MOTHER AND FATHER: The little and the big world
My life has been long and often quite incomprehensible. My memory has several shortcomings. In some cases it may be comforting to forget all about some of the past actions and events, since certain memories may be quite worrying, perhaps even scary. In the darkness surrounding them memories might appear as flashes from sudden thunderbolts. In his novel Snöljus, “Light from Snow”, the Swedish author Lars Andersson has described the phenomenon:
His memory used to be like a kennel where he knew all the dogs by name: he called for them and they came, placing a piece of memory by his feet. He could call on a dog named "Gällivare 1948"
And the dog came running at full speed, throwing his memory piece on the ground in front of him and he found that it dealt with his first long-term job away from home.
Unfortunately have my memory dogs often excessively chewed on the memories they are placing before me. Occasionally, I do not even know if they have fetched the proper bits and pieces. It is quite possible that the dog has dug up something that actually is not my memory at all, but something I have heard, read or simply imagined. It also happens that my memory dogs do not show up at all when I call for them.
I now find myself in Hässleholm, in the house that I, together with my parents, moved into when I was sixteen years old. My father was then fifty-four years, almost ten years younger than I am now and mother was forty-eight. I'm sitting on the first floor, leafing through old photo albums and finding pictures from the time I was born.
My mother was then thirty three years old, just over a year younger than my oldest daughter and a beautiful woman. She still is, at the age of ninety-six. In un-opened boxes are Super8 movies. The last time I saw some of them was when I on the second floor had assembled the display equipment. When I finally got the old films running my youngest daughter became saddened:
- In a strange way that's quite scary. You´re younger than I am now. I did not even exist by then.
The clattering projector, which in the dark room displayed flickering images from times gone by reminded me of a few lines form an autobiography by the Swedish novelist Torgny Lindgren:
Inside me there is a tired and neglected film projector. The cogs have loosened, the engine is skidding, the big reel is skewed, the celluloid scratched. However, for a precious moment everything works as it should and a few frames become clearly visible, until the broken projector clanks on as before.
Every day I visit my mother in the hospital, where she was taken in for a severe bout of pneumonia. I then learned that her lungs had become more or less inoperative, severe scar tissues make it impossible for her to breathe normally without a constant supply of oxygen. My mother is very tired, has lost her appetite and it hurts me to experience how her health is deteriorating. Her memory is affected and when I see my beautiful mother in all her dependence and vulnerability I realize that even if I still might live for quite a long time my memory will be weaker as well. That is one reason to why I am writing these lines. I want to remember my images of my parents, mull over my inner projections before they are lost and gone.
Just over half a year ago my mother stopped reading, before that she had read at least three novels a week. She has a determined literary taste that in many respects coincides with mine. After my father's death, twenty years ago, she stopped playing the piano. She is musically talented and enjoyed playing even difficult pieces by Beethoven and Schubert. She claimed that her motivation got lost when my father died and that rheumatism had begun to plague her hands.
Nevertheless, my mother continued to enjoy her immaculate garden and painted diligently, both in oil and acrylic - for example, these portraits of my daughter Janna and my father.
My mother also travelled quiet a lot, she did for example, when she was ninety years old, visit me while I lived in Paris. As always filled with energy - curious and adventurous.
There was a strain of aesthetics in both my father and mother. They loved their garden. Most of the time my father just walked around within it with his pipe, enjoying the sight and scent of every flower. It was generally my mother who tended and weeded it. My father was the theorist who read seed catalogues and gardening books, bought the seeds, soil and plants. He could during occasional moments of intensive activity arrange a compost, crop a tree or cut the grass, but the daily, more tiring garden work fell on my mother, who relished everything connected with such activities.
When my mother grew older, she began to paint and occasionally had quite a significant production. She had a natural talent, uninhibited and bold she did with high speed paint landscapes and portraits.
When my father was younger, he worked as a night editor and appeared at home first after midnight. During the Nordic summer nights he often made a stop on his way home in one of the typographers´s lush garden to watch the sun rise, listen to the birdsong and walk along the flowerbeds.
