A year or so after Tante Bep’s death [from tuberculosis], a new doctor took over Dr. Blinker’s house calls. The new man’s name was Jan van Veen, and with him came his young sister and nurse, Tine van Veen. With him also came a new gadget for taking blood pressure. We had no idea what this meant but everyone in the household submitted to having the strip of cloth wrapped around his arm and air pumped into it.
Tante Jans, who loved medical paraphernalia of every kind, took a tremendous fancy to the new doctor and from then on consulted him as often as her finances would permit. And so it was Dr. van Veen, a couple of years later, who first discovered that Tante Jans had diabetes.
In those days, this was a death sentence as surely as tuberculosis had been. For days the household was numb with the shock of it. After all these years of fearing even the idea, here was the dread thing itself. Tante Jans went straight to bed on hearing the news.
But inaction went poorly with her vigorous personality and one morning to everyone’s surprise, she appeared for breakfast in the dining room precisely at 8:10, with the announcement that doctors were often wrong. “All these tests and tubes,” said Tante Jans, who believed in them implicitly. “What do they really prove?”
And from then on she threw herself more forcefully than ever into writing, speaking, forming clubs, and launching projects. Holland, in 1914, like the rest of Europe, was mobilizing for war, and the streets of Haarlem were suddenly filled with young men in uniform. From her windows overlooking the Barteljorisstraat, Tante Jans watched them idling by, gazing aimlessly into the shop windows, most of them young, penniless, and lonesome. And she conceived the idea of a soldiers’ center.
It was a novel idea for its day and Tante Jans threw all the passion of her nature into it. The horsedrawn trolley on the Barteljorisstraat had recently been replaced with a big new electric one. But it still squealed to a stop, spitting sparks from rails and wire, when Tante Jans stood imperiously before the Beje. She would sweep aboard, her long black skirts in one hand, in the other a list of the well-to-do ladies who were about to become patronesses of the new venture. Only those of us who knew her best were aware, beneath all the activity, of the monstrous fear that drove her on.
And meanwhile her disease posed financial problems. Each week, a fresh test had to be made to determine the sugar-content of her blood, and this was a complicated and, expensive process requiring either Dr. van Veen or his sister to come to the house.
At last Tine van Veen taught me to run the weekly test myself. There were several steps involved, the most crucial being to heat the final compound to exactly the right temperature. It was hard to make the old coal-burning range in our dark kitchen do anything very precisely, but I finally learned how. From then on each Friday, I mixed the chemicals and conducted the test myself. If the mixture remained clear when heated, all was well. It was only if it turned black that I was to notify Dr. van Veen.
It was a windy, rainy Friday morning in January when my eyes told me what at first my brain refused to grasp. The liquid in the glass beaker on the kitchen stove was a muddy, sullen black
I leaned against the old wooden sink and shut my eyes. “Please God, let me have made a mistake!” I went over in my mind the different steps, looked at the vials of chemicals, the measuring spoons. No, all just the same as I’d always done.
It was this wretched room then—it was always dark in this little cupboard of a kitchen. With a pot holder, I snatched up the beaker and ran to the window in the dining room.
Black. Black as fear itself.
Still clutching the beaker, I pounded down the five steps and through the rear door of the shop. Father, his jeweler’s glass in his eye, was bent over the shoulder of the newest apprentice, deftly selecting an infinitesimal part from the array before them on the workbench.
I looked through the glass in the door to the shop, but Betsie, behind her little cashier’s desk, was talking to a customer. .… As the woman left, I burst through the door with the telltale beaker.
“Betsie!” I cried. “Oh Betsie, it’s black! How are we going to tell her? What are we going to do?”
Betsie came swiftly from behind the desk and put her arms around me. Behind me Father came into the shop. His eyes traveled from the beaker to Betsie to me.
“And you did it exactly right, Corrie? In every detail?”
“I’m afraid so, Father.”
“And I am sure of it, my dear. But we must have the doctor’s verdict too.”
“I’ll take it at once,” I said.
And so I poured the ugly liquid into a small bottle and ran with it over the slippery, rain-washed streets of Haarlem.
There was a new nurse at Dr. van Veen’s and I spent a miserable, silent half-hour in the waiting room. At last his patient left and Dr. van Veen took the bottle into his small laboratory.
“There is no mistake, Corrie,” he said as he emerged. “Your aunt has three weeks at the very most.”
We held a family conference in the watch shop when I got back: Mama, Tante Anna, Father, Betsie, and me (Nollie did not get home from her teaching job until evening). We agreed that Tante Jans must know at once.
“We will tell her together,” Father decided, “though I will speak the necessary words. And perhaps,” he said, his face brightening, “Perhaps she will take heart from all she has accomplished. She puts great store on accomplishment, Jans does, and who knows but that she is right!”
And so the little procession filed up the steps to Tante Jans’s rooms. “Come in,” she called to Father’s knock, and added as she always did, “and close the door before I catch my death of drafts.”
She was sitting at her round mahogany table, working on yet another appeal for her soldiers’ center. As she saw the number of people entering the room, she laid down her pen. She looked from one face to another, until she came to mine and gave a litle gasp of comprehension. This was Friday morning, and I had not yet come up with the results of the test.
“My dear sister-in-law,” Father began gently, “there is a joyous journey that each of God’s children sooner or later sets out on. And, Jans, some must go to their Father empty-handed, but you will run to Him with hands full!”
“All your clubs,” Tante Anna ventured.
“Your writings,” Mama added.
“The funds you’ve raised,” said Betsie.
“Your talks,” I began.
But our well-meant words were useless. In front of us, the proud face crumpled; Tante Jans put her hands over her eyes and began to cry. “Empty, empty!” she choked at last through her tears. “How can we bring anything to God? What does He care for our little tricks and trinkets?”
And then as we listened in disbelief she lowered her hands and with tears still coursing down her face whispered, “Dear Jesus, I thank You that we must come with empty hands. I thank You that You have done all—all—on the Cross, and that all we need in life or death is to be sure of this.”
Mama threw her arms around her and they clung together. But I stood rooted to the spot, knowing that I had seen a mystery. …
With a flourish of her handkerchief and a forceful clearing of her nose, Tante Jans let us know that the moment for sentiment had passed.
“If I had a moment’s privacy,” she said, “I might get some work accomplished.”
She glanced at Father, and into those stern eyes crept the nearest thing to a twinkle I had ever seen. “Not that the work matters, Casper. Not that it matters at all. But,” she dismissed us crisply, “I’m not going to leave an untidy desk behind for someone else to clean up.”
In these days, neither tuberculosis nor diabetes is a death sentence per se. Most of us have the opportunity to make it later rather than sooner.
Still, it is appointed unto man to die. I’m cleaning my desk.