It was my late father’s birthday on Sunday. It was the first day that held the promise of Spring, here in London at least. This took the form of some crocus flowers poking their heads above ground and the very optimistic jingle of the Ice Cream Van, silent since the summer.

My father’s great passion was gardening, so my way of honouring him is to put some flowers by his photograph and greet spring flowers in his name.

In Holland there is a tradition around birthdays that I have never liked, personally speaking: the expectation is that you remember all the dates of family and friends’ birthdays and show up on the day. Often the ‘Birthday Person’ (if they live in the countryside and belong to my mother’s generation) counts the number of visitors and rates the success of the birthday accordingly: 18 people came, that was a GREAT birthday!

I have lived in other countries too long to see this custom through ‘Dutch Eyes’. I would go as far as saying that I am secretly happy that the fact I live abroad exempts me from spending all my weekends attending such birthday events.  And I hasten to say that I don’t remotely want the return visits either! I have never been a gregarious person, let alone a party animal.

So I spoke to my mother on Friday last week. She has had health problems but is feeling stronger now. She said: “Well, Sunday is your Dad’s birthday, so I expect a lot of people will come”. As an ‘Almost Foreigner’ I didn’t know how this Dutch custom extends to people who have been dead for nearly 6 years so I just hoped for the best.

I spoke to her again late on Sunday afternoon and asked what had happened. My mother sounded a little down: “My one brother had come over for breakfast but my other brother had had a football match on and couldn’t fit in a visit.’ My mother said bravely : “And of course that is OK…” but she didn’t sound completely OK.

I couldn’t help but think of cake sitting in the fridge uneaten and my mother realizing that life has moved on. Many close friends have died too since my father died. Others are no longer in good enough health the make the journey. And life moves on. It seems that  even Dutch people draw the line at attending ‘birthday celebrations for dead people’.

As an ‘Almost Foreigner’ the thing that really got me was this: if it is so important to you that many people visit you that day – WHY DON’T YOU INVITE THEM?!! My mother is surrounded by wonderful and very attentive neighbours and friends. She only needs to say one word and they all come running, as they indeed have for many months, seeing her through one health crisis after the after.

But the whole thing with this Dutch Birthday Custom is that you don’t invite – people commit the date to memory and make the effort to show up. For the living, anyway.

My mother is in her 76th year. She is not going to change the habits of a lifetime.

So I felt very sad on her behalf. Not about the people who didn’t come – I understand completely how that works – but about the way my father’s absence had loomed so large for her, because other people had not played their part in the script that she had written for this event. And with some forethought and planning she could easily  have had a very different day.

I have made a mental note for next year.

Simone Weil wrote: “the absence of the dead is their way of appearing”. Those words came to mind on Sunday.

In the days following my father’s death I wrote the following poem (it was once read out at the funeral of a professor of mathematics):


E = MC^2
Einstein’s Equation tells us
E = MC^2
Mass and energy are interchangeable
In death
We leave our body
Just think of this
As an explosion of energy
The Music of the Spheres
Singing us
As the Light calls our name
Calls us home
Physics speaks of
Phase Transitions
Of things being what they always were
In a different state
Looking differently, behaving differently
If Birth is
Energy becoming mass
Then Death is
Mass converting back to energy
So why do we fear Death
Nothing is ever lost
E = MC^2
The Netherlands, 6 June 2009


Imelda Almqvist

Imelda Almqvist is a shamanic practitioner, teacher and painter based in London, UK