My father was proud of his elegant wife and when I was a kid the family used to get dressed up on Saturdays for a walk together through the small town in which we lived. Despite her family's fierce opposition my mother had decided to marry a six-year-older and divorced man.
She always respected him and my father was also apparently in love with my mother. When I recently asked her if my father used to say that he loved her, she answered:
-No, he rarely did that, though he used to say I had rescued him.
Among my memories I find the experience of getting up from my bed late at night and finding my father in the warm light circle around the armchair next to the bookshelf, smoking his pipe while immersed in a newspaper, or a book. He subscribed to several literary magazines, read the books that arrived at the newspaper for reviewing and was a frequent visitor to the town library.
In his early youth my father worked as a kind of secretary for Gabriel Jönsson, a rather famous poet from my part of the country. As a journalist, he had later worked on newspaper after newspaper, pursued by what has been called “the blight of newspapers” i.e. the disappearance of local papers in Sweden. In Stockholm he met with several famous authors and when he for a couple of years worked at the local paper in the small, southern port of Simrishamn, he ended up in the circle of the legendary Danish vice consul Gunnar Ohlsson, who in his coterie at the Restaurant Svea counted upon the local poet Theodor Tufvesson, author of a poem, which intro my father liked to quote:
It is in an old farm that my heart rests
among people with humble needs,
a house with chalked walls and swallows´ nests
under moss green roofs of reeds.
Where elm trees´ crowns tell their tales,
in summer´s breeze they are swinging,
among the lush fields and vales,
while their leaves are gently singing.
There was also the quite brilliant author Fritjof Nilsson “The Pirate”, whose novels and stories generally were based on anecdotes about eccentric people of Skåne, my home province. Even if his stories often are amusing, several of them have a tragic undercurrent. My father told me that “The Pirate” always carried with him a note book and when he had listened to a good story he used to ask: “Do you mind if I write down a few words to remember what you just told me?” My father was a reading man and often spent his free time at the town library, where he, just like I use to do, swallowed whatever coming his way. His favourite author was William Faulkner.
The fact that that my father for a long time of his professional life worked during nights meant that our family customs were slightly different from those of our neighbours. For example, we had dinner around three o´clock, when I and my sister came home from school, something that left time for my father to spend time with his children; me, my sister and our half-sister Nunno, who is twelve years older than me, but who occasionally stayed with us. Apparently he spent most time with me. He made landscapes of plaster for my cowboys and Indians; with mountains, rivers and blockhouses and also built a castle for my knights. Since my grandfather had a carpentry in his basement in Stockholm my father used it to make wooden hussars and Indians for me, while Grandpa built me a miniature farmhouse.
My father used to tell me interesting stories he had encountered through his reading, spicing them up with curious anecdotes he had picked up through his work at the local newspaper and thus he turned me into a teller of ghost stories. My comrades listened to my stories in attics, in basements and in huts we had built in the forest. I loved being at the centre, though I could also behave like a loner, devoting hours to reading and drawing.
My father liked to listen to music and we had a record collection with Marlene Dietrich, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and similar artists, as well as classical music, but, like me, my father was not as musically gifted as my mother and younger sister, who both had a beautiful singing voice. My sister Nunno, daughter of Consul Olsson's daughter Disa, who had previously been married to my father, did not sing either, but had a collection of fine jazz and popular music, like Miles Davis and The Supremes. What I shared with my sisters and parents was a great interest in art.
One of my mother´s brothers was an artist and our apartment was filled with his paintings. During his time as a night editor my father could devote his days to sculpting in clay. He did not burn his artefacts and most of his works have eventually fallen to pieces, or crumbled. He also carved small sculptures in wood. My father's influence has certainly been one reason for me and my sisters truning into devourers of books and we have all studied art history at the university, while my oldest sister became a librarian.
Both my mother and father were fascinated by animals and nature. They always had dogs, after they had acquired the rather poorly disciplined Doberman Lord, handsome and strong. Thankfully, Lord was faithful to his family, otherwise he was aggressive to outsiders. He was followed by mild Labradors.
