“14 days in May” memoir, or A true story about Love & Survival

“14 days in May” – A True Family History

Let’s start this “Books” section with my latest book. A book about a dramatic, but in the end also beautiful & inspiring family history. A true life story.

  • Elzen, Arthur van den, 14 days in may. A farewell to my father, a man who should have died sixty years ago. A true story. 2020, ISBN 979-8647492548
Book cover of “14 days in May”, written by Arthur van den Elzen

A story about my father Ad, who was accidentally hit by a bullet in his face when fulfilling his military duty. A bullet that exploded in his head actually. It left him dying on a cold floor, and everybody who saw him that day didn’t really give him a chance to survive. Until…

It’s a painful and emotional story, but also a story of survival, faith, perseverance, and about love. The unconditional love of his girlfriend at the time, my future mother Thera. 

In this post I will give you some backgrounds to this family history book. Why I wrote the book, the research that went into it, responses to the original Dutch edition (2014), as well as the reason to translate it into English.  

What made me write this family history book?

The idea to write a book about this personal life story was always at the back of my mind. As a young boy I soon learned about my father’s “fatal” accident. No wonder, you would think, being part of his family. But it’s not that simple.

Being one of his children, I always saw my father in the first place for who he was, my father. I didn’t notice anything special initially. It was other people, on the street, that would react strangely, noticing his maimed face. 

The book is about the history of my family. Here we are with the whole family.
The whole family in 1866. From left to right, my oldest brother Thieu, my mother with my youngest brother Marcel, Marjo, my father and in front of him me and Theo.

Most people wouldn’t respond at all, but others would suddenly look away, tell their children to do the same, or just stair, amaze themselves. Other times, but fortunately not too often, people would insult my dad by saying something stupid, or just laugh. Very painful, I can tell. My father had learned to ignore those reactions, but as a young boy it made me angry & cry from time to time.

Anyway, for our family the history written down in this book was just a part of our lives. Without too many words. 

Curious little boy

What I didn’t know then, still a little boy, was that getting older I developed a growing wish to know, to read & to write. Mainly knowing, reading & writing about history … Over the years this curiosity resulted in questions to my parents and others about the “fatal” accident. This way, little by little, gathering more information about the whole event – before, after and in between. 

However, this curiosity never resulted in a final plan to write a book about this family history. Worse, when I decided many years ago (1994) to leave my native country the Netherlands and migrate to Latin America (see About me), I thought it impossible to put the story on paper.

That is, until … my father asked me to do just that on his deathbed in May 2011:

You can do this, … right, my boy?” was everything he said.

Of course he knew of my interest in his story. As well as the fact that I already had written several books (see About me or the Introduction to this blog segment). These were stories though that took place in my “New” world. The world I had chosen to travel through and live in – Mexico, Guatemala & Ecuador.

So at first my father’s request for writing his life story, made me hesitate. Because of the distance, but also because of the grief that surely would follow his death. 

It finally took me two seconds, maybe three, thinking ”Oh, my …”, before I told him that I surely would! No, … I nodded, I remember now, I only nodded. “Yes, dad, of course I will put your life story to paper!”, is what I thought. 

Honoring a last wish. What more is there in life?

Writing you family history down: A honorable task

So, with that task at hand I went back home to my family in Ecuador. I have to admit, it took me a while to put a pen to paper. After my father died at the end of May 2011, it took me months to gather my thoughts. 

My family in Ecuador. With wife Wendy & daughter Lisa high above Quito, the capital of Ecuador.
With my little family, high above Quito, Ecuador, around 2000. I left the Netherlands in 1994, together with my wife Wendy. Our daughter was born there in 1997.

Almost half a year later, I finally found the energy to start writing … and I’m glad I did so! It was an emotional, but also beautiful experience. And most importantly, a real life’s honor to be able to fulfill one of my father’s last wishes. 

Meanwhile I learned so much. About life, his life, my life, survival, perseverance, faith, and … love. One of the most important things I learned, was the role his fiancé played at the time. Beforehand I knew how important she – my future mother Thera – had been for my father’s survival and recovery. However, I discovered I didn’t know half the story… I now know what unconditional love means! 

Thera & Ad, my parents, leading roles in the family history book, described in this post.
My father and mother, a few years after the accident. Engaged, and not yet married.

In short, I wrote the story for my father, but dedicated the book to my mother.   

What I had to do to write this book

While I traveled a lot to complete earlier books, for this one I could stay at home. That is, my home in Ecuador.

Leaving the Netherlands, after my dad’s funeral, I took a big box of documentation with me. Documentation that enabled me to reconstruct the accident, the medical treatment, the home coming, the recovery, as well as the rest of his life. 

To be more specific, I’m referring to small notes my father wrote in the first few months, because he couldn’t speak. Diaries he kept later on. The letters my parents wrote to each other from and to the hospital. Military reports, medical reports, letters & postcards from family and friends.

A box of letters my mother found in the attic was very important to write this family history book.
Cleaning out the attic my mother found a box with old letters. Letters she exchanged with my dad when he was hospitalized. At first she wanted to throw them away, but then she asked me.

