|Preben Hoch, 1981|
My first impression of Preben was that he was very tall, a big, big man. He didn’t speak a word of English, really, but he flashed me the bright smile that would eventually become dear to me. I didn’t speak Danish, but Inga Hoch, his wife, was an English teacher. Thanks to her interpretation skills, we had our first conversation.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Preben and Inga would become two of the most important people in my life. I was to have three host families during my year in Denmark, and they were my second. But they were far more than a host family in the end. They were family, plain and simple.
I moved into their home on Nov. 20, 1981, a day that is important to me because nine years later it would become my younger son Benjamin’s birthday. I wrote in my journal about how I immediately felt at home both with the family and with my bedroom, which I described in detail. I put my stuff in the room, then had tea with the family, joined them in watching an old World War II movie on TV, and then headed to bed.
|Preben and Inga in Bromme, 1982|
By November, I spoke adequate Danish, and we quickly fell into a pattern. Preben, who worked as the manager of Bromme Forest, a big stretch of beech and pine that belonged to my school, loved to tell jokes. He would start supper by telling a joke or sharing some kind of Danish saying — especially ones that had double entendres. This would earn him a rebuke from Inga, and usually I didn’t understand anyway. He would explain, and I would laugh.
Laughter. That’s what I remember so much about my time with the Hoch family. I remember, too, how Preben used to tease me. But this wasn’t unkind teasing or bullying. Everything he said was geared toward making me feel good about myself. One night as we were walking into a restaurant, he slipped my arm through his and said, “Quick! Hold onto my arm! Everyone will think I’m here with a beautiful young woman.”
Many years later, I met with Preben and Inga in 1997 when they traveled to Arizona on vacation. I told them things they didn’t know about me. I shared the fact that I’d been sexually assaulted as a child and that my coming to Denmark had been a means of escaping a small town where I had been bullied.
|Dinner with Inga and Preben in 1997|
They weren’t surprised.
“We knew something had happened to you, but we didn’t know what," Inga said. “We felt we could help you by giving you as normal a life as possible during the short time you were with us.”
Those three months helped me to change my life. They were part of the saving of me. Their sincere effort to help a strange girl from far away was an act of compassion that made all the difference in my small world.
I spent my first Danish Christmas with Preben and Inga. I turned 18 beneath their roof, while Preben turned 50. (So old!!!) I watched my first lunar eclipse and found myself shaken by the realization that time passes and cannot be reclaimed. I realized that, just as the the lunar eclipse had passed with time marking itself in the slow disappearance and reappearance of the moon, my days in Denmark would pass, too. And so would my life.
It was pretty heavy thinking for my 18-year-old brain and left me with a melancholy ache in my heart. I remember that night to this day, but I’m sure the feeling passed quickly. When one is 18, life beckons so strongly. There isn’t time to think about much else.
|Dinner with Preben and Inga in Bromme, 1999|
But now time has passed, so much time. That restaurant where we had dinner now belongs to a classmate of mine and has been transformed into a residence. He lives there with his wife and kids. The house in Bromme still stands. A thatched-roof cottage from a couple of centuries back, it is now occupied by someone else.
|Paying respect to the past, 2014|
My Danish sister, Christina, took me there for a visit the day before my 50th birthday, the two of us strolling through a shared past. In addition to other changes, a tree had been planted in Preben’s honor. Marked with a sign that reads “Hoch’s Oak,” it commemorates his many decades of service to the forest. Standing beside it, I couldn’t help but get teary eyed.
|Standing near Hoch’s Oak, 2014|
I spent part of that day and the next with Preben and Inga. Preben was confined to a wheel chair, and Inga, too, had limited mobility, both of them having been stricken with Parkinson’s. I will always cherish the handful of hours I spent with them.
“Do you remember your 18th birthday?” Preben asked, struggling to speak.
“Of course, I do.”
I repeated the embarrassing story about having been drunk under the table by my Danish brother, Tomas, and having to be helped to bed. And then there was something about them trying to convince me that the forest was full of wild pigs... Or something...
Though he didn’t have much mobility in his facial muscles, Preben smiled and gave a little laugh.
Benjamin, my younger son, was with me that day. He doesn’t speak Danish, so he and Preben had no direct way to communicate. But Preben found his way beyond that, taking Benjamin’s hand and holding it in silence.
|Tea with Benjamin, Preben and Inga on my 50th birthday|
Before we left, I hugged both Preben and Inga tight and told them I love them. It’s not the first time I’ve said those words to them, but I wanted to let them know, as if they already didn’t, how very much they mean to me. When the time came for us to say farewell, I wasn’t the only one in tears. Benjamin had been deeply touched by meeting the two people who had played such an important role in his mother’s life. Preben wept, as well.
I returned from that trip to Europe to get the news that I had breast cancer. I sent word to my Danish family, certain that Preben and Inga would want to know. I went through my double mastectomy and am now almost six weeks post-op.
My brother David and I were in South Dakota on our madcap, spontaneous road trip to Mount Rushmore, when I got word from Christina that Preben had passed away. I couldn’t read most of the message because my eyes instantly filled with tears.
“Do you want to go home now?” asked David.
We had just driven for six hours, so I was blown away that he could be that selfless. He’d come up with the idea of making the drive as a way of cheering me up and giving me something else to think about besides cancer and chemo and survival rates.
“Are you kidding?” I said, laughing and crying at the same time. “Preben loved life. He would want us to see the fuck out of this.”
And so we did.
One of the first places Preben and Inga took me on my tour of the countryside near their home was Bromme Kirke, a 1,000-year-old church that sits on a hill looking down on the area where Hoch’s Oak now stands. They told me a bit about the church’s history and told me that they were going to be buried there when they died. My 17-year-old self found it rather macabre that anyone would find peace in knowing where they were going to be buried one day.
Today — July 16 — Preben will at last be laid to rest at Bromme Kirke. He’ll rest above the forest he spent his adult life tending in a cemetery that overlooks the tree that was planted in his honor.
I am heartbroken that I will never see that 100-watt smile again, that I’ll never listen to another one of his semi-dirty jokes, that I’ll never be able to hug him again. But I rejoice in knowing that I had those last hours with him on my birthday. He met Benjamin, and I was able to say those three precious words again: “I love you.”
I am relieved for his sake to know he is beyond suffering now. In the end, he was ready to leave this life.
My thoughts now are with Inga and the rest of the family — daughters, sons, step-daughters, grandchildren. I hope they know how very much I care about them. I had always planned to be there, but there is no way I could manage a trip to Denmark now.
So I sit on my sofa, surrounded by mementos of the part of my life that intersected so blessedly with Preben’s and Inga’s — photos, journals, the table cloth they gave me as a wedding present, the set of silverware they sent me when they moved out of the house in Bromme to a smaller residence in Sorø.
Can a life pass so quickly? All our lives are rushing by, it seems.
I find myself thinking of the lessons I learned from him, lessons about living fully and keeping a sense of humor. As I continue my fight against breast cancer — a fight I plan to win — I think of how gracefully he dealt with Parkinson’s Disease. Even when he could no longer care for himself, he wasn’t bitter.
I am so lucky to have met him, and I’m so grateful.
But my heart hurts, and I will miss him.
Sov godt, Preben. Vi ses igen én dag. Og næste gang vil vi ikke være nød til at sige farvel.