Please note: This entry was written over the course of a few months; some of the chronology might not make sense.
For the fourth time in eighteen months, I am on my way to Belgium. For the fourth time, it is to thank someone for being there, and tell them goodbye for one last and final time.
Today, however, is the second time in less than a fortnight. I saw this someone exactly two weeks ago; I hung out at his house, with his brother; I played Play-Doh with his daughter; I enjoyed his father’s waffles and music; I embraced his mother like an aunt. I’ve never been to a friend’s funeral. I’ve never received a call that said “this person who was in your life for nearly twenty years has decided to end things.”
Many years ago, my family was in the south of France, near Pézénas. We had been enjoying a very relaxing holiday, when one late morning, as the sun was finishing its slow rise in the sky, this loud tribe from East Flanders parked their cars in the middle of the pedestrian area next to the pool, and proceeded to unload the bare necessities. A massive CRT display. The computer tower that went with it. A full-size synth. A stereo, complete with tape and CD players. A handful of easels, alongside some blank canvas, and all the knick knacks that go with the art of painting and drawing. Guitars. A microwave. The bare necessities.
Now, you have to understand that this is the early-to-mid nineties, and we were in a village of maybe a couple thousand people. Imagine, if you will, five bungalows strung together to form a low-roofed L-shaped building, tightly hugging a swimming pool, in the back garden of a beloved and respected man who used to be the equally beloved, and well-respected mayor in this small village. Renting out these small bungalows to (comparatively) rich Belgians was his retirement fund. The whole concept that he was selling to tourists was quietly baking in the mid-afternoon sun, with a badly written, cheap best-seller in your lap, all the while trying to drown out the wild echoes of kids playing in the swimming pool.
I remember sitting on the side of said pool, with my sister, and maybe one of the local girls, feeling annoyed and bewildered as they unloaded their cars with all these things that I thought were fantastically fascinating, yet completely out of place. I didn’t realise yet that for many years to come, this scene was the picture I would be seeing in my mind when I would hear the word “Vikings.” Northerners without respect for the local wildlife, stomping loudly on everything; an invading, disorganised bunch of people.
Another memory that will stay with me forever is how two of the boys from the horde of invading Vikings—after having thrown some of their belongings from the back of a car into the room or bed they had claimed—decided that they had done their share of the required invasion chores. In a swift movement, they threw their t-shirt onto the ground, and ran at full speed; yelling at the top of their lungs; towards the swimming pool. I still have this one picture in my mind of two shirtless boys wearing cut-off denim shorts suspended in mid-air above the swimming pool; a polished belt buckle reflecting the midday sun shooting over our heads like an improbable shooting star. They had jumped into our sacred waters without even so much as a hello or even asking for permission.
Fairly quickly, we realised that the techno Vikings were actually incredibly nice people. It still took a few days, or maybe even more, for us to actually start appreciating them. I honestly don’t remember whether it was because my sister fell for the middle brother, I became friends with the youngest one, or my mom became slightly involved with the oldest brother, but we ended up spending quite a bit of time with them. I remember always having trouble understanding their dialect. Limburgs is a fairly melodious version of Flemish, with a reasonable amount of French thrown in.
Back in Belgium, throughout the years, we would sometimes go see them at their house, in the far away province of Limburg. Belgian distances are a very weird thing. People gasp when you say you’re going on a 80 km drive after 5 in the afternoon. “You’ll never make it before night,” they say. “Are you sure it’s not better to spend the night here?” they ask. “Do you need some sammiches for the road?” they kindly offer. A few weeks ago, I realised that going to their house was only 10 km further than going to see my grandparents. Sometimes we would do the trip to my grandparents multiple times a day. When going to see these friends, it would take a week or so of planning, multiple phone calls. I’d only be slightly exaggerating when saying that we would stock up on provisions for the trek ahead.
