Gordon Darroch, a British journalist, is the author of All the Time We Thought We Had, a deeply affecting memoir on life with his Dutch wife Magteld and their two sons, and their relocation to the Netherlands while she was critically ill. He graciously took some questions from Anastasia Drost about his recently published book.
When and why did you decide to write a memoir about your family's experience of the terminal cancer diagnosis of your wife Magteld? Has it been a part of your grieving process?
It was a significant part of the grieving process – actually, looking back I feel it prolonged the process, but I’m still glad I did it. I’d thought about writing an account of Magteld’s cancer treatment at the time and even kept a diary for a while, until the emotional toll of caring for her forced me to stop. I knew quite soon after she died that I wanted to write a book, but I wasn’t sure if I had enough material. It was such a chaotic and busy period of my life that writing it all down was about the only way I could rationalise what had happened. About eight months into the process I wrote a short version and entered it into a competition; it got on the long list, but more importantly it showed me that I could make a coherent story out of those events that people could relate to. Then it was just a matter of finding the time to write it all down, edit it and get it published. Setting myself that challenge helped me focus my thoughts at a time when they might otherwise have overwhelmed me. The other thing was that my children were too young to have deep, involved conversations about the loss of their mother, especially as they’re both autistic, so the computer screen was the place where I poured out all my emotional energy.
I wasn’t really prepared for the culture shock when we first arrived. I’d spent 20 years going back and forth to the Netherlands, so I flattered myself I knew the country pretty well, only to find out the hard way that living in a place is a very different experience from going there on holiday or visiting relatives. – Gordon Darroch
Moving country at the best of times is a huge undertaking, let alone when there is a serious illness happening. Did moving to the Netherlands become more of a priority after learning Magteld had cancer?
It’s not so much that it became more of a priority; we were just so committed to making the move that it would have been even more disruptive to turn back. Especially for the children, who wouldn’t have been able to understand why we were changing our plans all over again. We’d spent two years making preparations and Magteld had been going through cancer treatment for most of that time. And she was Dutch, so she wanted to spend her last days with her family around her. For all those reasons it made more sense to press ahead with the move, because there was no Plan B.
You seemed to have undergone a shift in your feelings about some aspects of Dutch culture since living here, from some frustration with bureaucratic rigidity to gratitude for its unaffected but compassionate approach to the end of life. Can you share a bit of how your perspective on Dutch culture changed through the experience of Magteld's illness and death?
I wasn’t really prepared for the culture shock when we first arrived. I’d spent 20 years going back and forth to the Netherlands, so I flattered myself I knew the country pretty well, only to find out the hard way that living in a place is a very different experience from going there on holiday or visiting relatives. The bureaucracy is a great thing in many respects because it means things actually get done in an orderly way, but there’s a lot of paperwork involved and to an outsider it can be very intimidating when you first encounter it. I think you go through various phases when you move to a country like the Netherlands. At first you walk about in starry-eyed wonder at the clean streets, the fleets of bicycles and the plum-straight canals. Then you start to feel worn down by the endless regulation and the fact that nobody will have coffee with you unless you’ve arranged it six weeks in advance. So you learn to love the place, but it’s a mature, critical kind of love, which in my view is much healthier. I definitely think the Dutch have a more constructive attitude to death: people are much more open about discussing the end of life and how they want to say goodbye to their family and friends when the time comes. British people tend to avoid the subject, as if the fact that you’re going to die is some kind of guilty secret that you shouldn’t share with anyone. Families grieve together in the Netherlands, which I see as a positive thing.
Experiencing grief is always difficult, particularly in a different culture. In your book there is a story about your being helped by strangers after a bicycle accident on an icy morning. You seemed to appreciate the feeling of belonging to a community. How are you weathering the experience of grieving in a different culture?
I look back on that episode as a kind of turning point, when I realised that beneath all that bureaucracy and formality there are still human hearts beating. My experience has been that people are always willing to drop everything and help out in an emergency, sometimes to a fault. You get a lot of unsolicited advice from strangers, not all of which is welcome. But it’s still better, on balance, than being ignored or suffering in silence. Having said that, there were times when the loneliness was amplified by the fact that most of my friends were on the other side of the North Sea. That’s partly a male thing too – men aren’t so good at opening up to each other when they’re feeling down, and the more formalised culture here sometimes deters you from taking that first step of picking up the phone and calling someone.
You open your book with two quotes, by a Dutch and a British philosopher respectively.
"Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it." – Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
"So what if I die. Let me discover what it is that I want and fear from love." – Gillian Rose, Love's Work
Why these quotes and was the Dutch/British thing intentional?
Anastasia Drost is the Editor in Chief of Amsterdam Mamas. She lives in Amsterdam, returned after many years, this time with a Dutch husband and two children.