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Mo & Tineke on 17.09.22 @Radboud, Nijmegen
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The living dead

Published 17.10.2022

On 31 July 2020, Arnhem lost one of the strongest women I have ever known. My mother. In the process, the neighbors lost a place where the door was always open, and coffee and cookies ready to be offered. And her friends lost a chatty woman where the music was always just a little too loud. After the Surinamese women from the Arnhem neighborhood Broek sang their goodbyes, and her hearse drove off, it suddenly became a lot quieter on Valckenierstraat.

The question of life and death is one that fascinates me. What does it mean to be dead? Does that only happen when your organs stop functioning? Does living then equate to drawing breaths and posessing a beating heart? If this is so, then there is something I don’t understand. After all, biology tells us that everything living, from the largest animal to the smallest bacteria, does their utmost to stay alive. But when my mother received the news that she had cancer in her lungs and it had now completely metastasized throughout her body, she had only one response: I want to die now.

Her lungs may have been black with soot and filled with fluid that complicated her breathing, but she was still alive. After hearing this news, she lived for five more months. She got up, took a few steps in a day, she ate a little and drank a little. We listened to music together, she enjoyed her favorite pastime: making playlists (with still 192 public playlists online and as many as 1379 Spotify followers)! We binge-watched fantasy and comedy series on Netflix, just like we used to do together when I was young. She herself may not have wanted to live, but her biological constituents were thankfully doing their best to keep her going.

Still, the pain was undeniable. As bad as people are at tolerating pain, they are at hiding it. You saw it in her gaze, heard it in the ways she talked about the past, felt it when she asked you something. For my mother, her life had all but ended. It was only in the months I cared for her that I understood that this ´ending´ was not the moment the cancer was found in her lungs, but many years long since. With the realization of this, also came the realization that I had seen, heard and felt her pain since I was little. I just never could have imagined that the pain weighed so heavily on her.

Strong women can carry a lot of pain. But bearing is just a way of living as it is a way of dying. If it was up to her and she wouldn’t have hurt her children and family because of it, she would have left life long ago. The worst part is that I can’t even blame her. Life is just so fucking hard. Her condition reminds me of zombies. A creature that is alive and therefore moving, making changes in the world around them, but which at its core has no feeling, no happiness, no love, and tenderness. Now I don’t want to say that my mother knew no feeling, happiness, or love. But I cannot deny that these fine feelings were scarce in her emonomy: her emotional home.

That the dominating feeling was one of numbness, of an out of the body experience and seeing oneself moving on autopilot, of repetitive thoughts, some darker than others. How could it be otherwise? If you would stop to think about what people go through and how all that suffering shapes us, you would also understand, you would understand why some people walk the way they walk, talk the way they talk, are moved the way they are moved, and why the living dead have it many times harder than the dead who are deceased.

This piece is therefore dedicated not only to my mother, but to all the living dead who walk the earth. It seems paradoxical, impossible, to be both alive and dead at the same time. But if you have become numb due to the continuous setbacks, or because you experience mainly woes and sorrows. Or that your freedom of movement is limited by your physical condition or your financial condition, preventing you from moving out of your neighborhood, city or this country. That your intimate and social relationships run aground because you cannot get rid of the flashbacks that make it difficult to really let someone in. To really feel their love. When you're mostly preoccupied with the stress and headaches of operating in this system that gives you signs that you don't fully matter on a daily basis. That you find yourself on the margins of societies where you are forgotten and don't get the attention you need.

How can you live respectably, a life that deserves your reverence, when you actually move in structural injury. If you have not been able to process at all what has happened to you and therefore your reactions are driven by hurt. Understandable hurt. Hurt from lasting uncomfortable or even violent circumstances. Hurt from being evicted from your house because you have to make way for higher income earners in the neighborhood. Hurt from an education demanding something from you that you never really have space for. Hurt from literally working yourself to death to pay off groceries, utility bills and any debts. All to do it again the next day, do it again next month, do it again next year.

Pain is part of life, but structural hurt is traumatizing. How does a wound heal from trauma heal if fingers keep prodding at those wounds? And there are no indications that those fingers will pull away from the wound any time soon. How does that gaping hole ever turn into a healthy healed scar? A scar on which one can reflect and acknowledge that there was once pain, but that it is possible to move on. And, that we can then echo and harmonize with the world around us in love.

Translation: Nathalie Hartjes