Sunday, 9 October 2011

Living the Metaphor

My favourite view in Amsterdam, the Groenburgwal
When my son Daniel was stillborn in February 1998, someone sent me the following piece:

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."
"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."
But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It’s just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.
But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

Now, at the time, this piece seemed neither relevant nor helpful, nor especially sensitive. It had, in fact, been written by Emily Perl Kingsley about the experience of bringing up a disabled child, and so it did not seem at all appropriate to us. 'Afghanistan,' I'd growl, whenever I thought of it. 'Or Siberia,. Or Hiroshima just after they'd dropped the bomb. Those would be more suitable metaphors. Not bloody Holland.'

And then -  oh irony! oh coincidence! - just over a year later, we moved. To bloody Holland. And not at all at a time when I wanted to live there, or indeed live anywhere that wasn't my own home among my friends and family and people who spoke my language.

We were there for eight years. It was hard, and I was homesick, and depressed. I envied anyone who lived where they wanted to live. I found it hard to accept that I couldn't have that control over my life.

And then, you know what, there were windmills and glorious tulips and Rembrandts. There were Van Goghs and Mondriaans and wonderful new friends and beautiful parks. There was cycling and walking and picnics in the forest and many, many other lovely things. Amsterdam, it turned out, was a healing place.

I can never be as even-handed as Italy versus Holland when it comes to a child dying. I'm sure that many parents of disabled children would struggle with the concept as well. But truly, life without Daniel has not been as bleak or pointless as first we feared. Our lives took a different path, and that we learned a great deal along the way. It wasn't quite Italy/Holland -  more like going to boot camp when you were expecting a spa break. It's not what you expect, and it's extremely hard and unfair -  but in the end it's not a completely worthless experience.

I was reminded of this story last week, in synagogue for Kol Nidre, the service on the eve of the Day of Atonement. The rabbi read Emily Perl Kingsley's words and spoke about the consolations one can find in troubled times, whatever they may be. 'Living in Holland' was how he described it, and it was truly surreal as his rhetoric described my actual experience.

So, writers, be careful with your metaphors. Think them through. Someone may end up living them.


  1. Keren, this is a story they use also to help parents who discover that their children have autism and Aspergers. I think it is a metaphor that works better for those situations than for your own, because I agree with you that there is very little compensation ever to be found in losing a child. I am sorry for your loss and glad that you came to enjoy Holland in its reality and I hope that you found your way to other good destinations on the way. For me, Holland has indeed turned out to be a beautiful place and though life in Italy may be superficially easier, who's to say I wouldn't have ended up in a busy street behind an industrial estate in Rome rather than sunning myself as I expected by Lake Como?

  2. Oh, I completely understand that, which is why I felt it was a strange story to be sending someone who had a stillbirth. It is actually a very powerful and true story, but it can take time to appreciate it - and in my case, many years of actually living it.

  3. Definitely relate to this, and think you've found a far more appropriate metaphor in boot camp versus the spa. In fact, more and more I'm coming around to the idea that such is life itself--more about learning and getting string than the mud baths. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. I think finding out that your child has some form of autism is a much harsher destination that Holland over Italy although I do agree that you learn to love your own reality and appreciate it's unique offerings. Totally inappropriate for losing a child as you point out. I would use the Holland/Italy metaphor for almost any situation in life that didn't turn out how you would have planned it. I love my Holland now but I spent way too much time in Schiphol Airport trying to catch a connection to Italy when I should have gone out and enjoyed Holland.