The epic journey of Holland’s beloved poet ends in Fort Worth

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Christmas Eve, 2013: I stopped by the Trinity Terrace retirement community in early afternoon to visit Leo Vroman and his wife, Tineke. They sat as they always did, beside each other on the sofa of their small apartment, holding hands, surrounded by their books and by Leo’s sketches and paintings, many of them of her. We chatted quietly about the year that was ending and the one to come.

“This is probably my last year,” Leo said.

“I hope you’re wrong,” I said.

“I probably have considerably less time than that,” he said.

He seemed certain about it, resigned. My friend was dying, which is what often happens to people when they are 98 years old.

I first heard about Leo and Tineke three years before. Unbeknownst to most of his neighbors at Trinity Terrace, Leo was the most beloved poet of his native Holland. He also was a renowned scientist and researcher who discovered a property of plasma known as the Vroman effect.

He had carried on a cinematic love affair with his Tineke for 64 years and still mooned after her like the day in 1938 when they met. Leo, a Jew, had fled the Netherlands in a small boat just before the Nazis arrived in 1940. After a circuitous and difficult journey, he ended up in a series of Japanese POW camps, where he nearly died several times.

My series on the Vromans’ remarkable journey was published in the Star-Telegram in May 2011, but our friendship was just beginning. Many times in the years afterward, the three of us sat quietly in their apartment, or stood looking out their 10th-floor window, admiring the view of the Trinity River or the new bridge on West Seventh or storms advancing on the city from the west.

We talked of movies and politics and Leo’s latest work, about the scores of poems he had continued to produce from Texas for his audience that was mostly overseas. As he grew older, more and more of his poems dealt with the mysteries of life and death.

He began to confide his concern about Tineke’s fading memory and how frustrating that was for his wife, herself a poet and anthropologist. Leo always asked about my life, my family, work, ambitions and frustrations.

One day last October he noticed blood in his urine.

“Damn,” he said.

In November, a surgeon found a large tumor in the wall of his bladder.

“Yes, it’s serious,” he said. “But I keep telling people that 98 is serious.”

Then came our talk on Christmas Eve. A few days later I returned with a proposal. I wanted to be with him through the transition, wanted to know what the poet, scientist, friend was thinking and feeling as the end of his epic journey neared. I wanted to write about it.

He didn’t hesitate.

“Everyone has to make a living,” he said.

Wednesday, Jan. 15

“How do you like my haircut?” Leo asked as we sat down in the apartment. “It’s my first one at the haircut place in 53 years. Tineke did all the other ones. It just got a little complicated for her.”

He looked even more thin and pale than usual, but otherwise seemed cheerfully himself. He and Tineke sat on the sofa and held hands.

Did he believe in God?

“I think it is a good idea,” Leo said. “I’ve told you what Gandhi said when they asked him what he thought about Western civilization: ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ I like the idea of God, something that makes sense of the entire complex.”

“You like the idea but ...?”

“I’m very scientific about it,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

“Are you afraid?”

“I don’t think I’m afraid,” he said. “I’ve not been afraid for a long time. I’m curious. Is there anything after death? Do we have to do anything?”

I asked Tineke the same question.

“No,” she said. “I’m not afraid.”

“Why not, do you think?” I said.

“Why should she be afraid?” Leo said. “She’s not dying.”

I laughed.

“In the first place, because of Leo himself,” Tineke said. “He’s gone through so many very bad things, during the war, and he always took them as they came. Then, of course, Leo being in his high 90s, it would be silly not to take that into account.”

I asked Leo whether he was sad.

“I’m always a little sad,” Leo said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t write poetry. I don’t want to leave her alone.”

He rubbed Tineke’s hand.

He said they talked often about what was coming.

“It’s our main subject, off and on,” he said. “If there is nothing interesting on television, we go to death.”

I laughed again.

“So when you do, what do you say?”

“Tineke says, ‘Don’t leave me,’ and I say, ‘No, I never will.’ She will say, ‘Stay with me.’ And I will say, ‘Always.’ 

