Ofira Koopmans


Goch-Asperden, Germany, Friday, October 7


“Did you come for me?”

“Yes, ima, I came for you. “

Your eyes, incredulous at first, are grateful. “I’m glad you came.”

“I’m glad I came too.”

You stare at me some more. “You’re beautiful.”

I think I understood what you just said, but want to be sure. It is hard to understand your articulation. Vocal cords are muscles. Parkinson’s has affected them too. You used to sing. “What did you say, ima?”

‘You’re beautiful.”

When was the rare, last time you said that to me? I get up, kneel beside you, and put my head on your shoulder. You knead my shoulder muscle and start a story about my birth, but in mid-sentence forget and say you are tired. Not too tired, though, to part with some of your wisdom, through the prism of your sixth age, your last scene of all that ends your strange and eventful history. “Don’t do too much. You have a tendency to be all over the place.”

I laugh through my tears.

“Don’t cry. It’s good that you came. For these tears,” you soothe. “From everyone, one must part eventually.”

My older brother, twin sister and I grew up in the west of the Netherlands by the North Sea, but you and my father moved to this farmhouse on the border with Germany after he retired. I had meanwhile emigrated to Israel, where I married.

Given that you are one of the most incompatible couples I have ever encountered, it is remarkable you have been together for more than fifty years. You, the only daughter of German Jews who fled to British-governed Palestine months after Hitler rose to power, were nine when David Ben Gurion proclaimed Israeli statehood. My father, then, was an eleven-year-old schoolboy growing up on a tiny farm in the northeast of the Netherlands. He knew about “the Israelites” only through the Old Testament his Protestant father read from before each meal. The oldest of five siblings, he was the only one to go to university, milking the cows with his books on his lap. Intrigued by the Promised Land, he travelled to Haifa by boat to take up a temporary doctor’s position. You were his Hebrew teacher. After he returned to the Netherlands, you gave him an ultimatum: “Either you take me with you, or I’ll cut off contact.”

My older brother, sororal twin sister and I grew up mostly among secular Christians in the Dutch town of Voorschoten, where my father had a clinic. You only celebrated improvised versions of the three major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and Pesah—with no guests since we knew almost no other Jews. We always lit a Hanukiah next to our Christmas tree.


Berry, apple, pear, acorn and chestnut trees grow on the land that belongs to the farmhouse. The 5.44 dunams (5,440 square metres) include a grass meadow and a large pond, by which we sat the August in which I announced I was getting divorced, drinking tea at the moss-green garden table. I have not forgotten your response. “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

The strings of beads—strung before the front door to keep out insects—are so unsuited to the old-style farmhouse with its wooden shutters painted in white and moss-green, that they are indicative of your odd, incongruous, mismatched marriage. He is quiet and hardworking; a devout Christian Dutchman. You are dominant and talkative; a secular Jewish Israeli.

His devotion to you stuns me.


Saturday, October 8


Roswitha, the caregiver, asks for my help lifting you from your wheelchair into the shower. She works for a private homecare company subsidised by the Ministry of Health. Each morning and evening, she or a colleague arrives to wash and haul you out of bed and back into it. It is a sunny morning. “It’s not easy for me to see my mother like this,” I tell her. You lie naked on your bed in your ground-floor room opposite the kitchen. A blue vein visible under your transparent skin traverses your chest above your large breasts. You must weigh eighty or eighty-five kilos.

“I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t love my patients. But I have to keep my distance. Otherwise, I’d be crying all day.”

“How can you love and keep your distance at the same time?”

“Not everyone can.” Roswitha wheels you into the living room. On the count of three, she and I hoist you from your wheelchair into your recliner. “I believe I’ll see them in the hereafter.” Her purple-dyed crew cut and tattoo stand out against her pristine nurse’s overcoat. My eyes are wet. “I wish I could believe that too. I believe everything in the Universe is just energy.”

I take you outside for a walk in your wheelchair. The autumn sun enlivens the green of the fields and blue of the sky, sliced by white stripes formed by silent gliders taking off from a nearby field. I push you all the way to a neighbouring farm where hens strut through overgrown grass. Before we get there, you tell me something important: You and my father agreed that you would both be cremated. Really, however, you would like to die and be buried in Israel. You know that is unfeasible. I hear, in your hoarse voice, resigned regret.


You are no longer able to fly. A decade has passed since you last visited your homeland, where I raise two of your grandsons.

You were five when you were sent to a children’s home in Rosh Pina in the north of Israel. What should have lasted one month, lasted almost one year, because oma was looking for a job. You asked for a doll, which a family friend brought to you, but it had holes covered with plasters. You cried with disappointment.

