Last week Sunday I had the pleasure of finally meeting the infamous Jean. A few weeks prior Sabya had called me, sounding slightly worried. She was trying to contact Jean via email and by calling his home phone for several weeks now and had not received any kind of response.
According to Sabya, something was off. It is very unlike Jean to dismiss a phone call or email from her or Martijn. And thus the strange feeling in the pit of our stomachs and search for Jean was initiated from our studio in Amsterdam. Jean – a man I have never met, but felt I had come to know through stories and portraits by Martijn and Sabya.
It soon became obvious that a simple name search on known search engines was not going to lead anywhere, and our resources were limited. With nothing to go on but a name, a phone number and an email address. By happy accident I found out about a company he had volunteered prior to his technological disappearance.
Obviously, there are employee privacy regulations which means that for about two weeks I was forwarded from one person to the next, until I was finally brought into contact with Jean’s former team leader. He informed me that Jean had suffered a rapid decline in health and was currently in the hospital. Outdated information, as I would learn later. I phoned multiple hospitals to ask around for Jean, but he was nowhere to be found. And the strange feeling in the pit of my stomach kept growing.
Desperate for any information I started searching through the obituaries in the North of Holland in the past year. Not finding Jean’s name gave some relief. So maybe Jean wasn’t in the hospital, he also wasn’t in any of the obituaries. At this point I was running out of ways to continue searching for someone I have never met. And so I called his team manager…again.
He finally decided he was sick of me and offered to leave my information with Jean’s daughter. But before you know it, a week has passed. Dutch people have this horrible habit of politely saying yes to anything without planning to follow through. Desperate for anything I decided to search Facebook. There was only one profile that shared Jean’s name and shared some resemblance geographically, but the profile in question didn’t have any photographs. And by this time I was frustrated enough to boldly message one of his “friends” that shared his last name. Somehow I struck gold. The person I messaged was his daughter.
She had bad news: Jean had suffered multiple strokes and was in a care facility. So, Sabya and I went to visit him, armed with his portraits and a photo of the painting that was made of him by Martijn. This was an entire adventure on its own as walking into the care facility was like walking into some kind of prison. You would have to wait for one door to close, before the next door would open. Cold buttons besides doors which need codes. No indication of human life. And
no amount of happy, bright purple and blue lines would be able to lift our spirits the horrible, gray, hospital-like building.
When we finally found Jean, there was next to nothing left of the man that Sabya had met, nor the portrait that was taken of him. An extremely thin man with dark circles under his eyes was staring into space. He was no longer able to speak coherently, and the few words he managed to utter mostly contained the words: ‘sorry..’ and ‘..oh nevermind, nevermind’. A man who, the last time Sabya saw him, would not stop talking, moving around, or flirting with her. But with some patience and listening, we could make out some of what Jean was trying to say.
Part of Jean’s message was that he was extremely frustrated with not being able to speak and suffering from confusion. And he remembered his wife. He was unhappy. We showed him the photo’s an paintings and he recognized himself somehow. Even though his glasses had somehow been misplaced he recognized himself and his former house on the photos, which made him emotional.
Jean kept trying to stand up, which seemed like a terrible idea since he looked so frail. We couldn’t find the nurses anywhere to give us any advice. They had told us they were going to have some sort of meeting a few minutes prior. After 10 minutes of Jean desperately wanting to stand up and growing frustrated with us for asking him to sit just a bit longer, I was fed up with the situation we found ourselves in.
When I finally found the nurses and asked them for some kind of help or advice, one of the them said that Jean was not allowed to stand up as it would be extremely dangerous for him. The nurse in charge looked at me and bluntly said: “I am in a meeting. I will be by later.” I stared at her in complete disbelief. She said: “Do I really have to get up and come with you?” with strong annoyance in her voice. Completely taken by surprise I said: “well…yes.” She walked with me and as we were walking over to where Jean and Sabya were sitting, she turned to me and asked: “Did you not understand me just now or something?” Apparently she had taken my complete shock for stupidity. So I said: “Well, for a moment there, it seemed like you didn’t give a shit about what was happening to Jean.”
This one simple comment was almost immediately followed by an amazing performance by all nurses working the floor. Suddenly they were scurrying around, making sure we saw exactly how caring and loving they actually are. Meanwhile Sabya had given up on trying to contain Jean’s impulses to stand, and was walking around the room with him. The first time he stood up, he looked at Sabya and said: ‘…mooi.’ This means: ‘beautiful’.
And there were other moments where Jean managed to surface, telling a joke and looking me in straight in the eye and smiling when he saw I had understood him and was laughing. And Sabya never regretted walking him around, even though it was technically not allowed. She kissed Jean on the cheek and we made our way out of the prison-like facility as soon as we could. And the doors. would. not. open. quick. enough. I felt like we were escaping some kind of strange alternate reality.
Two days after our visit, Jean passed away.