For both Jitske and me, the story of the swan is one of consolation. The wild swan came into the life of Ealse—my father’s best friend and Jitske’s pake—after the death of Jitske’s aunt. This was Ealse’s and Janke’s first-born child after whom Jitske was later named.
Every family suffers loss. In the Wadman family, Ealse’s daughter, Jitske, had M.S., perhaps lost her balance on her bike in traffic, was hit by a car. She was in her twenties still. In my family, my cousin committed suicide after years of depression when he was in his early thirties. Before that, my uncle André, my father’s younger brother, died unexpectedly from ill health when he was fifty-eight. My father and I found him in bed in his apartment when we went to check his mail since we thought he was away on a trip.
In the past ten years, both of my parents died. So did Ealse and Janke.
In response to loss, every family creates its own narrative of redemption. In my family, ladybugs seem to appear whenever someone dies—on the scroll-down window of a hearse, at funerals, or just in random moments—as if to bring a message of solace from another world. Not long after Jitske’s death, the wild swan made her appearance at the Wadman family farm and began to follow Ealse around wherever he went.
The Dutch painter van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother, Theo, that in his paintings he’d like to “say something consoling, like music.” He wanted to “paint with something of that eternal quality which we seek in radiance itself, in the trembling of color.” The story of the swan brings comfort. It’s such an arresting image: a wild swan inseparable from a Frisian farmer whose heart is heavy because he is mourning the loss of his daughter. The swan is real, embodied, a quirky personality with jealousies and funny habits. But it’s also a white bird out of nowhere, following a human around in a way that wild swans normally don’t. The swan touches upon the intangible—like a gift.
Jitske writes me, “It means a lot to me that I got in touch with you and that we are both so enthusiastic about working on the story of the swan. It is incredible to create from within the warm memories I have of my pake and beppe. When I’m working on these illustrations, I notice that I am back in that other time. I feel the love and coziness that my pake and beppe gave me. I feel just like I did when I was a child and experienced such pleasure playing around the family farm. It brings me close to them and them close to me to consider how they lost their eldest daughter. I feel that I, in my generation, can transform a sad and locked feeling of sorrow into something positive. Working on this story relieves the pressure cooker of this huge family grief and will hopefully make room for new emotions.”