Almost every weekend the family went on picnics in my hometown´s bucolic surroundings. At first by bicycle, though I or my youngest sister Annika sometimes went out alone with our father, sitting behind him on his moped. Later we found a cottage in the forest where we spent the weekends. My parents´ taste for adventure made the family travelling through Europe with car and tent. My father did not have a driver's license and it was my mother who drove, while my father in his somewhat whimsical manner directed the entire endeavour.
Occasionally, I read books in which the authors vehemently attack their parents, a behaviour that is strange to me. Nevertheless, other authors might devote themselves to panegyrics by declaring either their father or mother to have been a saint. Often, it is the mother who appears in a Madonna-like glow. By my mother´s sick-bed I have been reading the autobiography of a Swedish author, Frank Heller, who declared:
I once read an irritated article by a Danish, female author, who stated that "All men imagine, God help me, that their mothers have been saints!" Her point was that since the daughters of such mothers were assumed to be far from being any saints, mother worshipping men ought to realise that it is a false Madonna cult they are propagating [...] Nevertheless, I stubbornly maintain an illogical and untimely worship of my mother. While admitting that she had extremely earthy sides and was as much of a woman as someone could ask for, I still have to declare that there was an infallible air of piety, of gentleness, of kindness, of caring for others, understanding and forgiveness around her, meaning that she among those who knew her well preserves something like the halo of a saint.
I agree - this is a description of my mother as well. While she is confined to her sick bed, she rarely complains about her situation, she may wonder "Shall I die now?" or complain "Air, air, I need air!" Otherwise she worries about the wellbeing of others. She asks where my daughters are and how they feel, if my wife does not miss me when she now is alone in Rome. Once my mother told me:
When I was young, it happened that one or another claimed that I was stupid. Maybe I am. I may not know everything that one should be acquainted with.
This wretched self-image is far from the truth. My mother followed what happened in the world and around her. She was trained as a nurse at the reputed Red Cross Training and Nursing Home at Sabbatsberg Hospital in Stockholm and worked as a nurse at several hospitals before she, when I was ten years old, received further training to become a school nurse and after that she worked as such at a couple of schools in Hässleholm.
Perhaps it was her curiosity, striking beauty and compassion that deceived people around my mother, making them believe that she was naive. However, she is far from being stupid, on the contrary - she is endowed with a sharp and straightforward intuition when it comes to judging other human beings. Frequently, she does far earlier than people around her discern falseness, or honesty. Nevertheless, she can sometimes be fooled since, despite her general scepticism, she deliberately avoids suspecting others of foul play. Her sensitivity is revealed through the way she played the piano and her bold paintings. Without deliberations she could in her rapidly and audaciously executed paintings capture shifting light and specific moods.
In addition, she is tolerant and forgiving: "The damage is already done. There is nothing to do about it, other than forgetting it all. That it went bad is punishment enough." Can such thinking be called stupidity? Hardly.
In childhood remembrances, one parent often perseveres at the expense of the other. A parent, father or mother, takes hold of the centre of the story, mainly as an object of anger and resentment, while the other is turned into a saint, or a shadow. Mostly, it is fathers who end up in the line of fire - men locked up in old-fashioned patriarchal armour, allowing their frustrations to hail over wife and children. Seen through a child's perplexing despair and rage, such paternal monsters abuse their families through various forms of mental and physical violence, sometimes fuelled by drugs and alcohol.
However, not all depictions of parents are misogynic in the sense that it is the father who is the great villain, sometimes mothers are presented as oppressive beasts. One such book, which several of my pupils used to choose when I asked them to list the books that had impressed them the most, is Dave Pelzer´s A Child Called It, which describes a mother straight out of hell.
A nasty consequence of parents' abuse may be that you with fear and wonder might detect a similar behaviour in yourself. On one occasion, I and my wife, together with a group of other people, heard a woman confessing: "My insane mother could sometimes chase me around the kitchen table, with a knife lifted for a cut.” After a shiver of horror and doubt had passed through the congregation, she continued: "And now I'm behaving in the same manner with my daughters.”
