach Sander on his cell phone. He’s at a friend’s house. I want you to go home and then come to the hospital. Why, He wants to know. I say, ‘Come right away’, without elaborating.
18:20 They walk down the corridor, Oma in the middle. Uncle Hans and Aunt Lilian are waiting for them. I immediately take the boys into a waiting room and close the door. This moment is for the three of us alone.
18:21 I take Eamonn on my lap. Sander sits next to me. ‘Guys, I am so sorry to have to tell you that Mom is not going to wake up anymore. I am so sorry.’ We cry and cry. Me too, and Eamonn looks up, a little surprised. Then he continues. Crying. Crying.
18:35 We sit down on Jennifer’s bed. She’s been moved to a separate room. I invite the boys to say something to her. To tell her how much we love her. Say our words of farewell or whatever comes to you. Can she still hear us? Eamonn asks. No, I say, but maybe she can. I just don’t know any more.
19:00 We’ve said enough. We plant kisses on her face, which is strangely contorted. Just go home, I say.
20:30 I call her parents. Grandma is alone. Grandpa’s gone to pick up her medicine for the flight to Holland. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry’ is all I can say. It’s the only thing to say when there’s nothing but silence on the other end of the line.
21:30 A handful of friends and family members have come by. I pace up and down the corridor, in and out of her room. Sit down next to her, and then get up again. She hasn’t moved a millimeter. There isn’t the slightest change in her facial expression. She is simply nothing. I want to go home to my boys.
22.15 Eamonn is already in my bed. I help Sander to drag his mattress into our room. We quickly fall asleep. We don’t have much to say.
SATURDAY, October 24
8:00 I call the funeral director. She wants to know if three o’clock this afternoon is convenient. Yes, three o’clock is fine. See you then.
8:15 Again I lose my way in the immense hospital. Want to be on time, before the in-laws arrive. I start to run. Have to make sure she looks all right. The nurse is washing Jennifer. She’s wearing nothing but her thong and there are scarcely any injuries on her body. Together we rub her cheeks. It’s as if she’s asleep; she looks so much better than the evening before. I consider bringing the boys back to the hospital thinking maybe that would make it easier to say goodbye? I immediately reject the idea.
8:30 Hair combed, new bandage on the part of her head that’s been shaved. My in-laws come in. I step aside and see dismay and despondency on all their faces. Father collapses into a chair. And shakes his head. Mother doesn’t take her eyes off her daughter’s face. The brothers support their mother, and stare stoically at their sister. In some strange way I feel guilty.
9:15 The family has questions. Many questions. The head of the IC unit replies in a gentle voice, even when the brothers lose their temper. Frustration on all sides and I cry softly along with them.
10:00 The transplantation operation has been postponed. First, all their questions must be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. A neurosurgeon and a neurologist are called in.
10:15 The kitchen store calls me on my cell phone. Didn’t my wife and I have an appointment at nine-thirty to pick a new kitchen? Where are we?
10:50 Three physicians, four angry brothers, two despairing parents, a ‘widower’ who allows the word to sink in but doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel. Another barrage of critical and sometimes accusatory questions. Calm, detailed answers. Resignation.
11:30 Then, one by one the family members say their goodbye to Jennifer. I’m last. I promise everything I can think of. Eternal love. Sounds like a cliché. I kiss her face. Again, and again and again.
11.50 No, we decide not to wait until the operation is over. Better this way. As we leave, we are told that the official time of death was 1:15 early this morning, when the police pathologist established that Ms Nolan was indeed dead.
11:55 He is insisting, this policeman who identifies himself on the phone as a support officer. It’s someone else who wants something from me. Come back on Monday, it’s not a good moment… but that doesn’t work. He says it’s important that he and his colleague come by as soon as possible. I say okay.
13:00 I’m sitting at the table with two officers who serve as liaisons between the police and victims. They offer to deal with any questions I may have. They have an urgent request. Since it was not a natural death, Jennifer would have to be identified by me and by someone else. It’ll be the following morning, it’s decided.
14:30 The Nolans are at our place. My boys cannot suppress a certain sense of excitement, which is fine.
15:00 A tall woman with wavy blond hair speaking with a trained, though heavy and solemn voice places a large book on the table. She announces that we have approximately two hours of work ahead of us. It occurs to me that for an undertaker she is extremely attractive. Without further ado, I opt for the simple wooden casket. I learn to my surprise that the casket will also be incinerated.
17:30 People come in, then leave. I can’t take it anymore. Am totally beat. The cremation is all arranged, down to the last detail; although, not within the promised two hours.
17:45 The transplantation lady called to let me know that everything had gone well. Fortunately, she does not go into raptures. She enumerates the organs that were removed, and I dutifully write them down: Lungs. Liver. Kidneys. Pancreas. Heart valves. Not the heart itself, as it had suffered too much damage. She promises to keep me posted.
18:20 The local news station interviews a spokesman for the police, who makes it known that they have extended their condolences to the family which is news to me. At the top of my To Do list, I write: ‘Get a lawyer’.
SUNDAY, October 25
10:15 It doesn’t have to take long, the detective says. We go to the mortuary in the hospital which is a small windowless room. Jennifer is lying on a stretcher, wrapped in sheeting, her eyes closed. The only thing that’s going through my head is ‘Now she’s a corpse’. A corpse, Goddammit! As requested by law, my brother-in-law and I declare aloud that this is indeed ‘Jennifer Mary Nolan, known to them while alive’, and then sign the formal papers attesting to that fact.
11:30 No time to lose. Names and addresses for the mourning cards. The text of the obituary – not to mention clothes, make-up and jewelry. I can’t swing it. It’s all too much for me. I just can’t swing it. But I can… thanks to two dear friends.