As an only child, you often came home from school to an empty apartment, opening the front door with a key you carried around your neck. In your characteristic Israeli-German accent when speaking Dutch, you called yourself a “schleutelkind,” a key child.

Each time you told these childhood anecdotes to your three children, they tore my heart— no matter how often and from how young an age I heard them.


Ima, you should never have told me that you did not love my twin sister. I understand you needed someone to talk to. But I was not your friend. I was a girl. You were the adult, Naomi my twin sister.

I do not remember how old I was when you first shared your terrible secret with me. I think I was in my room on the second floor of our terrace house in our middle-class neighbourhood named after classical composers. The unfashionable purple curtains were drawn across the large window facing the street. Did you knock on my door and stand on the threshold?

From then on you would often confide in me. I sensed how unfair your favouritism of me was to Naomi. I grew up sharing your terrible guilt. I feel anger when I think about all that was so very wrong during our childhood and youth.

But ima, the compassion I will feel when I see the grateful smile on your face and look in your eyes as I part from you at the end of this six-day visit—and the compassion I will feel three weeks later when I fly to you a second time, finding you lying unresponsive on your bed, breathing audibly, the smell of ammonia filling your room—will erase all anger.


Sunday, October 9


“Isn’t it time for you to get up??” My father throws open the door to my upstairs room. It is maybe 9 am. I fell asleep at 3 am. “Mama has been scolding me all morning. You be with her a bit. If not, I’ll top myself!”

For the first time, the caretaker could not lift you out of bed. You were too heavy, your muscles too weak now to lean or hang onto the railing. Forced to stay in bed without being transferred to your recliner, you scolded her, and your husband too. I quickly get dressed and rush downstairs.

My father generally insists he is fine caring for you most of the day. During the night too, he checks on you several times. In the EU, it is uncommon to hire live-in foreign workers. They are expensive and must be replaced every three months, as temporary work permits cannot be extended. My father does not want to send you to a nursing home. You do not want to go to one. The task alone of helping you to the toilet, hoisting you onto a chair with a hole in it, is almost impossible and horrible. I help anyway, swallowing hard, feeling useless, awaiting my father’s orders. He hands me the tub. “Take this upstairs and flush it down the toilet.” How does he do this every day? You are lucky he is a doctor, used to filth and excrement.


I am not hungry, but sit down with you at the kitchen table.

“No one speaks with me,” you complain. You try to raise a glass of apple juice squeezed within your shaking fist to your lips.

“No, don’t. Everything will get wet.” My father takes the glass from you and holds it close to your mouth. You insist. Your body giving up on you but your intellect still intact; it must be so horrible to depend on others for the most basic of things.

When we are alone, you try to explain: “You almost understand, but you don’t understand. From a human being, you become a beast.”


Monday, October 10


We continue our ongoing conversation, exchanges cut short because you tire quickly.

“I never knew it was so hard to die.” You lean back in your recliner. A pink neck pillow steadies your head underneath your short, grey hair. Your mouth is frozen into a grimace. A chequered blanket covers you up to your armpits. Your bony fingers clench into a fist. “I thought about suicide. But that’s no solution either. How can you know if it will succeed?”


I need to breathe, take my father’s traditional Dutch black bicycle out of the shed and cycle to the nearest town on the Dutch side of the border, Gennep. On the way back, I ride through a dale along the Niers, a stream that pours into the River Maas, along rows of oak trees and meadows where cows, horses, sheep, and a pair of donkeys graze calmly. I cross a tiny wooden bridge over the Kendel, a narrow offshoot of the Niers, and am back on German soil, in Hassum, a village near you.

One month later, on a second visit, I will cycle to Gennep along the Niers again, and delight at the magnificent sight of a flock of wild geese flying back and forth over the valley—as if mirroring your attempts to adjust to new environments. You, an only child, however, never learned to fly in a group V-formation, and continue to feel alien in a climate zone colder than the one you grew up in.


Wednesday, October 12


I understand that this moment will be, with near certainty, the last I hold you alive. “Mama is cold now.” My father stands by the brick well, the space that once embraced groundwater now overflowing with daisies growing in earth. His hands rest on the handles of your wheelchair, his back turned to the ill-suited beaded curtain concealing the front door. I rise and hug him too.

Through the taxi’s rear window, I consciously take in the view of the receding house in the muted morning sunlight, the fields, and the oak- and lime trees lining the road. I think, tears streaming down my face, I should have hugged you more. I should have hugged you longer.


