I lost my Great Uncle this week.
It’s not that it was unexpected, though perhaps it was, as he was 91 years old and of course, that’s a good life.
Still, the spectre of loss. The idea that I’ll never hear his voice again. It’s difficult. It’s sad. It’s left me a little off kilter all week.
I first met him almost twenty years ago. A trip across the world that ultimately changed the path of my life. From the first time I met him, even though he was in his seventies at the time, I always got the impression of a mischievous young boy peeking out at me. To me, there was always a sparkle in his eye, a joke yet to be played.
The first time I met him, I only expected to visit for an afternoon. I didn’t know the effect it would have on me. I didn’t know that going to the place where he lived would forever leave half my soul there. We ended up staying for days. Coming back and staying for more… and then later, I came back and stayed for much more.
My entire reason for attempting to learn Norwegian was so that I could communicate with him. Part of a generation in which the English didn’t flow like it does with everyone today.
Early on, I always had a little Norwegian / English translation book. That helped.
I think some of my favourite memories left that little book behind.
I stayed in Mundheim, Norway. The village he lived in for close to four months in 2002-2003. I had plenty of time to bond with Hans. The truth was, we were already bonded. As was often the case in Norway, I was a piece of his family coming back to him. I was a piece of his sister back from a lifetime away.
On Christmas Eve every year, Hans would take flowers up to his parent’s graves. It was a short walk to the town cemetery. We walked together. Communicating as we could. Hans never had a word of English. I had been trying to learn Norwegian. It had been hit and miss. We walked up and cleared the snow off of their graves. We laid flowers down and lit candles. I stood there with tears in my eyes, watching a man honour his parents. My Great Grandparents. People I had never known. A deep respect that it had been a long time since I had had for my own father. But such a deep connection with a family that a few short years before I had never known existed.
Later on, we drove together. Christmas dinner at his daughter’s house. Across the fjord.
I remember feeling hesitant. Feeling unsure of my ability to communicate. Hans & I driving together for roughly an hour. Twenty minutes to the ferry. Thirty five minutes across the fjord. Twenty minutes on the other side.
If there had been an option to go a different way, I probably would have taken it. In the end I was so glad I didn’t.
We talked along the way. We tried to get meanings across. He used words that he thought I would know. Half the time I did. I remember talking about television… in Norsk, fjernsyn. Maybe we talked about the farm. the barn, the sheep. I don’t remember exactly.
Then, about halfway across the fjord, he turned to me. The sparkle was in his eye. He said, in Norwegian, “Jonathan… you know I speak English, right?”
I looked at him. A little shocked. Said something along the lines of “Oh. You speak English, huh? Did I understand that right?”
He looked back at me. The mischievous twinkle was there. Very slowly, very deliberately… four words came out of his mouth. They sounded foreign. They sounded wrong. They sounded like English. Kind of.
“I love you Jonathan.”
I am lucky to have loved and to have been loved. I have said those words and I’ve heard them said about me. I can’t say I remember every time I’ve been told I am loved. I remember that one.
I’ll always remember that one.
We were lucky enough to have been able to spend a considerable amount of time in Norway over the years. I am lucky to have rekindled connections in my family with part of us.
I spent a lot of time just watching Hans. I could see my father in him. I could see myself in him. He wasn’t perfect. He was stubborn in a way that runs through all of us. His relationships weren’t always perfect.
I saw so much of myself in him sometimes.
He was incredible in a lot of ways. Over the course of all those years… he built a hytte. A summer cabin in English. Every time we went back to Norway, there was a new part he was only to happy to show off. The first time I was there, it was just a foundation. Cement on the ground. Then there was a cabin, a beautiful cabin. The next time there was a dock, a shed, a dumb waiter from the dock up to near the house. The next time there was a miniature orchard of fruit trees. Paths all around the property. There was always something. He was proud of it. He always wanted to show me more.
The last time I was there, he led me around the property. Showing me his trees. Showing me new paths. As we were walking down the path, he got caught in a tree. I stood there watching him, expecting him to pull himself out. Expecting that it was part of a joke.
His health and sight had faded enough by that point that he was really caught in it. His daughter ran down and pulled him out.
I learned early on in my trips to Norway that no one is forever. That someone could always be gone by the next trip. In fact, in that last trip in 2014, I fully realized that it would likely be the last time I saw Hans.
Still, I’ll say that knowing he is no longer there has hit me hard this week. I can still hear his voice in my head. See his smile. See the mischievous twinkle.
Thanks for everything Hans. Takk for alt.
You taught me many important lessons. You didn’t teach them to me with words. You taught them to me with who you were.
I am a better man and a better father for that.
A thousand thanks. I will miss you always.