“Every night I dream about the little girl growing within me. She takes different shapes, forms and colors. Sometimes she has brown hair and hazel eyes…At night she sometimes appears to me as an old woman…She sits in her room among all the precious things she has collected throughout her life…”
When you meet best-selling, award-winning Dutch novelist and essayist Pia de Jong, what strikes you is the intelligence in her dark brown eyes and the quiet graciousness with which she greets you. De Jong has lived in Princeton, New Jersey, for five years on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study, where her husband, mathematical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf is Director.
From her vantage point on one of the world’s great research campuses, de Jong, already a bestselling author in her native Holland, has become a keen observer of America and writes a popular column Flessenpost (Notes in a Bottle) about her life in, and observations of, her adopted country for the Amsterdam daily newspaper, NRC Handelsblad. The column proved so popular, it was turned into a collection of essays by the Dutch publisher, Prometheus, in 2016. In addition, de Jong is a regular contributor to the Washington Post.
For all her success, from the moment de Jong arrived in Princeton with her husband, two sons, Jurrian and Matthijs, and daughter Charlotte, another story was taking shape, one that would become Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition, published July 2017, W. W. Norton & Company. Kirkus Review calls, Saving Charlotte, de Jong’s first book in English, “a tender evocation of fear, hope, and love.”
After the birth of two healthy sons on the fifth floor of her and her husband’s 17th century home on a canal in Amsterdam, de Jong longed for a daughter. Her wish came true with the birth of her third child, Charlotte. Moments after Charlotte was born, the midwife noticed a bluish bump on the infant’s skin. Shortly after, Charlotte was diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer, congenital myeloid leukemia, which led de Jong and her husband to made a momentous decision: they rejected potentially devastating chemotherapy and, instead, chose to “wait for what will come.”
De Jong’s instinctive decision to withhold conventional treatment and to sweep away distractions in order to give Charlotte unfiltered love and the strength she needed to heal, had no term at the time, but is now known as “watchful waiting,” and has become another viable medical option for children with congenital myeloid leukemia.
De Jong took time from a busy schedule to answer questions about her harrowing, inspiring, beautifully written memoir.
Wild River Review: At the beginning of your memoir, you and your husband Robbert are house-hunting in your native Amsterdam, eager to start a family. You find a house on a “stately” canal, where from one window you watch children playing across the canal in a park; and from another window, you look across an alley into the windows of a brothel. The house, built in 1632, is romantic but in dire disrepair. The neighborhood is questionable. Yet somehow you and the house choose each other. What was it about that particular house?
Pia de Jong: There was a lot of history to this proud, unique house, going back to 1632. It was all documented, from the first merchant who lived there with his family, a sea captain who traded in whale oil. Many children were born there, lived their lives there. The house withstood it all, survived them all. Now it was our turn, and this house was going to serve us with all its power, its history, all its enormous strength.
Wild River Review: You’d delivered two healthy sons before your much-wanted daughter Charlotte is born at home in your bed, your husband by your side. The midwife notices a blue bump that will shortly multiply across her body, which was terrifying to you and your husband. How were you able to reconstruct your reaction across so many years? And was this scene painful to write?
de Jong: It was almost as if it was engraved in my soul. I can close my eyes now, and I am there. It was like I fell off the earth. I lost my safe ground. I knew everything would be different. Life had lost its consoling predictability. It was not painful to write. In fact, I felt deep compassion with the younger me, the younger Robbert, who went through this without comprehending it. I wanted to tell them, everything will be all right. You can’t make sense of it now, but one day, you can, and I will help you understand it. This is painful, but you will have the strength to go through this. I am so proud of you.
Wild River Review: Once Charlotte is diagnosed with Congenital Myeloid Leukemia, you write, “in the middle of life we meet death.” You decide to let Charlotte’s life follow its natural course. Do you believe that was a radical decision?
de Jong: In a way it was, at least mentally. I did not want to interfere in her life’s plan. It was up to her. Of course, I would protect her with every force I could, but I knew that chemotherapy, hospitalization, more research and tests on her tiny body were not going to help her. I felt it was all about her life force. That is something you have to find in yourself. She had to find that. And we were there for her.