‘My God. My wife’

I first heard the story three years ago. On the fateful autumn evening in 1938, Leo Vroman and Tineke Sanders were seated one person apart at a student dinner in Utrecht, a city in the Netherlands. They had never met. When the person between them left, Leo turned and offered Tineke some of his rice, just to be friendly.

She shook her head. Her eyes briefly met his. Leo’s life was changed in that instant.

“My God,” he thought. “My wife.”

It defied any real logic. He was 23, a graduate student in biology and already an accomplished cartoonist, painter and poet. She was six years younger, an exotic-looking girl with dark skin and dark hair who had recently moved to Holland from the the Dutch East Indies to study medicine.

He was jolly and irreverent. She was quiet and studious. He was Jewish. She was not. No matter. It wasn’t even love that Leo felt for Tineke but more of a visceral knowing that someday they would be married.

He did not say a word to anyone the rest of that first night and kicked an empty can down the street on a short walk back to his room. He cursed, wondering what he should do next, and was devastated when Tineke at first politely rebuffed his affections.

A few weeks later, she had her own vision. Tineke imagined a morning of their married life, Leo eating his breakfast in pajamas, sleep still in his eyes, his unruly dark hair messier than usual.

“That would be nice,” she thought.

She wrote Leo a letter on Nov. 26, 1938.

“Okay,” it said. “Let’s give it a try.”

More than 70 years later in Fort Worth, Leo wrote Cold Rain.

But it is that Godly night

under the dripping park light

that I think I mostly miss:

my chilly mouth of my first kiss

on your cheek so cold and wet,

both so naked and helpless yet,

and this I know:

not since these seventy years ago

has a drop of water ever been

so quenching, and so obscene.

‘The last time I cried’

But there was a part of their early story that I didn’t hear three years ago. It came out now, on this recent winter day when Leo and Tineke sat together on their sofa. Not long after they began dating, Tineke confessed to Leo her infatuation with another local poet.

She insisted on going to visit him.

“It was the hardest time I’ve ever had, for 12 hours,” Leo remembered that day on the sofa. “From the time she left to see him to the time she came home. She came back and said she realized she needed me and I needed her.”

At lunchtime the three of us rode the elevator to the Trinity Terrace dining room. When we found a table, Leo engaged in his daily mealtime ritual, forming an L with his napkin and placing it on the table, before he and Tineke headed for the buffet.

“It feels the same now as it did in 1938,” he said after eating.“There is something about her that makes me love her. I don’t know what it is. I don’t want to know. Maybe it’s her left eyelid.”

I brought up Tineke’s visit to the other poet.

“Yes, that was the last time I was afraid,” he said. “The last time I cried, too.”

His eyes pooled as he sat in the dining room.

“You mean before now?” I said.

Monday, Jan. 20

Leo answered the door in his bathrobe. Tineke was asleep in their bedroom. It seemed odd to see him sitting alone on the sofa.

“There is so much we don’t know, and I like it,” he said. “Nothing that we know is good enough to explain or excuse life. Knowing that you don’t know gives you a different kind of freedom. But I’ll soon find out … or not.”

He broke a companionable silence.

“I will leave 60 books, 3,000 poems that I’ve published, 500 computer programs that I’ve done, hundreds of drawings, the Vroman effect,” he said. “So I don’t die. It’s more or less a game that I play with myself, eternity.

“I like to imagine, just for fun, dying, the next moment,” he said. “Here I am at the gate of heaven. Very classical. I see an old man with a dog. It must be St. Peter. Who else? I’m asked why I think I should go to heaven. I say, ‘I’d like to pet that dog.’ And he says, ‘Well, that’s the answer.’ 

Posterity was on his mind.

“What will be the last thing I ever said? Will it be good enough? Most people say incomprehensible things. Rosebud. Do you know it?”

Wednesday, Jan. 29

Leo and Tineke raised two daughters, Geri and Peggy, while they lived in New York City. The parents moved 16 years ago to Fort Worth, where Peggy and her husband were living. From that time forward, Dr. Janice Knebl was the elderly couple’s doctor and good friend.

A few days before, Knebl, a prominent Fort Worth geriatrician, came by the apartment to offer Leo chemotherapy. He declined.

“We just decided not to,” Leo told me in midmorning, the long tufts of his white hair more mussed than usual from the bed. Tineke was again sleeping.

