Tears on seeing photos of the Institution’s interior
Tears sneaked over Sophie’s cheeks as the last glimmer of hope faded. What was now a beautiful property with modest-sized buildings had lulled Sophie and her sister into hoping that Alida’s last year had been pleasant.
‘Is it okay to show you more? Or is it too much for you to bear?’ The retired nurse knelt back away from his file.
‘I’d be silly to miss anything you can show me. Really you are only confirming my suspicions, and I’d rather know some facts than be left to imagine them.’
‘So even in the church in the centre, men and women are separated.’ The nurse reached to find the photo in his over-filled file. ‘Look! You see the pulpit is on top of this three-metre-high wall?’
Sophie dabbed her tears with her hankie, replaced her spectacles, then peered at the black-and-white photo showing a dark wooden staircase, which curved from the floor to the top of a white wall where a waist-high circular box pulpit perched on top of a marble pillar. At the front of the left side there were both women and men sitting with heads not looking at the priest – he was too high for most to see, and many others were seated between him and the alter with their backs to him.Sophie began to laugh, ‘Oh my goodness! I can believe it. I was brought up in the Catholic faith. But this is amazing. May I take a photo of it?’
‘Yes, of course.’ The retired nurse pointed. ‘You see a fence at the front on the other side of the wall?’
‘Are you going to say this was to prevent patients from paying attention to attendees from outside the institution rather than to the mass?’
He nodded. ‘And men and women were kept separate over on the patient’s side.’
Sophie’s smile morphed to a scowl, but she kept her thoughts to herself as she stroked the daffodil plant beside Alida’s headstone. As if they were children! There’s no way they could get up to anything serious while surrounded by people watching them. Especially in those days when people were so obedient to the Catholic Church. On top of that, patients with mental illness would’ve been drugged and punished into submission, too scared to put a foot out of line.
She looked at the nurse again.
He leaned forward and turned to a photo of a corridor.
Sophie gasped. ‘Oh goodness! The corridor which Tante Bea often spoke about. It disturbed her greatly. She was a social worker and had visited a number of these institutions during the war. Then in the 1950s after she had married Alida’s son, the eldest child; she began visiting Alida. She would describe how Alida would come walking down a long corridor, showing no emotion.’
The nurse’s nod made Sophie think he held the same feelings as her aunt Bea. She stared at the photo where the flat light cover seemed to make up over a quarter of the corridor width. It shows how narrow it must be, she thought, then said, ‘The ceiling hardly clears the doorway – even I feel like I’d have to duck to not hit my head on the light cover.’
He pointed at the bright narrow shaft of light at the far end of the corridor. ‘You see the daylight entering the open doorway?’
‘Yes, it shows how dark the long tunnel is, despite the windows and lights. The darker tiles up the walls make it feel so claustrophobic. Augh!’ She shuddered. ‘If you weren’t depressed when you went into that place, you soon would be.’
‘You see the next photo? Look how long they made the windows in some later renovations.’
‘There are many more, too. And quite large openings at the top – I can see how the inward slope would make it extremely difficult to climb out – thank goodness for a little bit of fresh air. I’ve noticed how oppressive the hot wet weather can be with all the humidity in Holland.’
The nurse moved sideways to sit on his right buttock, hand clasping his left knee bent up, ‘Did you notice that they’ve also lifted the ceiling?’
‘Oh! I see there is also a nice arch window over the doorway, halfway along the passage. So were the bedrooms along the other side of the corridor?’
He frowned. ‘Actually worse. Dormitories!’
Sophie pulled her hands down the sides of her head. ‘How on earth could Alida have ever slept?’
He whispered. ‘When you have so much medication, you struggle to stay awake at all.’
‘My whole body is crying. That is not living. No wonder they are called zombies.’ She sobbed, and wiped away the tears with her hands. Deep loud intakes of breath between repeated gasps took over. After some minutes, she wailed, ‘How could Alida have endured it for a whole year at this place?’
He stretched out his left hand toward Sophie, ‘The good side of the medication is that it takes away the patient’s emotional pain. They don’t feel what you are right now.’
‘But that is no life!’ Sophie thumped the soft green grass with her fist. ‘That is making zombies of people. To think that Alida probably had exactly the same existence at the institutions where she was detained in the previous forty-seven years – is, is just unbelievable.’
‘I agree entirely. I am still working in a non-nursing capacity, but also volunteer as a guide here to show people how it was. You could join in a tour if you were staying in Holland longer.’
Sophie wiped the tears and blew her nose. ‘This is great work that you are doing. Bedankt for bringing me the pictures so that I can see inside the institution.’
‘Are you sure that you would you like to see some more?’
Sophie nodded, ‘Even if I can just take a quick photo and think about them later. Next year I’d like to come on a tour.’
He turned to a patient’s drawing of what it was like in that corridor. ‘You know the Dutch artist?’
‘There are many in Holland. Which one?’
‘Ans Markus. She’s done many artists’ impression of life in the institution over the years.’
Sophie shook her head and wrote down the name and continued to take photos. She hardly glanced at the following pictures except to fit and focus them on her small phone screen. The pictures activated her problem-solving brain and she asked him if they were working with the Hearing Voices Network.
He looked blank, so she mentioned the first conference in Maastricht, and how it had been started by the Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme at Maastricht University Hospital. But the nurse didn’t seem to know him. Feeling much more comfortable speaking from her counselling professional perspective, she described how the therapy had resolved and controlled many patients’ schizophrenic experiences.
After some more conversation as colleagues, Sophie volunteered, ‘I’ve written my aunt’s account of Alida’s story last year, and hope that maybe you can help spread it around to help others to understand the patterns which repeat, and how to get help to change them.‘
The nurse began to tidy up and asked how many grandchildren Alida had.
She told him about all the grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great granddaughters. Tears of joy welled as she felt happy talking about how Alida’s life continued to spread all over the world.
Finally, the sunlight had disappeared, and they stood ready to go. The nurse clasped her hand with both of his in a poignant handshake, and said, ‘It’s been an incredibly special evening.’
After he’d loaded up his book and file into his bag, and they began the fifty metre walk to the exit and his bike, he asked, ‘I’d like your permission to write the story that you’ve told me.’
‘Yes, but I would like you to email it to me, even if it’s in Dutch. I can translate it on Google so I have the approximate story.’ Sophie held eye contact with him as long as she could in an effort to determine his motive without demanding to know. ‘And please would you email the photos you took to me?’
They reached his dark olive bike, barely visible in the soft evening light, parked in the corner of the two-metre high, dark green hedge. Sophie walked past a little and turned to face him. She could’ve hugged him, but just said, ‘Hartelijk bedankt for your time, help and showing me all these photos. Especially for allowing me to take some photos. Tot ziens.’ She really hoped that she could catch up with him again on her next visit to Holland.
‘Ja, tot ziens.’ His smile was wide as he extended another heartfelt handshake with warm eye contact.
As Sophie walked for half an hour to the quaint white train station, she was trembling with joy, and occasionally tears threatened. She felt like was in a dream, trying to hold the kaleidoscope of emotions in her memory.