All together, a lot of information, but it wasn’t enough. While I was putting the story together, I noticed it left gaps here and there. 

One of the solutions to fill these gaps was the internet, another was finding certain books. Two sources that provided me with background information on all sorts of names and events. Like for example the ordinary life in my father’s home village at the time. Or facts about the Second world war in the region. 

A very important step was the search for people who witnessed the events. Family, friends, and even some doctors I could contact & interview.

My mother’s memories

To complete the story though, the most essential database I could use were the my mother’s memories. We talked hours upon hours over Skype. Given her advanced age, she has an amazingly accurate memory. She remembers many things as if it all happened yesterday. And that of course was gold for me, writing a book about a very personal family history that happened over sixty years ago. 

To be honest, remembering those dramatic events made us shed many tears together. Also because we just lost him, we missed him too much. Besides tears though, there were many smiles and even laughter. The story is obviously about pain and loss, but also about survival, strength, hope, love, and inspiration. 

All in all, while I couldn’t have written the story twenty years ago, I could now – by using the internet and the international connections it provided. 

Dutch edition of the family history book

The Dutch edition – 14 dagen in mei – was presented to the public in the Summer of 2014. Luckily soon it received some positive reviews. Not only from the people around me, but also from people I didn’t know. As well as from the press. 

Article in the newspaper about the familiy history book “14 days in May” (Dutch edition).

A selection of personal responses to the book:

  • “Just finished reading the book by Arthur van den Elzen. Awesome! A love story, a piece of history of a village and life at that time. But especially the history of a man who survived “against all odds” and made something beautiful out of his life. Recommended!” (Peggy Bodelier)
  • A book about an ordinary man whose life is turned upside down after a serious accident, but who with perseverance and help from his environment (and especially his girlfriend/wife) manages to continue his life. Beautifully placed in the right timeframe, well written, a book to finish in one session.  Highly recommended.” (Jos Kuijs)
  • Beautiful, as if it was told to you personally.” (Marian) 
  • The writer has put the events on paper in such a way that you actually can feel all the emotions connected with the story.” (Jan Abels)
  • Beautiful, smoothly written story about the tragedy and love of a man who has gone through a lot of misery. Lovingly written by the main character’s son. Also very readable for people who are not from the village concerned.” (Ton van Aken)
  • Dear Arthur, I’ve finished the book … Chills, flushed red cheeks, swallowed tears, but most of all lots of smiles. Thank you very much for this wonderful story. Your father often told me that he wanted to ask you to write this story. I couldn’t have imagined that your book would bring me so close to your father again.” (Doke Tuil-Buurman, the last odontologist to treat my father)
  • Knowing your father, it’s nice to finally know the impressive story behind “his face“. A powerful story.” (René Holweg)
And then, a few years later…

Even after a few years I still received responses from people who had read the book. At the end of 2017 I was surprised when I received a request from the University of Utrecht (Odontology) in the Netherlands to be part of an exhibition in London. An exhibition about “Teeth”, past & present. 

Somebody at the university had read the book and when asked by colleagues in London whether she had any interesting theme or item to include in their exhibition, she remembered my father’s story. 

One small corner of the exhibition was reserved for my father’s life story, complete with some photos & items. He was almost neighbouring a display that showed a silver engraved toothbrush that had belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. That’s something, isn’t it? 

Toothbrush that belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. Item shown at the “Teeth” exhibition in London 2018.
Caption from the Teeth-exhibition by the Wellcome Collection:
“This toothbrush from the late 18th century belonged to Napoleon. It has a silver-gilt handle and is engraved with Napoleon’s coat of arms. His biographer F. Masson maintained that Napoleon would brush carefully morning and night, and clean his tongue with a silver scraper.”

Because of distance and costs I couldn’t visit the exhibition myself, but was pleasantly surprised when my mother (87 at the time) decided to go. Together with my niece Evi – who helped me translating this story in English – they visited London in May 2018. 

The idea to translate my father’s story in English was born around this entire event – the invitation and the honor to be part of this international exhibition. 

Reviews on the English edition “14 days in May”

5-star review by Joel R. Dennstedt of Readers’ Favorite:

Some memoirs seem destined to impact other people’s lives with an intensity far beyond the mere recording of the various family memories involved. Such is 14 Days in May, Arthur van den Elzen’s eloquent memorial to his father, Ad van den Elzen, a Dutchman born in a tiny village in the Netherlands in 1930.

Ad van den Elzen’s otherwise normal life was largely circumscribed by a debilitating accident suffered just when he was growing into manhood, a shooting accident occasioned by a military comrade who basically obliterated van den Elzen’s face. An accident that could easily have ended any man’s life right then and there, or upon survival should have, at the very least, derailed any future life from a semblance of normality. None of this, however, genuinely explains the deeply moving impact of this fascinating book.