“Even if it meant you might live longer?”

“Longer how?” he said. “I think I’m finished. I don’t mind at all. I’ve written enough. Drawn enough. Done enough science. It all worked out pretty well. I’ve been so lucky.”

“Are you sad?”

“That’s an awfully good question,” Leo said. “No. I don’t think so.”

“You seem sad to me.”

“In contrast to the past?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not sadness,” he said. “More of an awareness, I guess. I often used to think, ‘Well, imagine if I were to die tomorrow.’ Well, now I may die tomorrow. It changes your aspect a little bit. It becomes a certainty. Before it was vague. Can I get you something to drink?”

He told me about a poem he wrote a few days earlier for Knebl. I went to his office and found a printed copy.

Remain the sweet guard

to whom I’ll be leaving.

Try softening her grieving.

But don’t work too hard.

‘Hi, Sweetheart’

I folded it and put in my pocket.

“You are a thief,” Leo said.

I’m sad,” I said. “I know that’s horribly selfish of me.”

“Yes,” Leo said. “That’s a terrible way to behave. Wait a few days.”

Tineke appeared at the bedroom door.

“Hi, Sweetheart,” Leo said. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, I did, thank you,” she said.

I stood to go.

“What can I do for you today?” I asked Leo.

“You already did it,” he said. “You visited and had questions that there are no answers to, and you took one of my poems, which is the best thing that can happen to a poem.”

Tineke smiled when I kissed her hand.

“Elegant,” Leo said. “I should do that more often.”

Thursday, Jan. 30

“Why do I write?” Leo said. “I’ve got to have an excuse. I write when I have to. I don’t write when I don’t have to.”

“What makes you have to?” I asked.

“God knows,” he said. “You can say things in poetry that can be expressed in no other way. But I have this abnormal desire to rhyme. It’s silly. Why rhyme? I can’t help it.”

Leo always kept a leather-bound journal close at hand. Through much of last summer and early fall he scribbled out a poem in the journal almost every day, one of his most prolific periods in years. But the output dwindled sharply after his diagnosis.

His latest poem, eight lines, untitled, was written a few hours before I came to his apartment.

Was it his last?

“Every time I write one I think, ‘This is the last one,’ ” he said. “I’ve been doing that since, ah … 1940. I always say that’s it. Usually it isn’t, apparently. There were another 3,000. It’s ridiculous to think the same thing 3,000 times.”

“You didn’t,” I said.

A novel, Tineke

Leo kissed Tineke goodbye when Holland surrendered to Germany in May 1940. He made his way to The Hague, joining a cluster of refugees who bought a small boat named The Emma. They set off into the North Sea without knowing where they were going, missing the Germans by hours. In the years afterward, several of Leo’s relatives perished in the Holocaust.

After eight hours on the water The Emma crossed paths with a larger trawler that carried Leo and the others to England. Tineke’s father in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, urged Leo to join him there, so he did. Leo resumed his studies, but he was soon conscripted into the Dutch Indonesian army and was captured by the Japanese without firing a shot.

Tineke struggled to endure the Nazi occupation of Holland and wondered about Leo’s fate. She did not know that he had been shipped from one POW camp to another. His weight fell from 120 pounds to 78.

“For a while, somebody died every day,” he said. “I was not afraid, but it was depressing, especially with the people that I knew well. About a third of the prisoners with me died. I almost did, too, when I had pneumonia. The attendant had his face very close to mine, waiting for the moment. But it didn’t come.”

A fellow prisoner was angered by Leo’s serenity in the face of such suffering.

“I said, ‘Gee, I can’t help myself. That’s the way I feel,’ ” Leo said. “If I have a piece of paper and a pencil, I’m pretty much OK. I wrote a poem for him.”

He wrote scores of others in captivity, and a novel, Tineke, scribbling on any scrap of paper he could find. After liberation, a relative persuaded him to stay in New York and await Tineke. They were married Sept. 10, 1947, the day after Tineke walked down the gangplank of the Queen Mary, carrying a microscope.