I remember discovering their house for the first time. It was so full. So alive. The walls felt a different kind of warm. As though they were radiating an energy that I hadn’t encountered before. Upon entering the house, you were immediately overcome with an intimate feeling of “cosy”. The exposed wooden beams, the fireplace, the smell of sweet aromas that permeated through walls, wood and cloth; it all contributed to this feeling of appeasement and, as the years went by, a feeling of “you’re finally home.” To this day, it is a variation of this house that I imagine when I read or think about the Weasley’s house in the Potter books. Kids from the neighbourhood just dropped by. I seem to remember they just came in through the back door and went up to their friends’ rooms without knocking or ringing the door bell. Actually, I seem to remember there was no door bell until many, many years later.
In those days, upon arrival at their house, you would simply have to knock on the massive front door and hope that someone was within hearing range. Mostly, because the kids were playing loud music upstairs, and the parents were either busy in the kitchen, or busy working on their respective crafts, you would more often than not have to let yourself into this wondrous world by simply walking around the house into the back garden (this may seem evident to people from other countries, but Belgium never has “open” gardens). Sometimes one of the brothers would have heard you park your car nilly-willy in the driveway, and you’d be greeted by a “Heelaba!” (which is neither French nor Dutch, but a weird amalgamation of the two) emanating from a splendidly smiling face—itself connected to a body perilously jutting halfway out of a window frame, one storey too high.
The mother would immediately start caring for us, ensuring that we were always properly fed and hydrated. The father would be the joker and entertainer. Many “Oohs” and “Aahs” were expelled as we got to discover the new portraits that the mother had drawn or painted. Genuine exclamations, at that. Each visit started the same. My sister and I felt that we had to stay on the ground floor for at least a few minutes. We didn’t want to seem impolite or not wanting to spend time with the parents… but it was their sons that we really came to visit. Said brotherhood would awkwardly sit with us, next to the parents, until what seemed like an appropriate amount of time had passed, mostly in silence, listening to the parents ask the usual mundane questions parents tend to ask kids they don’t really know. “Which grade are you in now?” my mother would ask. “Are you still playing the guitar?” their father would enquire. Then, one of the kids would break the ranks, and just like any rout, one was all it took. As soon as the first one left, we would all follow.
I owe a lot to those brothers. The youngest one taught me a lot about computer networks, piracy and introduced me to Star Trek. We both favoured Voyager to any of the other Star Treks, and (for me at least), that’s still the case, although TNG is a very, very close second. The oldest brother gave me my first CB, and introduced me to IRC. I can’t have been much older than 10 or 11 at the time. I was fascinated by the fact that nearly a decade before I would get access to always-on internet, they already had a very serious internet connection. The whole house was wired into “the net”, with the good old BNC ethernet cables, and the whole street (or at least, those who cared) was linked in. Now, you have to remember that this is in the mid-to-late nineties, where the vast majority of people didn’t have a computer at home. The main method to transfer data from one machine to another was floppy disks. I created my first ICQ account with them. I created my first email address with them. As much as I credit one of my uncles with throwing me head-first into the world of Linux, I have to credit these brothers for throwing me into the original web.
Time seemed to slow down whenever we were at their place. The amount of information I was ingesting probably caused a time-dilation effect, or something. Luckily, because they lived so very, very far away, we only went on weekends. And because everyone was perfectly matched up, we always ended up leaving much later than what would have been socially acceptable with other house calls.
As the years passed, I sort of lost touch with the youngest brother. I’m still not sure why—I was pretty weird as a teenager. To paraphrase Rives, maybe one of his boyfriends got drunk one night and accidentally ate our friendship. The oldest brother became a very successful business creator and owner, and being as dedicated as he is, I think he purposefully avoided us to not waste time. I remember one discussion with him, a few years after I had started working, where he tried to convince me to not waste my time on open source stuff. He explained that every minute he spent on his computer was only to increase the value of his product(s). I completely understand and admire his passion and focus, but I also remember thinking—then, and still now—that I value my computers as a hobby way too much for that. I enjoy simply playing with something for the joy of playing with it. Because of the lack of availability of the two other brothers, and maybe just like atoms want to bond with one another, the middle brother and I grew closer with every meet up. We talked more. He wanted to show me the nice side of being a twenty-something, long before I had any interest in that. We went cruising into the city centre, music blaring. He transmitted his passion for VW Golfs to me, and the first car I would buy, many years later, was a beat up Golf GT 3.
