“Other fears remain, but my fear of death is diminishing”

She had already seen many people die as a result of the AIDS epidemic, when Marli Huijer switched from medicine to philosophy to study death even more. ‘Working with it also gives me a kind of direction.’

Fokke Obbema

‘When I started studying in Amsterdam, I was out of control for eight years, I didn’t know what to do. I recognize myself in the struggles of today’s young Muslim women who have to deal with a secular, free city. I was brought up in a strictly reformed way, while Amsterdam in the 1970s was still characterized by the free 1960s. I couldn’t handle that contrast at all’.

At that time, the philosopher Marli Huijer experiences a period in her life where she studies medicine at the Free University and at the same time is part of the left-wing squatter scene. It is also a time when she seeks out her father, ‘on the brink of death’. She was also around her in the 1980s as a result of the AIDS epidemic: ‘I saw a lot of people die then, sometimes even younger than me, bizarrely confronting.’

In the 1990s, after her transition from medicine to philosophy, human mortality crosses her path again. Her thesis is called The art of just living, ‘but it could also have been called ‘the art of just dying’. For her research, she interviews AIDS patients who ‘approach death differently’ because they refuse all therapies, ‘thus actually creating a different present in our present’.

She will again contribute to such an alternative view in 2022 with The future of dying, in which she argues that modern man does not know how to deal with his finitude. Medical science has significantly increased lifespan, with the downside that our expectations of it have increased even more: ‘The desire to live longer becomes more intense the longer we live.’

Huijer will counter this denial of death with ‘attention to dying well’. She herself has the impression that she lives in ‘free time’, now that, at 67, she has outlived both her father (who died at 57) and her mother (65). She secretly thinks that the fate of her mother’s mother, who died at the age of 100, may be in store for her: ‘How was I supposed to shape all that time, I sometimes wonder. In any case, I want to write three more books before I turn 80.’

What made death play such a big role in your life?

‘When I was 7 I suddenly became aware of it. On a bad day I was riding a school bus with two brothers and a car crashed into it. Big panic, I saw a dead person on the street and my little brother was suddenly gone, he turned out to have run home. A few hours later, a neighbor drove into a house in our neighborhood. For several months I could not sleep, all the time I was afraid that a plane would hit my head. I didn’t understand that for a long time, but it probably has to do with my mother’s war trauma. She lived at Goeree-Overflakkee during the war, her sisters were in the resistance movement. Many planes flew over there, sometimes one crashed. I was baptized in a dress made from the parachute of a deceased allied paratrooper, you can’t make that up. I heard that story later from my mother, then she must have told something about a plane that crashed. This is how I explain my fear at the time. My father sat by my bed during the months when I could not sleep, my mother refused. I think it got too close to her. She also never spoke of the war again.’

Did it work out between you and your mother?

“I always had an extreme desire for any kind of intimacy with her. I never succeeded. She never touched us. As my oldest brother once put it, ‘It was a cold fish.'” Now we find that behavior incomprehensible, but in my generation, many women have never been touched by their mothers. At that time, it was quite normal. I got my warmth from my father, although he didn’t touch me either.”

How did you do it?

“My father admired the intellect of his mother, my grandmother, and directed his full attention to me. He enjoyed talking to me at an ever-higher level about everything from Sartre and Heidegger to theoretical physics, his own field. I loved that attention. What I didn’t get physically, I got intellectually. As a result, I flunked through high school. The problem was, he didn’t do it with my brothers. He was frustrated with my eldest brother’s school performance which led to endless fights. It was complicated for me because I wanted to be the boyfriend, but I also wanted my brothers to love me.

‘That image changed when I got into a big conflict with my father about religion when I was a teenager. As a reformed girl, I had ended up at a Catholic school in Eindhoven in a class full of unbelieving children. In debate with them, of course, I could not prove that God existed. When I asked my questions about this to my father, he didn’t know what to do either. He forced me to go to catechism, where the priest drove me crazy and finally asked my father if I could stop. But my father demanded that I stick to catechism. He hated me more and more during that time. Finally he thanked God on his knees when I left the house. My mother has reminded me of that joy for many years to come.’

How would you describe yourself at that time?

“A wild cat, extremely outgoing. I was the smallest of all, but had an energy beyond imagination. A little akela, with a drum leading. Also an injured bird, who manages to survive by being clever. ‘If I begin to learn really well, I can escape from here’, I thought from the age of 14. What helped me was that I had a best friend since kindergarten. Her mother always protected me. When my mother did something bad, she said : “It’s not you, it’s her.” She’s given me some of those basic trust given that my parents could not offer me.’

In your adult life, you continued to visit your parents, even though they did not like your life in Amsterdam. Were you still hoping to receive intimacy from them?

‘Yes I think so. As an adult, you retain a longing for a childhood where the world is safe and your parents protect you. Even if they don’t let you in physically and emotionally, they have still offered you some form of protection: you get a roof over your head and food. That intimacy in your childhood will be lost later, but if you, like me, have not gained basic trust, you are always insecure and you think: I did something wrong, so my parents didn’t give it to me. Then you squirm like a worm and hope that one day you will find that love.

“In my mother’s case, it was a losing battle. At the end of her life, I thought I could do it for once. She was in the hospital, bald and thin, I watched over her at night. Suddenly her hardness was gone. I touched her several times and stroked her head, she couldn’t stop either. I felt such warmth for her. The next morning I went home to take a bath. When I got back, I wanted to pet her again, but she shouted loudly: ‘You stink!’ I was completely surprised. I longed for her love, but then realized it would never come. For a moment I had come very close, she immediately slammed the door.

‘After her death the feeling prevailed: I failed. After the birth of my son, my mother and I had found each other looking after him for a few years, but it ended after a few years. We never dared to talk about her inability to touch me. After her death I had to learn to live with it. It took me a long time to process it.

“My father is doing well. When I was allowed to speak on the radio for an hour in 1983 about my work as coordinator of the Junkie Union and my ideals, he was proud of me. In his last year and a half, I had the idea of ​​getting him back. Our intellectual union overcame the harsh, religious ones. Even then he accepted that I did not believe. He never experienced my choice of philosophy, but he would have loved it.’

After all the reflection on death, how do you view your own mortality?

‘It makes dying a normal part of my life. I also talk about it a lot, for example with students who are confronted with the death of a parent. Like some, I don’t want to move on to the next topic as quickly as possible, but I always think it’s worth it. Working on it also gives me a kind of direction. I cannot control fate, but I can prepare myself for how I will handle the unexpected.

‘In terms of content, my thinking has not changed much, but it is becoming more intensive, because at my age death is more emphatically in the picture. I often feel grateful that I am still here. I also wonder about that, precisely because I have experienced so much death. My perspective has also changed. Other fears remain just as intense, but my fear of death has diminished. Now if I was told that I was going to die soon, I wouldn’t mind. I can make peace with that now. I like that acceptance.’

How do you see the incomprehensibility of death, will it no longer be there?

“I am a stoic in that regard. Before me there were millions of years, I have never been bothered by that. After me there will be millions of years again, that doesn’t bother me either. I rationalize my absence in a second. Plus, I have a feeling you’ll stay in a way. When my mother was buried, I said to my son: ‘She is now under the earth, where worms live and flowers can grow on that earth, it’s not like grandma is completely gone.’ I would like to be buried myself and not in a coffin, it would take me far too long. All those atoms continue to exist, I find that a comforting idea. You don’t know if they will ever get back together. I don’t think Nietzsche’s idea of ​​perpetual motion and repetition is that crazy.’

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