The year before, Querido — Holland’s most prestigious publishing house — brought out Leo’s first collection of poems. He averaged a book of poetry a year after that, eventually winning all of the country’s major literary awards. A school was named after him. Dutch students still study and memorize his work.

“When he dies, all the big papers in Holland will have it on the front page,” Dutch filmmaker Jetske Spanjer said in January. “If you compare it to the United States, I think he is kind of like Robert Frost. That’s the stature of Leo Vroman in the Netherlands.”

So Leo’s latest poem, written on that Thursday in late January, was a piece of history, especially if it turned out to be his last. I read it aloud that day as we sat together in the living room.

Do I really forge ahead

to the inevitable end

where time and matter will defend

how alive I’ll be, how dead

how much thinking will believe

in a truth, shrinking,

or knowing

of a God, growing.

Leo smiled when I finished.

“Not bad for a beginner,” he said.

Saturday, Feb. 1

Leo’s daughter Peggy, who lives in San Antonio with her husband, Bob, spent several days with her parents as her father deteriorated. Geri and her husband, Dave, were on their way from their home in England. Grandchildren were also en route to Fort Worth to say goodbye.

Our late afternoon visit was the first time I saw Leo unshaven. He now had live-in nursing care around the clock.

“What time is it, roughly?” he said from the sofa. “Six o’clock? I can use a painkiller.”

“Are you in pain?”

“A little.”

“I need to ask you about the Vroman effect,” I said.

The topic seemed more effective than the morphine. He gestured with his long skinny fingers, was more animated than I had seen him in weeks. He talked about proteins, molecular weights, platelets, fibrinogens and other stuff pertaining to blood, none of which made any sense to me.

Edward Leonard, a longtime friend and colleague of Leo’s at a Columbia University laboratory, later helped translate. The Vroman effect, published in the mid-1970s, describes how the makeup of blood changes when it touches artificial surfaces outside the body.

“That’s vitally important if you have any kind of a heart implant or go on dialysis,” Leonard said.

He remembered Leo for something else.

“He could not resist a bum on the subway,” he said. “He always gave them a buck. The more I’ve thought about him the last few days, the more I think about his gentleness. He stood there and absorbed things, and then, in his science and his art, he had the ability to report them in very true, insightful ways. That’s what he was all about.”

‘You think I’m a nut?’

Tineke had waked and joined Leo on the sofa.

“What do you care about most, your poetry or the Vroman effect?” I asked him.

“I think the Vroman effect,” he said. “It’s a thing that will last. If you Google it, you get 36,000 entries. I don’t think it will go out of fashion. Usually, when I write a poem, the supreme moment of the poem is when I just finished it. I read it, and it works, then it goes away.”

The science?

“It stays,” he said.

Leo turned to Tineke.

“What means more to you, the poetry or the Vroman effect?” he said.

“I don’t compare,” she said. “I like them both.”

“I would like to try that some day,” Leo said.

I said it was hard to fathom that a scientist and poet could exist in one brain.

“Yeah, I should have my brain looked at afterwards,” Leo said. “It points to schizophenia.”

He looked at his wife.

“You are married to a nuthouse,” he said.

“You think I’m a nut?” Tineke said.

“No. I’m the nuthouse,” he said. “You are married to it.”

Tineke chuckled.

“I must be turning into something similar,” Tineke said.

That day was the last I saw Leo out of bed.

Monday, Feb. 3

Leo and Tineke lay next to each other in bed, holding hands.

“Dying seems to be such a normal thing,” he said. “So many people do it successfully.”

We all enjoyed the quiet.

“It’s peaceful,” Leo said. “You don’t always have to talk. You should write about silence. It’s a good subject.”

“Sometimes talking isn’t necessary,” I said. “Can I get you anything?”

“No. I’m totally gotten,” Leo said.

“Have you come up with your last words?”

“Who knows?”

“That’s it? Who knows? Those are your last words?”

“Not if I answer that question,” Leo said.

“What are you thinking, Tineke?” I asked.

“Not much,” she said. “I’m seeing what I can see through the window. Listening to the two of you. Kind of pleasant.”

“Yes, it is, isn’t it,” I said.

Leo’s eyelids drooped.

“I may fall asleep at any moment,” he said.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“What will you do?”