I loved talking to him. Debating with him. I didn’t take his statements at face value. I forced him to back them up through logic and deduction. We spent hours, days, weeks talking. When he came to visit us in the south of France, we would keep talking and debating until the wee hours of the night. Because we lived so far away (both in Belgium, and later after my family moved to the south of France), our main method of communication was through the internet. ICQ and IRC at first, followed by MSN, and finally WhatsApp. I’ve always been uncomfortable writing Dutch, so we quickly switched to speaking English for most of our life.
He was incredibly spiritual, but having grown up in a family of freethinkers, had not received a formal religious education (as far as I know). I had been raised as a Catholic, but was, at that time, a vehement atheist, preaching the Holy Word of Richard Dawkins (the man nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog”). He would talk to me about how he could read the lines in my hand. He wasn’t trying to convince me he could actually do it. He just liked talking about what it would mean, if it meant anything. I loved exploring the way his brain worked, because it truly was unique, and I think he enjoyed my curiosity as well. The fascinating part of his brain is that you could ask him why he held a specific belief, and he would walk you through his reasoning. He didn’t ride a high horse. He wasn’t condescending. He wasn’t offended. When you questioned one of his assumptions, he honestly gave it thought. He would pause, and think as he tried to understand your position. He was by far one of the humblest people I knew.
Due to his condition, he was fairly prone to freak-outs. A small thing would happen, and his brain would implode, unable to get a grasp on reality. It could be a tiny thing. Once, we decided to install Ubuntu Linux on his laptop, at maybe 3 in the morning. I downloaded the software, burned it to a CD, and fed it to the computer. After a few minutes of thinking about it, the computer decided it was happy, and showed a beautiful desktop. To greet us, the operating system played a nice little chime (a small drum roll, if memory serves). My friend freaked the hell out. He threw the computer on the ground, as though it was suddenly a thousand degrees and charring his legs. He just looked at me, terrified, and whispered “the speakers don’t work any more.” After a few minutes, we established that Linux was simply able to use the speakers, and that the Windows driver must have been corrupted. Correction: I established that. He was convinced that it was proof he had been hacked. That somebody had been listening to him for years, and thus destroying his speakers. It took me the better part of an hour to calm him down and convince him there wasn’t anything else at play.
Another example was when I took him out to play pool. This time around, I owned the Golf, and I took him to my town. He had come to visit us in the south of France, alone with a girl that he hoped would become his girlfriend. They’d driven the whole way down, and there were already some issues between them. I decided to take him out to one of my usual hideouts—a crummy café with a couple dozen pool tables—to take his mind off things. As I was lining up to take my shot, he leaned against another pool table, and all of a sudden started yelling “Fuck, fuck, fuck, nee, nee, nee!” His credit card, lodged in the back pocket of his cut-off denim shorts had snapped along the line of the magnetic strip. He held up the limp corpse of his credit card in mid-air, staring at me with panicked eyes and started to pull at his hair as adrenaline was being rushed through his body. It was an inconvenience, but it wasn’t a big deal. I could’ve fronted him the cash for the end of his stay, and he could wire me the money back when he got back to Belgium. Or maybe his parents could wire some money to a local bank, and he could get the cash instead. Alas, his mind decided it was a big deal. It took me nearly 2 or 3 hours to calm him down. Most of that time spent on the café’s parking lot, chain smoking cigarettes.
There’s an interesting parallel to be made, though. That night, I took him out in my Golf and went to drive down town, playing loud music and annoying passers-by, replaying the memory of him driving me around, years earlier. Back when he was the one driving, I wasn’t interested in that at all. Now that I was the one behind the steering wheel, I don’t think he was interested by it. My mind, then, was preoccupied with whatever teenage angst I was going through. He, in another “then”, was starting to worry about having been on earth for over a quarter century, and not having had any long-term relationship to show for it. In separate timelines, we both put up with it, for the sake of the other one. Because we knew each of us was just living out a specific moment. A fantasy. We were willing participants.
