Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Moriturus Te Salutat

(From Peper en Zout by M.E. Voila, Kok: Kampen; n.d. tr. George van Popta, 2024)


Moriturus Te Salutat 

Brother Grootveld was a venerable soldier, having served in the Dutch East Indies war of 1945 to 1949. His valor earned him a knighthood from the Queen. With a lively spirit and slender frame, he was easily recognized by his flowing mustache, straw hat in the summer, Palm Beach suit, and ever-present walking stick.

Years had passed since his wife’s demise and there had been no children. He resided in a room provided by a family who cared for him. In return, he meticulously tended their gardens, his straw hat a constant companion.

He was a well-known figure among the members of the community whose greetings were always met with a formal salute, a gesture of his esteemed status. Not even the mayor received a hat tip from him—only a salute.

As his life drew to a close, Brother Grootveld lay on his deathbed, fully aware of his fate. My visits were frequent, and his sparse words were always poignant.

The night of his passing remains etched in my memory.

We gathered around his bed, observing his frail form. Present were a nurse, his landlady, a cousin from out of province, and a young boy who often engaged him in evening conversations. Adorning the wall above him was his sabre, behind which was an Indonesian cloth. The Queen’s portrait was positioned below.

A soft moan escaped him, yet it seemed that he was not suffering pain. But clearly, his life was ebbing away.

“He’s beyond our reach,” the landlady whispered.

She, like many, believed the dying were deaf to our world. However, I discerned a flicker of awareness in his eyes.

Leaning close, I inquired, “Brother Grootveld, is there anything more we can do for you?”

His gaze shifted to the table where a glass of water stood. I brought it to his mouth, but he could no longer swallow; only his lips were dampened.

 “Are you afraid to die?” I inquired.

His eyes met mine, and a hint of a smile flickered across his mouth.

For an instant, my eyes were drawn to the sabre hanging above the bed.

I opened my Bible and read aloud several verses, concluding with, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

The subtle movement of his lips suggested he was echoing the words.

A hush enveloped us, the kind that heralds death’s approach. He was engaged in his final struggle.

There he lay, so straight and dignified on his deathbed, his frame thin, small, and fragile, and yet the seasoned warrior honoured by the Queen for his service to the nation.

The end was near. His breaths grew shallow and faint, reminiscent of a child’s.

Then, a wondrous thing occurred. His eyes widened, alight with clarity, and for a brief moment his voice returned: “Jesus, Jesus. . . .”

The sound was faint, as though it came from a great distance.

Resting on his back, his gaze pierced the ceiling, as if peering into eternity, beholding his Lord.

With effort, he extracted his right arm from beneath the blanket. Gradually, he raised his hand to his forehead, bestowing the customary salute that had been his signature greeting.

His hand then dropped to rest beside his head.

The old soldier had breathed his last.