“I might fall asleep, too.”

“Write about that,” Leo said. “The man I slept with.”

I stood to leave.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Fantastic.”

I told Leo I loved him.

“And I love you,” he said. “It’s nice to have that.”

Monday, Feb. 10

It turned out he had one more poem to write, scribbling out eight lines in Dutch that Monday morning. He forced himself to get out of bed, typed the poem in an email and sent it to a literary journal in Holland. The name of the poem was End.

“I’m glad you wrote,” I said a few hours later.

“Me, too,” Leo said.

He said the poem, among other things, wondered about the spark that started the universe.

“Where does that spark come from,” he said. “Where does it go?”

I thought it fitting that his last poem ended with a question mark.

Friday, Feb. 14

“This is weird,” Leo said, looking up from his pillow. “It doesn’t seem real.”

Tineke’s memory loss had grown increasingly acute, and her understanding of what was happening seemed to vary by the day, sometimes by the hour.

“She has no clue from me, and I don’t want to give her one,” Leo said. “I really have no clue for myself either. We know so little.”

“Are you afraid?” I asked him again.

“Of the big bad wolf?” Leo said. “No. It’s boring, being afraid. I’m worried for her sake. I’m not worried for mine. Just now I was trying to think of a situation that would make me afraid. A waiter with hot soup tumbling over my bed?”

The poetry journal lay next to him in bed, just in case.

“There are not too many poets who write when they are 98,” he said. “I don’t know of any. There was a man named Ben Peperkamp in Holland. He became a professor, a literary critic, all that. He said that not only was I the best living artist in the Netherlands. He said I was the greatest poet in Holland since the beginning of all ages.

“That was awfully nice of him,” he said. “I hold onto that. He repeated it recently. I hope he keeps saying it.”

“Can I come back tomorrow?” I asked.

“Absolutely. Alive or dead. … I mean me.”

Saturday, Feb. 15

I sat next to Tineke on the sofa, holding her hand.

“He’s not doing very well,” she said. “He doesn’t eat. It’s a strange time.”

Leo opened his eyes when we entered the bedroom. I sat in a chair next to him. Tineke lay down on the bed and took his hand.

“Hi, Sweetie Pie,” he said.

“Are you sorry about something?” she said. “Are you worried? Don’t you like the food anymore? Are people around you too busy?”

“No,” Leo said. “It’s just perfect. People are just the way they are.”

“Am I starting to bore you?”

“Not at all.”

“Are you just very tired?”

“I’m very tired, yes.”

He closed his eyes. He opened them a few minutes later.

“I wish I could wish for a pingpong game,” Leo said.

“That’s a strange wish,” I said.

“It’s my favorite sport,” he said.

Sunday, Feb. 16

Leo opened his eyes.

“Just now I heard a voice that said, ‘Timothy,’ ” he said, looking over at me in the chair. “Did you hear it?”

“No, Leo,” I said.

He closed his eyes, opened them, and reached for a bowl of pudding by his nightstand, struggling to get the spoon to his mouth.

“What do you think of Tineke’s future?” he asked me.

“I think she will be very sad, but well taken care of,” I said. “I will come to visit her every day.”

“That would be fantastic,” Leo said.

“Even if it’s just to kiss her forehead,” I said.

“You have my permission to move down a few millimeters,” he said.

“I will miss you,” I said.

“Thank you,” Leo said. “That is enough.”

Tuesday, Feb. 18

“How are you today, Leo?” I said.

He opened his eyes.

“I have no idea,” he said.

“Is it time to say goodbye?”

“OK,” he said, then fell back asleep.

Friday, Feb. 21

I stepped into his room for the last time in late afternoon. Leo was connected to an oxygen tube. His breathing was labored. I kissed his hand and whispered in his ear.

“Tineke will be fine.”

Saturday, Feb. 22

Leo died at 4 a.m. with Tineke lying next to him. His face was everywhere in Holland for days afterward. Hundreds crowded into a memorial service in Amsterdam. He died a few days before the publication of a major biography in the Netherlands.

According to his nurse, Leo’s last words were spoken on the telephone to his daughter Peggy.

“I love you, sweetheart,” he said.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan

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