He was like a brother to me. His whole family is exactly that to me—family. For years, they were my mental refuge. I would look up to the oldest brother when I lost motivation in my work, when I would ask “why do I even bother working this hard?”; the youngest brother when I needed the courage to be my own self; the middle brother to remind myself that no matter what life threw at me, there’s always a way forward. Their house was my mental palace—the place where I would store things that I needed to safe-keep, the precious memories I needed to protect and a way to lock up the thoughts that needed to be kept away (this metaphor makes a lot more sense if you’ve watched the BBC’s excellent Sherlock series). Every single person in that family has qualities that I aspire to. In a number of ways, they have been a mental compass for me.
I think he enjoyed talking to me. If he didn’t, he was a great actor. The last time I saw him, he was trying to learn programming. He spent a lot of time on the phone with his older brother, trying to learn C# and .Net. We talked about the philosophy of Object Oriented Programming. What does a method call mean? I tried explaining the concepts of encapsulation and separation of concerns. I honestly don’t know whether any of it stuck. He was so excited about learning something new. He was raving about how .Net was the only thing you’d ever need, full stop. Sadly, that evening, I couldn’t stay very long, as I had to attend my grandfather’s funeral the next morning. We vaped on his terrace for a few minutes, just before I left, and we talked about how next time, he should come and visit me in Copenhagen. We arranged that he would try and come in February or March; or maybe even for the new year. We hugged it out, tightly, as we always did when we said goodbye. That warm and friendly embrace that is less about saying hello or goodbye, and more about just showing appreciation and affection. He guided me as I backed up my car onto the road, and I drove off. I didn’t need the guidance, but I let him. I think he was just imitating his father.
Little did I know that it was the last time I would see one of my best friends. He was taken by a mental illness that he had been battling for most of his life. Nay, an illness that his whole family had been fighting for decades.
The day after receiving news of his passing, I stood in front of the massive wooden door of the family house. This door, which for so many years I had always been looking forward to knock on, now scared the hell out of me. I tried a few times to walk up to it and just ring the doorbell, but couldn’t—not right away, at least. I don’t even remember who opened the door. This house that usually warmed you up to the core now chilled my bones. I just remember his mom trying to show her eternal warmth and trying to be welcoming. As she walked towards me, she greeted me with such a soft and genuine smile. She thanked me for coming all the way from Denmark, telling me I shouldn’t have. By the time I held her in my arms, she was weeping and sobbing, crying into my shoulder, asking me why he had done it. Asking whether I had known. Asking if he’d said anything.
There are no words.
In that situation, there is nothing one can say. Our whole society trains us, educates us in the common idioms to use when somebody passes. The pleasantries to exchange in order to make the living feel better. Words to appease the survivors. I remember uttering “she led a very long and beautiful life” just a few months prior. Or maybe the more spiritual “he’s in a better place now” from a fortnight earlier. None of those stupid phrases work in this scenario. You just hold them, and you sob with them. So I held her, and quietly sobbed with her, in the middle of the door frame. You hope someone comes to comfort her. As if anyone could come and comfort a mourning mother for the death of her son. You wait, politely, for someone to break the ranks. You answer the stupid questions, whose answers nobody actually cares about. “Did you fly in this morning?” someone will ask. You simply take in and smile at the more difficult questions. “Why did you even bother coming?” someone else might ask.
You show them that he was loved. You show them that they are, too. You show them how to undelete the pictures that didn’t make the cut just a week ago. You go through the recycle bin on their phone to recover the pictures that were too blurry or overexposed. They’re good enough, now. They’re precious enough, now. You have some soup or some cake, and you join in on the chorus when everyone says how good it is. This time, the “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” aren’t any less genuine; they just have a different undertone. You play Duplo with his daughter, and you try to keep it together when she says “I think daddy has slept enough now; now he has to come play with me.” And then you try to figure out when you’re supposed to leave. Not because you don’t want to be there, but because you can’t tell when they don’t want you there any more. When they can’t have you there any more. Again, you wait, politely, for someone to break the ranks.
And you force yourself to remember the good parts. Him greeting you through a window with a gorgeous smile. Him driving you around down town. Him hugging you one very last time. Him being eternally positive about getting you to quit smoking, even though he never managed to kick it, for good. Talking about mountain bikes. Talking about heart breaks. Talking about what we want to be in five years.
Cover photo by Jeremy Bishop.