This is my story about Lykke, one of the most remarkable persons I have known, and about our friendship which lasted from 1985 until she died in 2010.

In 1985 I was 20 years old, I had come from the Danish province to Copenhagen the year before to see if I could become a classical singer.

I studied musicology at the university, and my voice teacher now though that I should do it, leave university and prepare for the audition at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.

To prepare for the audition, she recommended that I take private tuition with teachers from the Academy. Voice lessons, coaching (study of repertoire with a specialized pianist) lessons, piano lessons, music theory and solfège.

I followed her advice and had to find some money to pay for the lessons. I had previously worked in a kindergarten in the province and had enjoyed it very much.

The advantage was also that you could start working at 6.30 am, work full time and still be off work at 2.30 pm, with ample time for lessons and practicing in the afternoons and evenings. So, I applied for a position as a pedagogical assistant in the Central Mission Nursery in Copenhagen.

I was invited for an interview, it was a perfectly normal nursery, a part of the Methodist Church’s social work. I told them that I was preparing for the Academy audition and that I needed money.

This proved not to be an immediately nursery career-promoting approach, two of the educators preferred a real pedagogue type, but the leader of the children’s group, Lykke, wanted me. And she got me.


Lykke – the name means happiness in Danish and is pronounced like this – was 10 years older than me.

She was born in 1955 and came from an eccentric upper middle-class family in the wealthy Copenhagen suburb Hørsholm.

She had tried to study architecture, but she did not thrive in academia. Her brain was also not made for abstract deductions, so there were certain technical subjects in the education that she could not master.

Instead she had become a pedagogue, she was an active left-wing feminist and lived with her son Mads in Baggesensgade, right in the multi-ethnic and multi-social neighbourhood on Blågårds Plads in Nørrebro in Copenhagen.

Here, among other single mothers, people on social welfare, exiled Palestinians, activists, students and other colourful people, she was at home.

She had the most burning red hair; over the years it would become light blond and later almost white. She had an enormous set of teeth and amazingly good spirits.

She would say,

“Sometimes you are just in such a good mood, that you have to find an old lady to smile at, everyone else would believe that you are totally insane!”

Linguistic renewal

Most of the times we would work very well together, I sang a lot (!) in those days, also for the children. They loved it, and Lykke was totally ok with it.

She treated me like a younger well-functioning colleague who happened to sing a lot. She showed me how to read the children, and otherwise she would mostly give her advice by telling fun stories about things that had gone terribly bad in the past.

Sometimes I would visit her at home in Nørrebro, I got to know her – also quite eccentric – sisters and their children, we smoked and got drunk together and sometimes we would end up on some very aggressive bars in the area which I have since never visited. I was a nice young man, wasn’t I. She felt at home there, too.

She once taught me a lesson which I have never forgotten. In youthful arrogance I had made fun of so-called loser names taken from the American, like Brian and Dennis, and suddenly a lighting from a blue-sky stroke.

“Let me tell you something, my fine friend. Every linguistic renewal comes from the working classes. They are the ones who hear fun words and names from other countries and take them over, they are the ones who invent new words.

If they don’t understand difficult words, they play with them, give them new meanings which then slowly slide upward and become part of the common language. It never goes the other way round!”

Bam! Then she friendly ironized about the name Mads, a name which at that time only was given to children with parents from the humanistic educated world – and which she of course had also given her own boy.

Were we the real linguistic losers? Maybe not entirely.

Social devolution

1987 I auditioned for the Royal Danish Academy of Music and was accepted. Tearfully I said goodbyes to my dear children and the colleagues.

Lykke and I kept in touch. We would meet up three or four times a year, spend some lovely time together and then go each our ways.

As times went by, suddenly a couple of years had passed. I had got an HIV-diagnosis in 1998 and was pretty weak. I had received good treatment and had spent some time licking my wounds. I had also got a scholarship stay in Paris and when I came back after six months, I called Lykke.

“I have had cancer. In the intestines,” she told me. She had had surgery. The cancer had been removed, but her intestine had broken down and she had got an ostomy. “I just take an enema in the morning and that’s it”.

She had also got a children-burn-out, she could no longer manage to teach children and was on long-term sick leave.

Of course, I told her about my HIV-disease, and we began seeing each other on a regular basis again. Apparently, the worst had passed, but neither of us knew exactly how to carry on.

It was always easy to talk to Lykke, also about subjects which were very difficult to talk about with others.

She was both very practically temperate about our respective medical histories and work situations and refreshingly cheerful morbid about life’s injustices.

She would only become sentimental when she heard me sing. That was also quite nice.