Saturday, November 5


“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” My brother’s eyes look red and wet through my phone screen. Mine are too. I stand still on the staircase of a Tel Aviv building, about to drive Eden home from a playdate. Barely three weeks have passed since the mild mid-October morning on which I left you. You have stopped eating and drinking and slipped into an unconscious state; My brother moves his smartphone closer to your ear.

Ima, please wait for me. I’ve bought a ticket for tomorrow. Please hold on. I want to hold your hand.”


Sunday, November 6


The entire plane ride I worry I will come too late. Over the next two-and-a-half days I sit by your side.

I sing “Ima Yekara Li” (My Mother is Dear to Me) and read from a collection of poems I found that you wrote in Hebrew for and about my oldest son.

Ima, I am here. You are not alone,” I say several times. “You have had so many difficult moments in your life, but also many beautiful moments, of laughter, schaterlachen (‘roars of laughter’ in Dutch) even, of singing.”

Even if you no longer respond, I hope so much you hear me.


After I returned to Tel Aviv from my first visit in mid-October, I asked my father whether you would like me to take your ashes back to Israel and place them on your parents’ grave in Haifa. They are buried in a Jewish cemetery at the foot of Mount Carmel between evergreen cypresses standing tall against the sharp blue Middle Eastern sky and the turquoise of the Mediterranean Sea. Cypresses, you always told us, are your favourite tree. Turquoise is your favourite colour. My father told me you were still fully lucid when you answered positively.


Parkinson’s made you unable to fly to Tel Aviv six years ago for the birth of your youngest grandson. In his six years, you have seen him seven stingy times during fleeting visits to your farmhouse. You were always so lonely for most of the year, uprooted from your homeland—although even growing up in Israel you never truly felt at home either. And yet, during our summer visits to your native land, you glowed.

You would wear your lilac summer dress, or the one sewn of almost transparent black material, light and flowing. We would visit your child- and young-adulthood friends and acquaintances, bathe at the beach below Mount Carmel, swim in the Sea of Galilee and pools, and devour lunches of olives and white cheese on mawns growing grass kept green by sprinklers—grass coarser than the fine, bright type I was used to in the Netherlands. Sometimes we would join your friends for kumsitzes—gatherings around a small bonfire—in groves on aromatic pine needles or slender, silver-green eucalyptus leaves, roasting potatoes in black jackets smelling burnt, and eating round, white pita bread.

Each year, we would spend six weeks in your parents’ flat on Mount Carmel. The simple beige building stands partly hidden behind green foliage and brown bark on the edge of a wadi, looking out at the Mediterranean. Your parents had bought the breezy three-room apartment with as many balconies when you were thirteen—after inheriting a fraction of a fortune made by a distant relative who had sold glass after an earthquake somewhere in the United States—or so our family legend goes. Before that, your parents had had to move around in the Qrayot, Haifa’s suburbs, sharing rented apartments with other struggling immigrant couples.


“I’ll take you home ima, would you like that?” I ask you several times as you lie motionless in your room.


Wednesday, November 9, shortly before 14:00


I cannot hear your shallow, gurgling breathing when I walk into your room. I move closer and bend over. Ima, can you still hear me? I place my ear on your chest. Why wasn’t I with you the whole morning? Why did I have to wash those damn dishes? I climb onto the bed and lean on your body. Minutes pass before I call my father.


Sunday, December 4


The four of us are left to consider the irony of you ending up dying in Germany of all places, the land your parents fled from. You also died on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. We reach a compromise we each feel at peace with; to disperse almost all of your ashes in the stratosphere. We watch two large white spheres cradling what is left of you rising from a frosty field by the Netherlands-Germany border, floating higher until they become two grey dots blending with the grey sky. Beyond our eyesight they continue ascending, expanding and expanding, until the air is so thin that they snap, scattering you above Western Europe.


But a sample of what I feel can mean your essence—if anything at all can—I keep in the pocket of my bulky, white winter coat, my fingers touching it from time to time.

And so I do take you back with me to Israel, to Haifa, to your place of birth, to the cemetery at the foot of your beloved Mount Carmel. Friends help me pour the airy grey powder into a small turquoise-glazed jar. We bury it inside your mother’s grave.


Ofira Koopmans is a former correspondent, currently transitioning from journalistic to creative writing. As such, she is writing a thesis for the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University, Israel. The thesis is to be incorporated into a memoir about her experiences following brain surgery while pregnant with her second son. Born and raised in the Netherlands to a Christian father and a Jewish mother, she now lives in Tel Aviv.



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