Arthur van den Elzen’s tribute to his father, 14 Days in May, far from offering but a recollective story based on one family’s past, is first and foremost an enthralling tale of love and courage. Thera (Kappen) van den Elzen, Arthur’s mother, is the most heartening personification of an enduring, undying, devoted love one is ever likely to encounter, and the “object” of her love, victim of that devastating accident, is one of the most admirably enduring, undying, persistent men ever to inspire another man’s wish for emulation.

Together, these two humble but indomitable human beings dominate this lovely book with an oddly normal if transcendent expression of true love. To say this book inspires is to understate its true impact on the reader. In truth, it will make you proud to be a human.

5-star review by Gail Garrett, US costumer Amazon:

  • This book captures your attention from the very beginning. I couldn’t put it down once I started. A great story about love and war and the hardships of people during that period of time. I was amazed at how much history the author knew about the period around WWII. It was a great story about his father being shot and injured very badly also to the great love story for his father’s fiance who would later become his wife and the author’s mother. I would highly recommend this book. Fantastic book……………….” (5 stars, Gail Garrett, USA on Amazon.com)

5-star review by John White, UK costumer Amazon:

  • A compulsive read from start to finish: An amazing true story that lovingly describes the life of a most remarkable and brave man.” (5 stars, John White, UK on Amazon.co.uk)

5-star review by Jack Magnus of Readers’ Favorite:

Arthur van den Elzen’s 14 Days in May: A Farewell to My Father, a Man Who Should Have Died Sixty Years Ago is a fascinating glimpse at The Netherlands after World War II. The author interweaves the current situation of his father’s imminent death from cancer with an accidental shooting in 1951 and the effect that it had on his father’s life. As a long-term student of World War II, I also appreciated that part of his story which dealt with Ad’s and his wife’s childhoods, and the impact that the German invasion and eventual liberation had on them and their families. Van den Elzen’s historical accounts make starkly compelling reading, and they work quite well in fleshing out the biographies of both Ad and Thera Kappen, his fiancee and later his wife.

This memoir is eloquently and beautifully written, and the sixty-year span dealt with is covered with grace and love. It’s most highly recommended.”

5 star review by Lesley Jones for Readers’ Favorite

Arthur van den Elzen’s 14 Days in May is an inspirational tale of love, heroism, and indestructible relationships that will have you hooked from the first page. The relationship between the author and his father was iron-clad, the last meeting between them was absolutely heartbreaking. The entire memoir was filled with interesting historical facts and stories and the footnotes added another layer of incredible interest. I was also intrigued to learn how the Dutch suffered terribly during WWII. The photography and newspaper articles were wonderful and definitely brought realism to the story.

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I especially loved Thera; her support and undying love for Ad was enviable. Ad’s zest for life as he faced death after the dreadful shooting, then in 2011, is an incentive for everyone to lead a life filled with love, memorable experiences, and kindness. I could totally relate to Arthur’s reaction to the news about his father; he relayed his emotions throughout with such honesty and bravery. This quote from the book certainly sums up how through tragedy we learn important life lessons: “My theory is that these moments of impact, these flashes of high intensity that completely turn our lives upside down actually end up defining who we are.” A fantastic read, a story you will never forget.

(“Paid link”)


Video Presentation: Intro to “14 days in May”

A few days before the official book launch, I recorded following link: Video presentation (about 2 minutes).

A still from the video presentation

In case you missed the link: Video presentation.

“14 days in May” Family History photo-file

Running up to the official launch date, 28 May 2020 – exactly 9 years after my father’s death – I published a serie of old photos concerning the story told in “14 days of May.

Published between 15-28 May 2020, I archived them daily in another post on this blog. Click on following link: Photo file, memories #1 – #14.

Old family history photos

From the Back cover: 

In the introduction I told you in some headlines what this particular family history is about, but I like to end this post with the back cover text:

“On 1 May 2011, I traveled from Ecuador to my native country to say goodbye to my dying father. Two intensive weeks followed, where death was constantly looking around the corner, while life was still the focus – his life. 

About sixty years earlier, my father survived a serious accident. He was hit by a bullet in his face, a bullet that exploded in his head. Doctors only just managed to save his life. With a new, but maimed face he had to return to his hometown, the small village of his ancestors in the South of the Netherlands. 

Back home, he found everything to be exactly the way he left it, but no one seemed to remember him as he was before. However, he was determined to pick up his life right where he had left off months before. His former family life, his friendships, his hobbies, his job, and … above all, his relationship with the girl who lived around the corner. 

During the two weeks I stayed in the Netherlands, we spoke often about this dramatic period and eventually he asked me to write down his story. With the help of his memories and those of family and friends, but also old letters, diaries, military and medical reports, I reconstructed his personal family history. Embedded though in the inevitable farewell. A true and inspiring story.”

Elzen, Arthur van den, 14 days in May – A farewell to my father, a man who should have died sixty years ago. A true story., 2020, Title, jaar, etc ISBN 

Book “14 days in May"

Availability of the family history book “14 days in May”: 

The Dutch edition (ISBN 978 90 821882 0 2) is also still available by clicking on the following link: 14 dagen in mei.

For an overview of all travel posts of my blog, go to: the Home Page.

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