From time to time I have become upset when friends and acquaintances, who I previously had imagined having a completely normal and harmonious upbringing, have told me about the violence, contempt and neglect they have been exposed to by their parents. Of course, such depictions are completely true, but like my own memories, they are created from the eye of the viewer. There are several examples of how writers´ depictions of their parents have been contradicted by their siblings. An American psychologist, Peter Toohey, has noted that childhood memories are part of our identity and if they are challenged, our entire sense of who we are might be threatened. If someone doubts our childhood depictions s/he is actually passing a judgement on us and may thus shatter our self-mage. This may be a reason to why siblings sometimes completely disagree about remembrances of their joint childhood. For example did Pelzer´s younger brother Stephen deny the truth of his brother´s tale about the Inferno their mother had created and stated that his brother was not placed in foster care because their loving mother was a demon, but because “he started a fire and was caught shoplifting."
In psychoanalysis it seems to be the rule to perceive parents as threatening, despotic and irrational. I recall how I many years ago met with a psychotherapist who seriously believed that I was lying when I stated that my parents had behaved lovingly towards me. That I considered my father to be one of my best friends and my mother as an ideal of kindness and tolerance. The doubting psychotherapist presented me with two photographs. One depicted a man shouting at a defenceless child:
- Do you recognize yourself in this picture? Did your father never behave like that?
- Never. Not towards me anyway. It happened that he could be quite annoyed with my youngest sister. However, in accordance with my memories, he rarely raised his voice against me. He would rather listen, understand, explain and negotiate.
- It´s hard to believe you. Your mother then?
She presented another photograph depicting a confrontation between mother and son.
- No, frankly speaking I have difficulty remembering that my mother ever behaved in such a manner.
- It appears that you are suffering from some kind of obtrusion.
- Not at all. Of course, there is the possibility that my memories might lie to me, but it cannot be denied that I always have felt close to my parents. I am convinced that our relationship was based on mutual respect, making it possible for both me and my parents to acknowledge that we sometimes made mistakes.
- Who was closest to you? Your mother or father?
There it surfaced one more, that annoying question! I have always detested comparisons. Claims that someone is better than anyone else, or the hopeless expression "all others". “All others think so or so, everyone else knows that, everyone else behaves like that.” Downright idiocy. What do I know about me, about you, about "everyone else"?
I distinctly remember how I during my time in primary school once became the object of what I then perceived as an insidious attack from my teacher:
- How is it children? Is it not, after all, so that you love your mum more than your daddy? For sure he is probably a very nice person as well, but you love your mother more. Is it not like that, Jan?
I became upset. Here I was encouraged, in front of all my classmates, to disown my father. I had not graded my love of my parents. In my opinion, I loved them both equally. Certainly, they had different personalities and behaved differently, but to me they were equivalent. How can you measure and rate your love? Everybody's eyes were directed towards me. My face had become glowingly red, my cheeks were hot and I was boiling inside. Appalled and in an uncontrolled voice I asked:
- But … how can Miss ask me such a question!
For sure, my father's curiosity could appear as overly intrusive. He was a journalist and his constant striving to be loved by his family could be somewhat troubling. At the age of two, he had lost his own father and when I was six-years old my older half-brother died in the aftermath of a car crash that left him paralyzed for a year, a deep wound which harrowing effects my father seldom revealed, though I know he suffered from feelings of betrayal and ineptitude.
My mother's gentle tolerance could also be somewhat annoying. My parents' exaggerated interest in what I and my youngest sister were up to and who our comrades were, their claim that we always had to put the family first, could be bothersome and more than I did my sister react by stubbornly claiming her independence. By doing so, she could often clash with our father. Nevertheless, they were quite alike. My father often behaved in a rebellious manner against authorities, constantly trying to safeguard his journalistic integrity, while he brought up his children to question the language and abuse of power, as well as preconceived opinions. "If they assume they have placed me on the potty they´re wrong." “You cannot defend evil with evil" were some of the dictums he liked to repeat.
My parents' great interest in what their children did and thought could occasionally turn into a somewhat inconsiderate need to control us, resulting in badly thought-out actions. Once I fell in love with a beautiful classmate and wrote a glowing love letter to her. I wrote it on one of the art cards that I already had a large collection of. The card reproduced a Chagall painting in which the Russian painter floated in the air above his beloved Bella Rosenfeld, while giving her a kiss. Worrying if I could send something like that to the girl I was interested in, I left the card on my desk at home. When I came back from an inter-rail journey, I found that my parents had found the card and sent it to the girl. I became furious and desperate, but did not accuse them for their stupid behaviour. The girl never told me if she had received the card or not and I did not ask her, though I know that her interest in me did not suffer from my parents' unwarranted act. However, it was hard for me to forgive them for their disrespect.
