12/31/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jumping With Both Feet into the New Year

-- Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

I am spending this New Year's Eve in my former home of Amsterdam. As my train glides into the Central Station in the rain, I look out across the River IJ where the ferries arrive and depart. Storm clouds sweep over the black water.

On this and every New Year's, I find myself thinking of another winter's night, 70 years ago, in the middle of World War II. My mother was a little girl and lived right across the water on this same river. She was 12 years old and wanted to be with her friends in the city. But because the river had frozen over, no ferries ran. What to do? The river was starting to thaw; the ice was cracking -- but so what? She would cross these piles of ice -- as beautiful, dangerous and glittering as diamonds -- to the other side. So, she took a big leap from the bank and landed on an ice floe that wobbled scarily, soaking her. She jumped again onto another floating pile of ice. Then another and another, again and again.

I can see her in front of me, her two braids dancing on her winter coat, her flushed cheeks, jumping faster and faster, her eyes on the far shore, which now seemed farther and farther away. She could easily have drowned in the frigid water. She made it to other side, but as she told us later, when she climbed the embankment, she slipped and impaled her leg on a jagged shard of ice. The wound became inflamed, and she ran an infection in her bone marrow. Penicillin was not easily available during the war, and doctors had little time for civilians. She spent the rest of that winter in bed with a fever, while her parents feared the worst. But thanks to a resolute doctor's intervention -- his procedure involved using a kitchen knife without anesthetics -- she survived. But the resulting story was so harrowing that as a child I whenever I heard it I covered my ears.

Afterwards, I used to wonder, What if she had not made it? Then she would never have met my father. I would not have been born, and neither would have my brothers. Even as a child, I had already started to wonder about the capriciousness of life. How can we ever understand that what who we are, what we are feeling and thinking, is determined by chance, good luck,= or bad luck?

So it is on New Year's Eve I am reminded of this story my mother told me. We all stand on the shore of the past year, safe where we are but full of desire for the far shore. We are like lovers who do not want to greet the dawn. But the New Year tears us from the bed of the past. We briefly put off our pain by going to parties, singing Auld Lang Synge and kissing under the mistletoe. And then, with the brave smile of a 12-year-old girl, we make our decision and jump out onto the perilous ice floes of 2014.