4: Missing the little things.

When I was 14 or 15, my uncle Frans came to spend Christmas with my family on our farm. He was a complete novelty to us, this big Dutch sport and candy loving uncle of ours. We opened our presents on December 24 as was our tradition, and I asked my uncle to tell me all the names of the things we were opening in Dutch and I’d parrot them back to him.

I announced that I was going to learn Dutch and his response was “Don’t. It’s a useless language.”

I was a dumb teenager and needless to say, learning Dutch was a passing whim that never evolved beyond learning swear words.

And it’s also something I regret.

My aunt Maud, uncle Frans, Mum in Holland.
My aunt Maud, uncle Frans, Mum in Holland.

When Mum died, we spent a few days going through her stuff, sorting, donating and sharing. We found a box of old letters that she had written to her mum when she was a new mother and beyond. They are all in Dutch, in her somewhat illegible hand. Maybe when my Omi died, mum went there to sort her things, too? I can’t remember. Somehow, she ended up with this box that her Mother saved and that we found buried under stuff.

About 6 months ago, Dad relinquished this box to me. When I got it, I scoured the internet for an over-priced Dutch/English dictionary and began to chip away at what I could. It isn’t easy: Mum writes in a shorthand that she and my Omi shared (much like all mother-daughters, I think). Sometimes, I can’t even decipher the words. I had these grand plans of sitting down one afternoon and powering through, but that’s just silly.


So I take it bit by bit. When I have a bit of time, I take a letter (generally undated, but I can sort of guess when it was written based on the contents) and I work out what I can. It’s not precise science. But it’s a glimpse into a lifetime of raising children and living her life and sharing it with her Mum.

I have a folder in my inbox full of emails between Mum and myself. I still can’t bring myself to read them. It’s still too hard.

Sometimes, the Letters Project makes me extra sad and I put the letters aside for weeks. Other times, I tackle it like an assignment. But above all, it makes me long so much for the little things we used to share as mother-daughter. I miss her notes, her advice, her scoffs. I miss getting emails title “Alo Smotje”… our own shorthand, untranslatable.

September used to be my favourite month. Birthdays, Labour day, renewals, autumn… That’s no longer the case. I think September kind of sucks.

“Oh my God, I’m becoming my mother!”

Don’t I wish.

I’m noticing more and more that we share traits. I am a worrier, like she was. Sometimes, I will look down and notice that my hands rest in the same position hers did. I sip my wine like she did. But I don’t have an ounce of the strength she did. I don’t know how she did it.


The kids and I talk about Omi quite a lot. Will remembers her, Anja claims to. I think they carry more the idea of her than the actual memories. My job is to keep those ideas alive, to share stories and my own memories.

4 years now. 4 years since I (we) lost my guide. 4 years during which our family has grown around her memory and her missing presence. 4 years since much of our family life was dictated by cancer. We don’t talk about her too often. When we do, we always share a laugh and a smile. I still wait for the sadness and the longing to fade. It’s not as acute; it’s more of a fuzzy outline to my day-to-day life that comes and goes. And yet, sometimes it can still completely take my breath away.

Maybe one day, I will finish the letters. Maybe one day, I will be able to share them. Will they be on interest to anyone else? Probably not. But it’s a tangible link to someone I miss so very much. My own guidebook, if you will. A glimpse into a life I miss being a part of. More memories and ideas to share with my children. A salve for the regret I feel at not having taken the time to delve deeper when she was alive. I take comfort in knowing the words and stories are there for me and my family.

I can’t be possible that it’s been 4 years.

Mam, I miss you.

Smotje xo.



3 years gone.


“Erica, it’s time to let go, and tell your family that you love them. No more fighting.”

Delivered by her long time doctor, those words started a conversation I will never forget. Mum’s condition had deteriorated rapidly in the few weeks prior and we’d all flown in from our respective parts of the world to be with her and Dad. We were all sitting on her bed, her doctor looking us each in the eye, patiently and truthfully answering our questions.

Looking back on that day, a sunny September afternoon, what stays with me is how brave Mum was in the face of this definitive statement. She looked at all of us, tears in her eyes and a little smile on her face. She didn’t say anything. I don’t think she could. I certainly couldn’t. We sat quietly for a few minutes, absorbing our new reality until Mum said she needed to rest and shooed us away.

How do you carry on with your day when someone tells you that the matriarch of your family is dying and that you only have days left together? I don’t know… you just do. I remember that we all retreated into ourselves for a few hours. I think I went for a run and cried my way through it. I may have punched a tree and howled. I was terribly sad. And furious. And also a little bit relieved that finally, Mum wouldn’t have to suffer anymore and that our lives would no longer be dictated by cancer markers, medications and the fear of not knowing. That may seem selfish and yet it’s true. Anyone who has been through this will know just how honest that is.

The next few days were a blur. Preparations were underway to move her and time both sped and dragged. In her typical fashion, my stubborn mother declared that she wanted to go to hospice care RIGHT NOW. Not in a few days, or even a few hours. NOW. We did what we could for her and each other. I slept next to her every night. She was in pain and I learned how to administer her morphine so as to take the load off her nurses. I remember asking Dr. Barakett “What if I give her too much?” He said something like: “And? So what. Go for it”.  I guess at that point, it didn’t make much of a difference. She was so fragile by then that she broke her shoulder by rolling over in bed.

Situations like this brought on a certain kind of dark humour and morbidity that some would think crass… unless you’ve lived it. We had to tell her that she’d have to wait a few days before being transferred. We all then joked that the hospice “has a high rate of turnover”… It’s a terrible thing to say… but in the moment it was the perfect thing to say.

What a weird dichotomy her hospice was… I couldn’t reconcile this setting. My brothers and I sat in beautiful, lush country gardens, watching sunrises and sunsets. We had beers and talked. We cried and we laughed. Inside, the most gentle and caring volunteers and nurses took care of Mum with a kindness that cannot be measured.

I will forever be thankful for these days we spent together. It’s an odd thing to say, being thankful for being with someone as they die. But it’s the truth. We didn’t exchange many words, as Mum slipped into a coma the day after her birthday. We sat with her. Held her hand. I spent a lot of time just watching her. I know in my heart of hearts that she knew we were with her. And I think that is what made it ok for her to finally let go, to stop fighting after almost 10 years of constant battle.

3 years has gone by so quickly… and sometimes time drags. Not a day goes by that a thought of Mum doesn’t cross my mind. I’m sometimes caught off guard by a powerful longing or a need to reach out to her, even if she is no longer there. The further we get away from her passing, the memories of her illness fade a little bit and my memories of her when we were all younger seem to prevail a little bit more. I don’t know why. But I like it and I’m grateful for those thoughts.

I miss you, Mum. When I grow up, I want to be as brave as you were.