Wild River Review: You left your career to spend as much time as you could with Charlotte. Your world became your neighborhood and your family. You write with deep compassion when you describe your neighbors, particularly the young prostitute across the alley. What did she represent to you and your family?
de Jong: I was raised as a Catholic, and the lesson I learned is that the least of us–the sunken, the poor, the ones that are cast out by society–will be the first. Since they had no social status, they did not have to behave in a calculating way, or to make up white lies. They had lost everything already; and so, to me, they were rendered pure and honest.
Wild River Review: A few years ago, Wild River Review published, All that is Blue, a mysterious and beautiful short story you wrote about a strange encounter with a man who has left his keys in the lock of his house on a canal. The character, too, seems as if he could be part of your larger neighborhood. In addition, the story is a portrait about the female protagonist’s state of mind. Did that incident occur? If not, where did the story originate?
de Jong: To answer your question in red: yes, this man was real and a part of my community, the Amsterdam neighborhood I lived in. The story did originate there, and it more or less happened that way. He was a mysterious man who lived across the canal from me. I came to know him better, before he died. I am glad I got to know him, - because of the incident with his keys, even though it was at the last phase of his life. Or maybe it was because of that.
Wild River Review: You and Robbert make plans for Charlotte’s death, visiting graveyards and a psychologist for your children. You co-create rules intuitively for each other, so that your marriage stays strong and you remain bonded. Yet, the forces outside your world are exhausting. For instance: the man who tells you about a miracle cure in Germany that you need to take advantage of immediately. How did you cope with the helpless feeling (and dare I say rage?) that engulfed you at the hands of strangers?
de Jong: Yes, I was angry. I felt rage. It translated into action. It led me to close the doors, to retreat into our cocoon, to be ever more protective towards my daughter and our privacy. I felt the world was unwittingly arrayed against her, us. I wanted, needed to do our thing, unobstructed, and I had to push them out.
Wild River Review: At one point, your husband, a physicist, tells you that time could move backward just as easily as forward. You cling to the idea of going backward to a time before grief. Your memoir plays with time taking us back to your childhood and moving forward again. And also into your dreams. How did you create the structure, which has a straight line through Charlotte’s journey, but also embarks on a fluid journey through time?
de Jong: It took me a long time of writing this memoir before I realized I could simply tell the story chronologically. For a long time, it started with the birth scene you mentioned above, where we learned about the blue spots. And then I took the reader back to the beginning of our life as a family. But that turned out to be too confrontational, too sudden. The reader needed some time with us as a family to get ready for this shock. As a writer, they always tell you good stories start in media res. Well, it did not work for this one.
Wild River Review: A year after her birth, Charlotte slowly recovers and goes into full remission. She is now a vibrant teenager. Do you still worry about her?
de Jong: I do worry, but I also feel a great deal of confidence. Just after she was born, I said, she is vulnerable. Robbert said: she is strong. These both turned out to be very predictive words about her. They worked together to save her. I taught her to know and respect her limits. She still is a vulnerable girl, but who can be strong when she is careful. And she is. She is very playful, and fun to be with, but there is also a wise woman in her, an old soul.
Wild River Review: You, your husband and family now reside in Princeton, New Jersey. Do you still own the house in Amsterdam? If not, do you visit it and your neighborhood?
de Jong: In fact, I was in Amsterdam yesterday, and visited the neighborhood. I rang the bell of the house that is no longer ours and talked to the young couple who lives there now. Two men with creative dreams. Now it is their turn to be protected by the house.
The online magazine, Wild River Review seeks to raise awareness and compassion as well as inspire engagement through the power of stories.
In a climate of repeated media flashes and quick newsbite stories, Wild River Review curates, edits and publishes essays, opinion, interviews, features, fiction and poetry focusing on underreported issues and perspectives.
Joy E. Stocke is co-founder of Wild River Review. Her most recent book is Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking, Burgess Lea Press/Quarto, March 2017.