I know that most parents occasionally behave gratuitously and selfishly towards their children, not the least do I commit idiotic mistakes in my relationship with my daughters. With disgust I recall idiotic things I have told them, how I without reflection have wounded them through my big mouth and impulsiveness. For sure, others envisage my parents in a different way than I do, but I cannot honestly state that their behaviour towards me has been inconsiderate, or that my love for them was ever broken. Who can anyone be perfect? Is not perfection a nuisance? My parents did not hide neither their emotions, nor their shortcomings. And as the case is for most of us, their impact on my life has been immense.
I think of it now while I am sitting by my mother´s sick bed and am confronted with her helpless fragility. Realizing how old age eventually can break us, defeat our thoughts and bodies. Nevertheless, my mother´s inner, bright character perseveres. Her previously clear, blue eyes are becoming clouded, her skin wrinkled and loose-fitting, but that is just surface. Behind her sometimes confused speech, strained breathing and trembling hands, I distinguish her compassion and great kindness. Perhaps I should be bitter and sad while being confronted with her increasing decay, but all the joy and care she has bestowed upon me throughout my life defeat my sorrow. When I look at her, she remains close to me. I feel how her love lives within me. As long as I am alive her flame, her loving glow cannot die, maybe I can even transmit it to my daughters.
I do not like to think that it may now be time for my mother to leave me. I wish she could stay with me a few more years. While our parents are aging I assume that most of us are preparing ourselves for their passing. How it will be when they are no longer with us. The emptiness they leave behind. I am not at all prepared for my mother's disappearance. Not yet, and the thought pains me. It is rare that my own death scares me, but it may happen that the cold of the emptiness left by my mother might engulf me, that it would be difficult to master.
There is a sharp dividing line between what is close to us and everything else. Between the big and the little world. Between the outside world and the family. When I watch my mother lying on her sick bed, I remember an article by Sara Lidman, one of Sweden´s great proletarian authors, often honoured as an unusually good person, almost like a saint. For example did the influential critic and poet Karl Vennberg, in a book review from 1969, write that "I think she is a saint and that her love and anger are like the great prophets' love and wrath."
In an article The sight of lovers feedeth those in love (a quote from Shakespeare´s As You Like It) Sara Lidman did in 1979 lovingly write about her parents. After ninety years, of which they had spent fifty-one together, they had been brought to a nursery home in Jörn in northern Sweden, where they, according to their daughter, prepared themselves for the end by "speaking of death and reliving the past." She tells with tenderness about broken-down peasants who after a life of backbreaking work stoically are awaiting their death. How their aged bodies reveal traces from a hard life and the respect and gentle care nursing staff and relatives are bestowing upon them. Lidman describes how old human bodies through their wear and tear obtain a strange beauty “while the flesh shrinks away the bony shape is revealed in all its miraculous beauty, the gnarled limbs, the perfect shape of the scull, the wrinkles´ testimony of a life lived.”
When she left the hospital and waited for the train that would take her back home Sara Lidman spots a movie poster – The Longest Yard. With her thoughts lingering with her parents and the caring staff, Sara reads the text intending to lure the inhabitants of the wintry, isolated village to watch the evening´s movie:
1. You choose the prison's toughest criminals!
2. Give them a lesson in breaking up people with their bare hands!
3. Form a team and claim that they are exceptionally interested in the world's toughest sport!
4. It's not true!
5. Their only interest is to break the arms and legs and, if possible, kick in the teeth of their opponents; the very men they hate most of all, their prison guards.
The film breaks all records of action, violence, black humour, tastelessness and unkempt excitement. The audience is excited.
