“For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?” - Khalil Gibran
Six heartbreaking months have passed and I have tried on numerous occasions to pen a tribute to the man who forever shaped and moulded my life like no other. Each time I have tried, the words, thoughts and emotions hurtle in freefall like a meteorite through space; I cannot put them down fast or eloquently enough. Yes, in physical time, it’s been six months since I lost Rudy – my rock, my refuge, father of my children, best friend and husband. Just like a furtive shadow in the night, he slipped away. If he were looking down now, he would be astounded to see the wreckage of grief he left behind; the soul-shattering, mind-numbing void in the lives of our children, his friends, his family in Holland, his fellow numismatists, historians, fellow freemasons… and mine.
Rudolf Jacob Boekel
It’s been a period in my life when I have had momentary blackouts of events. I do not recall embracing the cold, hard floor demanding in vain through my tears to know where he went; I cannot call to mind screaming in uncontained despair until my throat ached and I rasped incoherently for days thereafter. I do not remember the loud demands for him to speak to me as I went through his possessions aching with overwhelming anguish. But I am mindful of the bottomless abyss I am left with – the yearning for just one more glimpse, one more word. I am connected to the aching solitude. I am aware of how slowly the hours pass at night and why heartbreak is called just that. My heart region feels physically battered; my eyes only see through a fine veil of unshed tears; my throat constricts every now and then as I try to contain the wail I yearn to release.
Yes, this is the aftermath. And while this may seem bleak, desolate and dramatic, I also have the memories. They are like a fragrant garden of woody nooks, gushing brooks, scented arbours and a patch of thorny shrubs. They emanate great joy and piercing pain. For our lives did not travel a middle path – it was a journey of sweeping ecstasy and inescapable hurts.
Rudy was so much more than what his name defined him as – Rudolf Jacob Boekel. He was, simply, a colossus. He was born in the Netherlands– in a small farming town in the province of West Friesland. Even as a young man, he detested the cold Northern European climate and the routine lives of his working class parents who owned a garage. They moulded him to be the upright, kind, honest and duty-conscious man he was; but inside him there was an adventurer waiting to break out. Not for him the organised life in a town famous for its cabbages and tulips – Rudy’s dreams were of exotic places and in his words, spaces where “the sun always shone.”
He graduated from MarineCollege, finished his engineering studies and then he was off. The world was beckoning. He realised his dreams as he worked for many years on private yachts as their engineer. He travelled to exotic destinations in the Caribbean, North Africa, the Mediterraneanand the Americas.
It was one of those adventures that led him to visit Sri Lanka more than four decades ago. Hating the winters in Europe, he had booked a flight to Rio de Janeiro, but as the flights were full he had requested the travel agent to send him to a place where “the sun always shone.” She had suggested the little-known island of Sri Lanka and that is how his life was forever refashioned.
I was 14-years-old when I came back from school one day and this incredibly handsome European man was sitting in our living room chatting with my family. Rudy and my elder brother Ashley had become friends. Even at that age, I remember his piercing grey eyes and good looks. As our eyes locked, that moment forever rewrote our destinies. Visiting Sri Lanka and my home became de rigeur on his yearly visits and as we grew as friends, he plied my family and me with tales of his adventures. However, there was constructed in his mind, an almanac of memories he shared only with me. From very early on, he recognised I was the sensitive, artistic, soulful and passionate girl just as much in love with adventure as he was.
In the beginning, they were through hundreds of postcards and later on, he spoke on cassette tapes he would mail to me. I would slip the tape into the player and listen for the 90 minutes about his adventures and his hesitant expressions of affection. Life and circumstances took us in opposite directions but there was never a time we had been out of touch. Our voyage and incomprehensible link were epic – it was never straightforward. It was filled with the dramatic and theatrical; twists, turns, loops and storms. He was a Leo and I was an Aries – as star signs go, we were a perfect match both being fire signs. But I was vocal and demonstrative as he was contained and introverted. I saw the world through the eyes of an artist and he often looked at life with precision not unlike one of his engineering drawings.
Rudy’s love of Sri Lanka was celebrated. It was here on this island that he found what he was looking for – a relaxed way of life, friends, history and family. As time went on and years passed, we fell into something transcending love. It was here that he was able to indulge in his love of numismatics, antiquities, history and his fascination with the Dutch colonial heritage. It was here that he was able to become a world sought-after numismatist. It was here that in a love story that spanned decades, continents and circumstances, we came together to build a home and family. And it was here that he met his mortal end, slipping away in unexpected circumstances – his ashes now forever entombed in a cold crypt; the sun never shining there.