13:15 ‘Fabulous’ is the motto. She’s gotta look fabulous. So E and I go through her wardrobe, pick out a bright red dress, matching heels, vivid lipstick and beautiful underwear. I have to admit it was wickedly fun.
14:00 People come by, stay a while, and then leave. In the meantime I email the latest news to friends and acquaintances. And compose the text for the obituary in the newspaper. I opt for Ripped from Life. and She was a Sparkling Human Being. Also a quote from the Dalai Lama.
19:00 We actually manage to find a table for our party of eight at Fidelio’s, our neighborhood restaurant. The four of us have dinner here every Sunday, I say to Grandma. Or rather … the four of us had dinner here every Sunday.
MONDAY, October 26
7:00 It’s in the newspaper, so it must be true. We’re inundated by emails and text messages. The telephone rings constantly, but I don’t pick up. That’s what voicemail is for.
13:00 Sander wants to tell his friends at school himself. He doesn’t even want me to come along. Not an option, of course. Together we meet with the principal, teachers, and then we go to his classroom, where everyone is assembled. Sander recounts the events in detail, and then asks if there are any questions. A fucking press conference, I think. What the fuck?!?
15:30 E and I go to look at Jennifer. Make sure she looks presentable. She does. But again I realize that what I’m looking at is no more than a corpse with clothes on. Goddamnit! And the rings are on the wrong hand.
16:00 Another visit from the ‘family investigators’. They reveal new details about the accident and about the motorcycle cop, who wants to get in touch with me. In any case he’s written a letter, which he hopes will reach me. Ask me this again after the cremation, I say. At the moment I’m not able to give him a rational and honest answer.
19:30 I bike over to the Buddhist Center, where Jennifer had her Monday evening class. I take a few pictures with me. We meditate together. It’s probably hard for you to concentrate, someone remarks. Not really, I hear myself say. A sense of absolute calm has come over me.
TUESDAY, October 27
9:30 I’m back at school, to hear what they can do for the boys. There is a team available which is reassuring and they give me the name and phone number of a British psychologist – a female therapist who specializes in family loss, and who happens to live in our neighborhood. I make an appointment for Friday morning.
10:45 I confer with my criminal lawyer. She immediately goes into action, notifying the Public Prosecutor that we are formally the aggrieved party, and therefore have access to all files. Which puts my mind at rest. Then, there’s the legal advice, in connection with a possible civil suit. All that can be dealt with later; but, I don’t want the police organization to take the lead. Suspicion is rearing its head.
15:00 We walk to the funeral home. I go in first, to see if everything is in order. All is as it should be. The rings are on the correct hand, but now they’re on the wrong fingers. I decide not to get upset. ‘Let it go,’ I hear Jenn say with a smile. Her parents are shocked at the sight of their daughter. Too confronting. ‘This isn’t Jennifer,’ Grandma stammers. I have the name plate on the door to the chapel changed. My wife’s name was not Mrs. Overdiek-Nolan, but simply Jennifer Nolan.
17:00 – The program for the funeral service has been finalized. Music. Lots of music, for and by her friends. Speeches. Sander wants to say something, and in any case he’ll be playing the piano. Eamonn butts in. He wants to say something, too. I don’t discourage him.
WEDNESDAY, October 28
7:00 Eamonn is standing at the top of the stairs holding his typed speech when I get back from the morning walk with Elsa. I read his story and give him a hug, amid my tears. Beautiful. It says exactly what he’s feeling, exactly the way it is. For him, for all of us, but especially for his mother.
18.30 The wake allows people to offer their condolences. The line is long. Her brothers and mine are there, representing both families. The parents have stayed home. Sander and Eamonn are there, too. Eamonn soon heads back home, but not before placing one last drawing in the casket. I’m surprised, pleasantly surprised, by the presence of several friends from the United States, London, and Geneva. Sander and I smile at her one last time. And then the coffin is closed.
THURSDAY, October 29
7:30 I finally decide on a suit. With a tie, for the occasion. I’ve made another decision, which I present to the children: we are going to hold our heads high. The ceremony is going to be a celebration of her life, not a sad commemoration of her death. That’s one thing I’m sure of.
And a celebration it is.
FRIDAY, October 30
9:00 Brothers and friends fly back to the States. This weekend our guestroom is occupied by one of Eamonn’s friends and his mother. Jenn’s parents take it easy. The anesthesia has worn off. As for me, I can almost literally feel the adrenaline ebbing out of my body.
10:30 We’re in the office of the psychologist. For the boys it’s all a bit strange. Never mind. Better to lay the foundations now so that, if necessary, we can reap the rewards later.
SATURDAY, October 31
10:15 Another huge pile of mail. I open the letters, one at a time. And suddenly, there it is: a letter from the motorcycle cop – contrary to the agreement. I read it once, and then again. I’m angry and sad. I try to calm down. I send him an email and call my lawyer.
14:15 I get a phone call from an editor at the weekly magazine Elsevier. I’m surprised to hear that they are planning to write an obituary, and above all honored. Haltingly, I talk about her life – and our life together.
SUNDAY, November 1
The day progresses. In the evening Sander, Eamonn and I are alone in the house for the first time since the accident. So, this is what it’s going to be like from now on. I look around me. It’s hard to imagine. Everywhere there are flowers and cards. Some of the bouquets are beginning to wilt.
MONDAY, November 2
9:15 If you want us to stay, just say so. It was kind of them to offer, but it’s better for them to just fly home. I drop the boys off at school and take Jenn’s parents to Schiphol Airport. I want to pick up our lives and get back into some kind of daily routine, whatever that may be.
10:07 – I sit down at the dining room table and begin to write. My hand is shaking.