Instead of respect and reverence for the miracle of a human lives and bodies, the Western entertainment industry is apparently celebrating and propagating human despair and violence as a form of entertainment:
Love is sustained by witnessing and experiencing love, but imagine if abuse is sustained by watching violence - in film after film after film - until a human face first and foremost is considered to be something to beat and destroy. We may be turned into sadists if our gloat and malice are persistently stimulated, if our taste is degraded, our desire to humiliate others titillated. To torture our fellow human beings is becoming a pleasure, an accepted form of entertainment.
To see my mother confined to her sick bed, her gentle and grateful smile, her helplessness and the beauty that remains intact after a long life, as well as witnessing the hospital staff's friendly care, is in stark contrast to what we are confronted with through video violence and computer games. The clinically clean and highly effective environment, with its abundance of discreet devices, is far removed from those hospitals I have seen in poor countries, not to mention the dirty, torn-out remains of Aleppo's hospitals, where desperate humans are awaiting death and mutilation.
The big and the little world. How difficult is it not to relate to other people's suffering? Not even the good-hearted Sara Lidman went free from the poison that makes us idealize what we believe in and forget about the individual human presence in history.
A week ago, I met a friendly Vietnamese lady who, together with her husband, a retired surgeon from Aachen, rented our house in Bjärnum. The Catholic lady told me how she and her parents during the brutal land reform, ordered by Ho Chi Minh's Politburo, in 1955 had escaped from North Vietnam. In Saigon, she had met her husband and in 1979, with their infant sons, they had fled the Communist repression in an unsafe, open boat, packed with desperate refugees.
When we in the early 1990s lived in Hanoi, I learned from my Vietnamese acquaintances about the brutality of the Communist regime. As I rode my bicycle through the town it happened that people cheered me, making thumbs up, calling me gringo. How could these people, many of whom had been exposed to the US terror bombings, or had themselves been fighting a brutal war against the super-technological American empire, express appreciation of someone who they assumed to be a representative of such a murderous regime?
I got one explanation from a veteran who had fled north from South Vietnam and then fought with Viet Cong against the American invaders and their Vietnamese supporters. Together with a Viet Cong unit he had been trapped within Hué's citadel where he had witnessed how several of his comrades had been executed in accordance with a list compiled by the Revolutionary Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp, who originally came from Hué. While this repression occurred within their own ranks the Viet Cong nevertheless desperately continued to fight the US and South Vietnamese forces:
I was a Buddhist and patriot, far from being a Communist. I fought for my faith and my country and not for political reasons. The Americans took care of their dying and wounded, while we Vietnamese could be ordered to storm a hill and die like flies, simply because our troops in another place would be able to successfully attack the enemy. We were simple cannon-fed. Our deaths were explained as a necessary strategic sacrifice for the Communist ideals and the Regime did not care about the well-being of any single soldier. The American boys also fought for a regime that willingly sacrificed them for an idea that these youngsters never understood. Many of them barely knew where they were, but as young men they were nevertheless willing to obey the orders of their superiors. I was then a mature man and, like my comrades in arms, I had made a conscious choice. I struggled for my faith, my family, my land and my country, but certainly not for any oppressive regime that deceived me as much as those poor American boys were deceived by their regime. Why should I then hate a regular American, a man like me?
For some reason, Sara Lidman did not hear such testimonies when she visited Vietnam four times, beginning in 1965, and then justifiably attacked the ugly war the United States were staging in support of a corrupt regime and their own murky interests. Instead, she celebrated a regime that, with her beloved Ho Chi Minh's support, between 1953 and 1956, as part of a land reform, cold-bloodedly executed a predetermined number of "landowners". On May 4, 1953, the Politburo issued a document that ordered the executions of "reactionary and malicious landowners" and established that a sentence of death had to be passed on one per thousand inhabitants. An estimated eleven million people were living in the "liberated areas" and the quota was met. In 1954, at least 13,500 individuals were selected and killed, the total amount of those executed was probably more than 15,000.
The author Le Minh Khue, who in Sweden met with Sara Lidman in 1998, found her to be far too naive and serious minded. According to Khue did the Swedish writer's lack of distance to the brutal realities of war, its cruelty and meaninglessness, prevent her from correctly perceiving the North Vietnameses´ wretched situation and the fact that cynicism and humour was necessary if a struggling Vietnamese woman like Le Minh Khue, who was with the Viet Cong during the entire war, would be able to survive with her wits intact.
