I exit my apartment in Aalmoezenierstraat and cross the road to the Salvation Army, where I buy myself a used red duffelcoat for EUR 7,50. It is an obvious choice as I have already owned a few red woolen coats. My mother Annette Van Dijck gave me hers on one of my last visits before her death. I put it on for her and walked around with an air of contentment, but it was slight pretense. The coat was a classical-royal Belgian bourgeois style, hence the shoulders of the coat were stuffed with large epaulettes, Annette”s coveted fashion trend. Annette would buy her coats and sweaters with such inbuilt epaulettes at the shoulders and walk around with improved posture, reminding her daughters of their slouching posture and to buy epaulettes.
Annette’s father: Gustaaf Van Dijck, and her mother: Helena Siebelinck, were a classic couple of the Dutch bourgeoisie. Her father died in World World II, a medical doctor who had tuberculosis and could not get a hold of peniciline, as she told us many times. There were eleven children in the family and, as one of the only girls, Annette was ordered to start working as a hospital radiologist and feeding the large family. Annette was a very smart girl and wanted rather to get a proper education, but only her brothers were allowed to do so.
At the end of her life, it took my mother many years to die and she somehow kept up her strength to the last minute, even though she was stranded in bed for many months, she would push her self around using doorhandles, walls and cabinets. She refused to get any kind of walking aids or medical personnel inside her apartment, and wanted to suffer and die alone.
Like Annette, my grandmother Helene Siebelinck equally shunned all social contact towards the end of her life, complaining for many years that she was feeling off and that it had been enough. She grew up in an upper-middle class family who owned a lucrative brewery in the village of Wouw, just across the Dutch border. She married Gustaaf Van Dijck in the Flemish village Essen right across the Belgian border and became a deeply isolated person after his death.
Annette was more integrated in the small Flemish village Kalmthout, more so than her mother, Helene. Annette lived modestly and kept a certain joi de vivre for throughout the years that she was dying. She kept driving her Berlino to the Delhaize down the road and cooking fancy meals, taking fairly large doses of morphine as she got closer to death, binge-reading her thick novels and watching plenty of TV. In this way she was a kind of role-model for how to depart.
Annette gave me her red coat with epaulette-shoulders. I thanked her and stuffed it in my suitcase to fly to Hong Kong, where wintercoats can only be worn several days out of a year. Even before this moment, I had often browsed through my mother’s extensive collection of coats. When my big sister Mieke was still alive, we had once inspected her coats together when having cocktails before dinner. Mieke handed me one of Annette’s heavy black coats with an ostentatious fur collar—I paraded in the apartment and then we decided to walk it outside in the woods. It was frosty and drizzling and the sun was setting even though it had never shown that day. I buttoned my mother’s coat and put on a woolen hat, a scarf and gloves, and slowly trailing my sister, slipped on small icy puddles, coughing and giggling.
My confused American husband following us into the stinky Flemish fields.
And now I feel that coat again in the Salvation Army. I have pangs of missing Annette. I feel a need to talk to Yvonne, the old Dutch lady with silver curly long hair who runs the second-hand clothing shop in the Salvation Army. She opens it every Wednesday afternoon and I often sneak into her shop to chat with her and to buy the various pieces of my sabbatical wardrobe.
Yvonne talks to me non-stop and also makes sure that I don’t make any rash choices, guiding me through her erratic collections to a hidden mirror in the dingy backroom. She orders me to zip up coats and move my arms around before buying a coat. She babbles while she tends to her teeny dog, a breed called “Japanese Chin,” who is sleeping in a very small cardboard basket. She named her dog Chinny so that she actually could remember the dog’s breed (Japanese Chin is the breed).
Chinny has been her companion of ten years but is terminally ill as a large gland has slipped out of “female cavity,” she had been stitched up but kept pulling out the stitches and making a mess at the floor of the Salvation Army.
I was distracted for a minute when when I thought I heard Yvonne say that she was actually ready to put Chinny under, that Chinny had no energy left, that it was time too much for her. There comes a point of full exhaustion when we try to take care of the nearly departed.
I slipped out of my reverie and I had misheard it, Yvonne said that she would take Chinny to the vet the next day and she would probably be totally fine.
When I visited three days later to check up on Chinny, the minuscule Japanese breed had indeed made a full recovery. After taking some medication her gland had slipped back into her female cavity. She had been moved inside a proper dog basket and was wrapped inside a suave mohair blanket. She was already starting to tease and pester Yvonne for food.