Life stories: 'Orphaned' at 36

Last updated 05:00 07/01/2013
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Bart Couprie, left, with his parents and brother about 1972.

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At the age of 36, my twin brother and I each held one of our mother's hands as her breathing slowly eased, and finally stopped. That was almost nine years ago now, and the anniversary of that day approaches. It's the day that my brother and I lost our last surviving parent.

Our father passed when I was three months past my 6th birthday. He was only 55 when he left us, with lungs permanently damaged by smoking and the privations of occupied Holland during the war, from which he never recovered. At such a young age, and looking back over the 39 years that have passed, I have very few real memories of the man, just a feeling that there was someone who loved me, and wished he could have stayed.

My mother re-married another Dutchman, and he took over the role of my father. He knew my father before he passed and in the way of the world, he gradually took up a larger part of my life. His background in the Dutch Royal Navy and his stories of travel were a great influence on me, and his steadying hand saw me first in to the local Sea Cadets, and then on to a successful naval career for myself.

Although he was my stepfather, he was, to me, Dad. And I adored him. Yes, he had a few rough edges, but he was a very good man, and in this age where so many stepfathers are regarded with contempt, he was the sort of stepfather that many men still are today. 

I remember when my brother rang me from home to tell me that Dad had been diagnosed with untreatable stomach cancer. I also remember the call some months later from my brother telling me we had to get down to Wellington as soon as possible. My wife and I didn't hesitate. Packing bags and dropping our children off at her mother's, we drove overnight from Auckland to Wellington, stopped in at home to see Mum and my brother, and then my wife and I headed straight to Hutt Hospital, to find Dad sitting up in bed, giving cheek to the nurses, and being every inch his usual self, save for the myriad of tubes and devices keeping him alive. We sat, and we talked. I was able to tell him how much he meant to me, and that I loved him. Being a father myself had given me so much more appreciation of his role in my life, and the magnitude of the duty he had taken on.

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After an hour or so, we left Dad to rest, and drove back home. When we got there, the place was in an uproar, and everyone headed back to the hospital. By the time we got there, the tumour had done its work, a blood vessel had let go. Dad had bled out.

Mum always said he held on until my wife and I got there, then he could rest. That was about 15 years ago now.

Mum took it hard. She tried to find some purpose in her life, even moving to Australia to care for some elderly friends, before returning to New Zealand to settle in a pensioner flat. But soon we found out that cancer had returned to our family. The cancer that started in the breast quickly spread to the bones, and then to the brain where it triggered a catastrophic early onset dementia. Mum had to go in to care she quickly degraded to such a point that she was placed in to the bed she would never leave. Mum was gone months before she finally died. But once again, I got that phone call from my brother to tell me that I had to get there, and once again I drove through the night.

Mum hung on for another day and a half, and in that time I was able to reflect on the life that she had led. Leaving war torn Holland in the early 50s as a young woman to make a life in a strange country on the other side of the world. Her early days as a tram conductress, where a young man who attempted to take advantage received a slap in the face for his troubles, with a hand that still contained the ticket clipper and delivered a broken jaw. A woman who was widowed twice. A woman who tried to raise two boys as best as she could, on the other side of the world from her extended family.

Mum passed at the age of 69, and I was barely 36.

A couple of days after Mum passed, I was having a drink with my brother, and one of us, I can't remember which one, said: "Hey, you know what? We're orphans now."

That's when it hit me. Although I am married, with three children of my own, the realisation that the generation that went before you is now gone can be a lot to take in. I know that this is the natural order of things, but then, I was only 36 and that felt too young to have lost your parents.

Halfway down the stairs in my house, there is a picture of my mother taken at my brother's wedding. Her arms are outstretched and she has the biggest smile on her face, looking for all the world like she's about to leap out of the frame and give me a hug.

I may be 45 years old now, and that time has passed, but there's not a day goes by when I don't wish I could have that hug.

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