Jan Blommaert: ‘You have the feeling that you have no grip on your body. That is the definition of cancer’

Jan Blommaert: ‘You have the feeling that you have no grip on your body. That is the definition of cancer’

Jan Blommaert (59), full professor at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences, has taught students worldwide in thirty years as an academic, published numerous books and scientific articles, and flew around the world to speak at major congresses. But due to the terminal cancer that was discovered in March, he now spends the time he has left with his wife and two sons at home in Antwerp. In recent months, he has had to learn to deal with a new identity: that of an incurably ill person.

Jan Blommaert in his house in Antwerp. Image Mariska van Schijndel

Blommaert looks different from how I know him—according to him he has lost twenty kilos since his diagnosis—but at the same time, he has the same kind of energy as four years ago, when I was a freshman attending his lecturers. In his living room there is a large wooden bookcase (“this is only a small part”) and works of art from other countries hang on the walls. He pours a pot of Chinese green tea (“my wife knows all about tea”) and gives me the new edition of his and Dong Jie’s book Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner’s Guide. He sits down in his chair, his walking sticks leaning against the wall next to him.

A community of misery

“I wouldn’t have been able to handle this conversation two weeks ago,” he says. My wife had to help me get dressed, with the food. I was so bad that I wasn’t capable of anything.” Now, during heavy chemotherapy, the pain caused by metastases on the skeleton is “bearable.”

In the middle of March, Blommaert was told that he is dealing with a very aggressive and rare form of cancer on his vocal cords and metastases throughout his body. There was barely room left in the trachea. Blommaert takes a ballpoint pen out of the inside pocket of his shirt and holds it in the air in front of him. Just that small. “So I was really suffocating.”

However, the bad news from the doctors did not make a big impression on him. “I was already on the train at the time. It didn’t matter to me how fast it would go. Normal life ended at that moment. It took me twenty minutes, as we say in Flanders, to make up my accounts.”

“I have no ambition, never did. So I don’t have a bucket list either,” he gives as an explanation for his quick resignation. I know I have done a lot. What is unfinished is unfinished. I also have—if I may say so about myself—a very small ego. I do not have the feeling that I must absolutely leave something behind.”

I was already on the train at that time. It didn’t matter to me how fast it would go

Blommaert says that the greatest sorrow lies with his family, not with himself. “They have to live with a loss that I cannot have. I am the loss. I’m sad, you know, I’m sad though about my family’s loss. But it is a completely different type of loss than if I were on the other side. I am dealing with the end.”

That is the hardest element of the process of dying, according to Blommaert: learning to adopt the new identity of an incurably ill person. “You have the feeling that you have no grip on your body. That is the definition of cancer,” he says. “Your enemy is your own body. And that body is divided into small pieces: the radiologist treats one part, the oncologist treats the other, and so on. You end up in a community of patients, a community of misery, which you don’t know, but which you get to know and of which you are a part, whether you like it or not. That’s difficult, that’s a hard lesson to learn.”  

Keep fighting for the family

“The several moments of extreme pain caused by bone cancer regularly make the process unbearable. Very often, I wish it would end. Then I think, the next pain crisis is the last one. But I also have to think about them.” He gestures with his hand to the house, the family. He wants to move the end of his life forward for them. “My youngest son will graduate in January and the oldest will have his birthday in April. God, I really want to experience that. If I could still make that, it would be an incredible victory.”

They have to live with a loss that I cannot have. I am the loss

His sons, 23 and 27 years old, are “very strong” and give “incredible support”, says Blommaert. “Last week I could hardly walk because of metastases on my pelvis and hip. I tried to take a walk around this school every evening.” Blommaert points through the window to a large, brown building opposite his house. “Every evening one of them went with me because they were afraid I would fall, or just to keep me company. Often they took an extra coat, warm scarf or gloves along because they know I get cold halfway through.”

