My father-in-law is in the hospital. He has multiple medical concerns, perhaps the greatest being the state of his lungs after a lifetime of cigarettes. But the most disconcerting thing is his dementia and decay of mind.
A dedicated farmer, “Opa” began his life in Friesland (northern Netherlands). He has always claimed that he started work at the age of three. I’m not quite sure what exactly that looked like, or how true it was, but it is true he did not live long before he was helping on the family farm.
He milked sheep outside and hated it. They were wet and smelly, and it seems he did the job alone. (Sheep milk is used to make cheeses such as ricotta or feta. I am not sure if the Dutch made sheep-milk gouda. Can anyone tell me?) (
The oldest of 11 children, he carried much responsibility, including when he immigrated to Canada as a young man, with other family members, taking over financial responsibilities and other things for his father.
When I entered the scene, years later, he and his brothers were living on successful, thriving farms, or operating other successful agricultural businesses like potatoes and apples. He himself had pigs, which he did not really enjoy, but which gave a steady income prior to the sharp decline in pork prices in the 1990s. He also had Holsteins, his true love.
The birthday parties when all the brothers and sisters were united were noisy, joyous occasions. The longer the celebration was, the louder it got- the stories became more boisterous, the tales of the past more adventurous. My husband and I would hear crazy stories of these Boys in Friesland with their wild horses. They were reckless, bold, and not afraid.
We heard stories of Opa being dragged down a cobblestone street full-speed by a runaway Friesian horse. We heard stories of him as a teenager, having to walk miles to deliver their best horses for World War II service, and how heartbreaking that was. To this day, he loves a fine Friesian.
But as I mentioned earlier, his true love is Holstein cattle. He spent years milking them, studying and developing pedigrees and good genetic strains. His office is decorated with colourful ribbons won in many competitions and classes. He got out of bed every day, eager to spend time with his cows. In the evening, on his cot, he would fall asleep, Holstein Journal opened in front of him.
He was smart and shrewd, a sharp businessman, which did not always win him favour. But he knew his stuff and wasn’t afraid to dicker. I heard more than one business transaction get heated over the years that I was on the farm with my husband.
In 2012, one of his Holsteins, Friesia Goldwyn Lainey, won significant prizes in various prestigious competitions:
Which brings me to the title of this post- Tissues & Tears.
Opa has dementia, the mysterious decay of the brain. It means he has days where he does not know where he is, what he is doing, or what he is saying. He wants to get out of bed, but is not really able to. He sees things that we don’t. Yesterday he kept saying there’s water coming in, mice and rats are running, the hay will get wet, there’s water coming in…
I wish I knew the story behind that.
He also spent time yesterday taking every Kleenex out of the box- swoosh, swoosh, swoosh- methodically, one by one. Then he tried stuffing them all back in. This story brings tears to my 18-year-old daughter’s eyes. It has always been a family joke that she did the same thing when she was 18-months-old and I was napping on the couch.
It is very hard to see someone you love become frail and helpless. To see the strong become weak. To hear the garbled words of someone who could earlier play with words. To feel strong and vibrant next to vulnerability.
Tissues and tears.
We love you, Opa.