Like so many others, the good-hearted Sara Lidman was blinded by her ideology and was thus unable to discover any beauty spots on her Communist heroes. For the same reason did she, like so many others, not least the prime minister Olof Palme, advice against welcoming Vietnamese boat refugees to Sweden. She regarded them as mostly wealthy people and adversaries to her beloved Communist regime, which she could not imagine being a gratuitous oppressor of people with opinions other than those of the sovereign State:
If wealthy people of such a country are deprived of their possibilities to propagate their own way of life, their affluent counterparts in observing nations are rushing in and scream: "Look at that! The freedom of expression is suppressed! That nation has to be punished! It is persecuting its dissidents!"
Sara Lidman was an excellent author, her texts radiate compassion with the wretched of the earth, but unfortunately she adopted North Vietnam's violations of human rights with lock, stock and barrel. Obviously, she was blinded by her legitimate rage for the US´s insane war and her commitment to the Communist regime. Accordingly did Lidman in spite of her compassionate humanity, unfortunately end up as the characters whom Joseph Conrad often depicts in his novels. For example in Nostromo, where people are transformed by power and greed, or blinded by idealism:
A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane. He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice.
After the liberation and unification of the nation two million Vietnamese fled Vietnam, between 200,000 and 400,000 of them (men, women and children) died on the open sea, or were murdered by "pirates". Sweden received 5,000 refugees, most of them Hoa, i.e. members of the relatively affluent Chinese-speaking minority in Vietnam, who after the war became particularly harshly treated by the Communist regime. When I during the eighties worked as a teacher in Malmö, some of my students were children of Vietnamese refugees, all of them were extremely ambitious. I do remember two sisters, one of them was after only a couple of years in Sweden speaking perfect Swedish and was best in class in all subjects, the other suffered from her sister's brilliance, feeling stupid and unsuccessful.
The Canadian writer Kim Thuy's lyrical novel Ru, describes, among other things, how she as a ten-year-old escapes from Vietnam across the sea. A harrowing experience far removed from Lidman's ideologically based assessment of these people. However, Thúy's novel is not an exhaustive tale about the fate of the “boat refugees”, but rather a collage of memory fragments.
The small world. My life, your life, we must not forget them for the "big issues". I think it is through compassion we meet other people, by searching for ourselves in others we find both ourselves and them. Recognizing what we have in common. Like death. Our own death and the death of others. Now when my mother is so week, I worry about losing her. It would be the second time I lose a parent. My father died in 1996 and before his death I often feared how I would feel when he was gone.
He suffered from a severe and painful cancer and it was especially hard for my mother who was forced to live through his long fight against pain. For a long time she cared for him at home and as she always did during her life together with him, she did everything to make him feel good. I lived in Rome at the time and occasionally tried to travel to Hässleholm, but it did not feel good about being separated from my parents under such conditions. I think my father was prepared to die. He knew more than his family about his fatal condition, when his time would come. I got the impression that he was not at all fearing death.
Some weeks before Christmas he was admitted to the hospital. They gave him plenty of morphine and we all knew that he would die. After New Year´s Eve he would be moved from his single room. Deep inside me I felt it might be best for him if he died before that. My mother kept vigil by his bed, night after night. We understood that there was not much time left and I travelled up to Hässleholm. During the day and night before the New Year I watched over him.
We found ourselves in a typical Swedish hospital room; a large bed with a drip bottle by its side, a chair next to it and a bedside table. There was another bed in the room. It was snowing outside. My father was extremely tired and spoke incoherently. They had given him large doses of morphine against the excruciating pain. While I sat next to him and experienced his helplessness, I felt a great tenderness towards him. My father had always been kind to me, caring, supporting and encouraging.
He had been childishly fond of every little success that I, my siblings, my mother, their grandchildren and others close to him had had. Some would probably consider my father to be boastful, though I interpreted his behaviour as a genuine joy over others' successes. In spite of the fact that he appeared to be extremely extrovert, he was at the same time quite reserved, possibly fearing to be manipulated. A fear I assume he shared with other journalists, who care for their independence and integrity. Nevertheless, he was always interested in people.