“If I were to use the system of the bucket list: I’m sorry that I won’t be able to be the father-in-law of their wives and the grandfather of their children. Sometimes that gnaws, then I think: damn it, my life is too short.”

“But I can only speak about them with the greatest admiration,” he says with pride. “About my wife Pika as well. She is a housewife, which means that after my death her financial situation won’t be easy. At the same time, I’m not worried about her. She is also, to put it bluntly in Flemish, someone who has balls of steel. She really knows how to deal with it.”

In the meantime, his wife enters the living room and takes off with paperwork. “If you are sick, you have a huge administration that has to be done,” Blommaert says looking at his wife. “She does that. She is the reason why I have been able to work the way I have. She was the management. To me, she is the best secretary in the whole world.”

I’m sorry that I won’t be able to be the father-in-law of their wives and the grandfather of their children. Sometimes that gnaws, then I think: damn it, my life is too short

His wife puts some papers on the small table next to Blommaert so he can sign them. “For the health insurance,” says Blommaert. “In need of care,” he reads out loud. “You are the one in need of care,” his wife answers. “Indeed,” says Blommaert quietly, while he puts his signature.

According to Blommaert, he could not have achieved anything in his professional life without his wife and children. “My wife gave up her career to make room for mine, and during all these years, she not only took care of the upbringing of my children, but also did almost all the administrative and organizational work necessary for my development. The children have spent long periods of their childhood without me, or with a deadly tired and stressed dad who had better be left alone.”

“Personal life is a reservoir of sacrifices that are made for the benefit of the professional one. I am infinitely grateful to those who have made these sacrifices.”

The big things in life

“Unlike many others—who assume that personal life is mainly about ‘small’ things—for me, it’s about the big things in life. In the private sphere I seek love, happiness, appreciation, balance, and completeness as a human being,” says Blommaert.

However, his work has stood in the way of his personal life. At the beginning of his career, Blommaert attended two or three congresses a year, at the peak there were even ten or twelve. “Furthermore, it rained invitations to write, to review, to become a member of committees, editorial boards, or governing bodies of scientific organizations and so on. All this came on top of a busy job in my own institution.”

Personal life is a reservoir of sacrifices that are made for the benefit of the professional one. I am infinitely grateful to those who have made these sacrifices

“In practice, the countenance of academic success is overtime, enormous amounts of stress and, ultimately, burnout. And who pays the greatest price for that? Your family, friends, extended family. And what gets damaged? Love, happiness, appreciation, balance, and completeness.”

In 2016, Blommaert had a burnout himself, so he was out for a whole year. “I phased out all those so-called prestigious things. Because, you know, those prestigious lectures include an introduction by a prominent colleague who lists your ‘attainments’ accompanied by a song of praise that emphasizes your energy, productivity, and impact. Well, after my burnout, I wasn’t able to listen to those kinds of praise anymore without saying to myself: ‘idiot, maniac, fool, that you did all those things and put so many other things aside’. After my burnout, all the things considered attainments in the eyes of others were causes of problems.”

Voilà, c’est fini

Blommaert gets up from his chair and gets his new book What was really important in my academic life? from the bookcase and gives it to me, also as a present. Without Blommaert knowing it, his essay, which he had placed on his website, was published as a booklet, with a foreword by friend and colleague Ico Maly.

“I start my essay with a reference to two people whose work I have experienced as very important: Foucault and our good friend Goffman. Foucault was 57 years old when he died, Goffman was 60. That’s the comforting thought: because you haven’t done everything, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t done anything,” he says.

“The last thing Foucault says in his book is…” Silence. Blommaert looks away from me, through the window, and breaks. For a moment, he says nothing. “ ‘Voilà, c’est fini’,” he continues, with tears in his eyes. “I’m crying for him now,” he says softly, “not for me.”

“These are his words. I can only imitate them, but they are worth imitating. Voilà. That’s it. That’s also how I stop here. This is a good time to stop. I’m on the train, I’ve said what I have to say, what I thought was important.”

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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