Lykke loved the ground and plants and tried to take classes in physics and mathematics, to become a landscape architect. But her brain could still not think abstractly, and she had to give up once again.

Instead she was retrained as a gardener.That she could master, and she amused herself a lot with all the sweet wild boys that she was trained with, who were not the brainiest lot.

When she had finished her training, she became a cemetery gardener. She was always a loose seasonal worker, a fact which sometimes annoyed her, since both took her work seriously and loved what she was doing.

“I found happiness through social devolution.”

she would say,

“I came from Hørsholm, through the architect studies and the pedagogic life to the most wonderful job as a gardener. I love to lie on the churchyard with my arse upward and lay spruce leaves on the graves at Christmas.”

No doubt, she was happy, both for the job and for the not hyper-intellectual colleagues.

She also had a steady group of female friends at home at Blågårds Plads. Together they would sing working-class and feminist songs. They had known each other for decades, and she loved them dearly.

Dearest of all was her son Mads. Mads had over the years grown up, he had found a circle of friends as a very red-haired part of the Palestinian boys’ brotherhood on Blågårds Plads.

Apart from that he studied economics at Copenhagen Business School.

The letter C

One day Lykke called and told me that her cancer had broken out again. She was either to have surgery or radiation or chemo or hormonal treatments. It ended up with a cocktail of it all.

It was serious. I had married Thomas who was a doctor at the Copenhagen University Clinic. We lived around the corner and each of us did what we were able to, and what Lykke felt was suitable.

Lykke was sent from one hospital to the other. She met an enormous number of oncologists with various degrees of professional and social competences.

At one stage she had been forgotten, some doctors meant that the cancer was ovarian and others intestinal. Both departments had sent her along and filed her away and she was only rediscovered through Thomas’ friendly collegiate insistence. It is very practical to know a good doctor when you are seriously ill!

Lykke had to give up the job as gardener and apply for early retirement. We were not part of that challenge, but there were many stories of unfriendly and incompetent social workers until the pension was finally granted.

Lykke was determined to keep her temperate practical attitude and as much of her great crooked spirits as possible.

When we met up, she would always start by telling me what she currently was afraid of, what was too much for her to handle, and the stage of her treatments.

It was quite normal for her to be scared and somewhat out of her depths. In that way these issues would only be parts of her life, not things that could overshadow all that she enjoyed and that would happily carry on talking about afterwards.

It is my impression that Lykke could see that I also work well in that way (both Virgos), that I could be useful in her process, and that she also practically could train me a bit for whatever impossible challenges I might later on encounter.

Her son Mads’ best friend had died in a motorcycle accident. Mads had fallen in love with the friend’s sister, had become a Muslim and took it seriously. The feelings were reciprocated. They married and got two lovely children during Lykke’s illness.

It was a source of tremendous joy to Lykke to see Mads’ happiness, she loved her daughter-in-law and was incredibly grateful that she could follow the first years of her grandchildren’s lives.

She said to me,

“I know very well, that I am going to die from something that begins with the letter C. It just works better for me to live in cloud nine and I intend to do that as long as possible.

When I get a doctor, who thinks that everything is very serious and sad, I ask to see another next time. I am totally happy with the doctors who say that all is fine.”

She also sometimes had to be quite brutal toward sentimental people in her circle. “I simply have not the strength to carry other people’s sorrow. They must take that somewhere else.”

In that way it worked fine with chemo, surgery and new experimental treatments. Every time she would be enthusiastic about the new chances that gave her more time with her grandchildren.

She took the defeats, when the treatments did not work anymore, with a perpetually growing philosophical distance.

5 mice and 2 men

2009 I had divorced and moved to Berlin. Lykke and I still saw one another when I occasionally visited Copenhagen.

In the early summer of 2010, she told me,

“Now they have offered me something that has been tested on 5 mice and 2 men.

After that there is one product left, and then there is nothing more to do.”

In July Thomas called me, Lykke had rung and was very confused. Later he could not get in touch with her. A week later he called and told me that she had died. In the end it went really fast.

The most important for Lykke in the end was to help her dear son Mads carry on in life.

She converted to islam, as I heard it, the last day of her life. No doubt she had prepared it in advance. In that way Mads could bury her in the way which was important to him.

This created some frustration among some of her female friends who had to stay outside the burial hall and listen to the ceremony from a scratchy loudspeaker. But I understand that they held their own wake later on.

Lykke’s approach to life and death has made a great impression on me and I have applied some of her methods to my own life’s various challenges. Not least I smile happily to all elderly ladies on my way!

Thank you to Ilselil Halby who has read through my article and provided the pictures. I have tried to find Lykke’s son Mads, but I have not succeeded.