Fargo author tries to reach understanding about her father-in-law's death by legal euthanasia
Jill Kandel's new book, "The Clean Daughter," explores her relationship with Isaak and coming to terms with his decision.
FARGO — As author Jill Kandel sits down to chat about her latest book, she's surrounded by creative inspiration — an easel, paintbrushes and a big wicker basket of knitting supplies. And on the other side from her writing desk, a closet full of letters.
"Because all those years, 10 years overseas without a phone, all we did was write back and forth with letters," she says. "So a large part of my book is trying to understand a relationship that for 10 years wasn't a relationship."
That "relationship" was with her father-in-law, Isaak, who became one of the first people in the Netherlands to die by legal euthanasia.
"He was always a very private man. And when he died, I think Hans (her husband) and I were, first of all, shocked. And then we were hurt. And then we just didn't understand it," Kandel says.
Kandel said her father-in-law, a pastor, was pretty healthy for an 85-year-old. He wasn't in pain and didn't have a terminal diagnosis.
"He was still driving his car and still preaching, still going to concerts, reading, his best friend lived in the same elder care facility he was in. So we were so baffled by his choice," she says.
However, in the earliest days of the new Dutch law legalizing euthanasia, the prospective patient just had to find two doctors to approve the lethal injection.
"I started dreaming about him and I'd wake up with nightmares. I'm a nurse by profession, my dad was a doctor. We live so much of our life taking care of people. I just couldn't understand that someone would want to end their life like that," she says.
Writing helped Kandel process her thoughts about her father-in-law and her complicated relationship with him as she and Hans traveled the world. The result is "The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir," available locally at Zandbroz Variety or through North Dakota State University Press .
Meeting a blue-eyed Dutch boy
Kandel met Hans, a native of the Netherlands, when he was doing postgraduate work in agriculturism at the University of Mary in Bismarck, where she got her degree in nursing.
"I was intrigued, I think, growing up in a small town and an isolated community where everybody kind of looked and sounded the same," she says. "And then I meet this boy and he had lived in Zambia for three years. So he was talking about lions and elephants and the things he done, and I was just fascinated. And I think that was part of the attraction."
They were married less than a year later by his father in the Netherlands. Six weeks after the wedding, they went back to Zambia where the Dutch government offered Hans a job, while Jill kept busy with other important matters.
"I kept us alive. No, seriously. I mean, the water was full of a lot of diseases, the milk had tuberculosis, there wasn't enough food. So a lot of my life at that time became, I thought, a lot like my grandmother's on the prairie, when she first was washing clothes by hand, boiling the water, just really in survival mode for much of that," she said.
Communication was scare, so letters back home were the primary method of staying in touch with his and her parents. Their experience in Zambia inspired Kandel's first book, "So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village."
The Kandels had their first two children in Zambia and chose not to renew their contract to keep working there. Over the next few years they lived in England, Holland and Indonesia before coming back to the Midwest, where they lived in Red Lake Falls, Minn., and where Kandel started her writing career.
A second book
Kandel chose to write her second book about her complicated relationship with her father-in-law.
"He was very different than I was and I never really understood him. We had a lot of conflict in our relationship. He spoke a different language and lived 3,000 miles away," she says.
But why the title "The Clean Daughter"?
"The Dutch word for daughter-in-law is 'schoondochter.' And when I first heard that word, I was just starting to learn Dutch. And so I changed it into English and 'schoon' means clean. 'Dochter' means daughter. So in my mind, I thought it was 'clean daughter.'"
Both Hans and his sister said a Dutch person wouldn't really see it that way. Kandel compares it to someone translating the English word "honeymoon" as literally a sticky, sweet lunar object in space.
"It was just a literal translation, but that's what I thought of myself." Kandel says.
Following Isaak's death, Kandel said she felt "unsettled," so she figured if she started writing she might start to understand what led Isaak to choose to end his life. She studied euthanasia law and traveled to Holland to walk in Isaak's shoes as a young teen during World War II.
Kandel learned of the horrors Isaak faced in Nazi-occupied Holland — being cold and hungry the least of his problems.
"Isaak went into hiding twice because Nazi patrols towards the end of the war were looking for anybody that they could send to the factories in Germany to work because they didn't have manpower," she says.
Kandel says without a doubt, World War II scarred Isaak for life.
"I think it made him afraid. If you're young, and you don't have control, when you get older, all you want is to control everything. That's how you can handle it all," she says.
Kandel says after writing the book and growing older herself, she feels like she has a better understanding of the father-in-law she didn't understand as a young American newlywed.
She hopes the book can provide some insight into what it's like to be in a cross-cultural marriage, something more common than it was when she married 40 years ago. She also hopes it creates discussion about euthanasia and what it means to grow older.
"Isaak didn't want to live more, but he was healthy and had life, so what is the purpose of life? So if you can't ski or go on a road trip, does it mean our life doesn't have purpose?" she says.
It's especially true in youth-obsessed America.
"There are a lot of really wonderful things about aging to bless our world. I hope people see that death has a purpose, dying, not death, dying. But the process of dying can be a beautiful thing, not something to be afraid of," she says.
Kandel, an award winning author, will be featured in a virutal One Book, One ND event on May 15. For more information, visit https://www.humanitiesnd.org/events.