From time to time he woke up from his morphine induced stupor and for a few moments his mindfulness became apparent. As when he suddenly turned around and looked at me. He said something, but I could not make out the words. Then he took my arm and drew me down towards him:
- Jan, I like you, he whispered clearly.
There was a hymn book placed on the bedside table and I remembered how my father once had told me how he had kept vigil by the death bed of Uncle Daniel, one of my mother's uncles. My father was quite fond of this considerate and taciturn bachelor. Uncle Daniel had told to him, "You´re lucky man, Axel. You who have your children. I have no one and therefore I will die alone, leaving no one behind." My father felt ill at ease and to soothe Uncle Daniel he read aloud some hymns he found in the psalmody, which in those days generally was placed by sick beds in Swedish hospitals.
Now it was I who opened the hymn book and read one psalm after another. I belong to a generation that in primary school was forced to learn certain hymns by heart. My father seemed to listen, though occasionally he regressed and spoke incomprehensible baloney. Suddenly he nodded and became wide-awake. I was reading a hymn, I think it was:
Morn amid the mountains,
Gushing streams and fountains,
murmur:” God is good. God is good.”
Now the glad sun is breaking,
pours a golden flood.
Deepest vales, awaking,
echo: “God is good. God is good.”
He listened intensively, and then he said in a loud voice: "My mother liked that one." I wanted him to become even more conscious, so I began to pick out hymns that might make him react, but he did not respond anymore. Then I came to “A mighty Fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing.” I knew my father loathed that hymn and when I came to the part he disliked the most “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear” he opened his eyes and rose up to a seated position:
- Don´t read that one. I don´t like it.
Then his head again sank back to the pillows. I finished reading hymns and looked at him. I did not feel any sadness, no pain or despair and it worried me. I returned to my bed and began to read a book I had brought with me, while my father went into deep sleep. The clock passed midnight. The snow continued to fall outside the window and in the darkness the wind was increasing, tossing the snowflakes back and forth. It was warm and cosy inside. My father was fast asleep, though his breathing was irregular. Suddenly he awoke and I rushed to his side while he opened his eyes, turned his head and looked intensively at me while he lifted his right hand, as if he wanted me to lower my head, then he said quite clearly:
- Jan, I like all people. But, can you love everyone?
Then he turned his head again and closed his eyes. I assume he fell asleep and I lay down on the other bed again. I could not sleep and continued to read. Around three o'clock, my father stopped breathing. I got up and saw that his jaw had fallen down. He lay on his back with his eyes closed. He was dead. I stood watching him. My father was no more. He looked like a sculpture. Completely without life. I found him to be beautiful. He had become a picture of himself and I felt joy instead of sadness. A gratitude for having been given the blessing of having had such a nice person as my father. Everything was said and done between us. I had listened to his last words and now I saw him in his death, beautiful like a perfect sculpture.
Tears came streaming over my face, though I felt no sorrow. I went out to tell the night staff that my father was dead and then I went home to my mother. I did not want to call a taxi, but walked home in the snowstorm. On my way home, I wondered why I had been given the grace to experience what I just had gone though. Since then, I have not had any deep sense of loss after my father. What has remained with me is a strong feeling that he is still alive inside me. Not only through my memories, but in a strange, physical manner.
Now I realize that my mother is moving away from me as well. I wish that the sorrow she leaves behind will be as easy to bear as the one I felt when my father left me. For sure, a large chunk of my life will vanish for ever, but I know that both my parents will live on within me and hopefully within my daughters as well.
Conrad, Joseph (2007) Nostromo. London: Penguin Classics. Jordan, Pat (2002) “Dysfunction for Dollars,” in The New York Times, July 28. Khue, Le Minh (1997) The Stars, the Earth, the River. Evanston,IL: Northwestern University Press. Lind, Michael (1999) Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America´s Most Disastrous Conflict. New York: The Free Press. Pelzer, Dave (1995) A Child Called “It”: One Child´s Courage to Survive. Deerfield Beach, FLA: HCI Books. Thúy, Kim (2012) Ru. New York: Bloomsbury. Toohey, Peter (2014) Jealousy. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.