Rudy’s character was one of gentle politeness and kindness – but he had a fiery side to him. He loathed injustice, boorish behaviour and being taken advantage of. He loved and cherished family, yet he often struggled with roles and expectations. He also did not speak his thoughts out loud and sometimes fought internal battles with an ill-equipped armoury. He encouraged me to give in to my creative side – he was by my side as I taught classes in textile art, drawing precise patterns and diagrams for my students well into the night. Each time he put pen or pencil to paper, a work of utmost precision emerged. My students remember him as the ‘wind beneath my wings.’
He took me to exciting places – whereas I was wide-eyed with wonder, I know the only excitement he felt was being in my company. Before we married, we spent many lazy days on Mount Lavinia beach where he loved to wade far into the water and swim for hours. He walked hand in hand with me on cold winter days on the streets of Amsterdam, shoving my slight shivering frame into one of the dozens of coffee shops to ply me with creamy hot chocolate. He tried to teach me ice skating on a frozen canal in Bergen. We had $10 miniscule cups of coffee at Café de Paris in Monte Carlo, visited markets in Antibes and St. Jean Cap Ferrat in France, and walked arms around each other on the glitzy Croisette in Cannes. We toured the Everglades in Miami, walked on the ocean strip of Fort Lauderdale, visited Salsa Clubs in the Cuban quarter; we haggled with traders on the streets of Chennai and ate exotic food at street markets in Hong Kong and Macau. But what I remember most with a heart laden with nostalgia are the many nights we sat on the deck of the yacht watching the stars and talking well into the night. Sometimes I would sing, and he would listen indulgently.
When circumstances forced him to take early retirement from the job he loved and the sea he called home, he did it without complaint. Our growing family and the situation in Sri Lanka at the time pushed him to that decision. Sometimes we would go to the Harbour Room of Grand Oriental Hotel in Fort and I used to observe his wistful gaze over the harbour and the ships moored there. At those moments, I would be overcome with guilt but in my heart, I knew Rudy felt validated with family life more than career. It was a substantiation that life on the ocean could never provide him with.
He loved our three girls and in fact, there were moments I felt he was overly possessive about their attachment fighting off every bit of competition, sometimes including mine. Potential boyfriends keen on his daughters knew not to mess with him. He was an enigma – clinically practical on the one hand and totally left off centre on the other. He would be a stickler for certain rules and have utter contempt for others. When the children would fall sick, he would hesitate to take them to a hospital believing they were ‘fine.’ Yet, when I was overcome with foreboding at a child’s high temperature, he would calmly take over while I was a quivering mess.
Our lives were peppered with love, joy, family trips, travels overseas and regrettably differences of opinion and eventual acceptance that we were starkly different personalities. But what stands out like a beacon in the dark is that we were incomplete without each other and we would accept each other on any term just as long as we were in each others’ sights. There were those conventional people who scratched their heads measuring our relationship on their stereotyped barometers. But Rudy and I both knew each other’s characters more than others gave us credit for. Life for us meant life with the other in it – in whatever form that came in. We had love for each other that defied conservative outlooks – the only foundation being we needed to be connected to each other. There was never a time when for over four decades that link weakened or snapped and that is what is written in stone. Our very imperfections led us to a near-perfect synergy that defied norms.
A few weeks before he departed, in character, he had doggedly undertaken a project of mine and seen it to completion. I then mentioned to him: “I don’t know what I would have done without your help; I really hope I go before you because I just cannot manage anything it seems.” His reply to me was: “You are not going anywhere and I am not planning to either.” Rudy never addressed his mortality – that was the impractical side of his personality.
His departure was unexpected, shocking, unforeseen. It enveloped the ones who loved him, cherished him and relied on him – Danielle, Tanja, Melanie and I into a vortex of ghastly torment. I don’t think we will ever come to terms with a world without our Rudy. This tribute is for the man Rudolf Jacob Boekel as I knew him. Not for the brilliant historian, numismatist, antiquity expert or engineer; not for the knowledgeable technician, mechanic or fixer of things. This is the homage I pay to the man who held me up on his shoulders for as long as I can remember; loved me beyond description; maddened me and made me believe a world was not a world without him. He was in my life for longer than my siblings, longer than my parents - Rudy was my architect who shaped me, protecting me leaving me to rest easy knowing he was there.
Each day as I wake up and face a day without my protector, I pray that wherever he is right now, it is a place where “the sun always shines.”
Farewell to you and the youth I have spent with you
It was but yesterday we met in a dream
You have sung to me in my aloneness, and I of your longings have built a tower in the sky
But now our sleep has fled and our dream is over, and it is no longer dawn
The noontide is upon us and our half waking has turned to a fuller day, and we must part
If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together and you shall sing to me a deeper song
And if our hands should meet in another dream, we shall build another tower in the sky
- Khalil Gibran