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Dad dropping me off at collegeDad dropping me off at college

Thirty years ago today

God’s finger touched him and he slept. – Tennyson

On December 14, 1983 my father died of lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. I wasn’t home. I had been there for several weeks and it seemed he had stabilized so I left to do an audition. Two days later he was gone. This is how I remember him.

My dad was a quiet guy. Didn’t talk much. His thing was doing. He didn’t get angry much but when he was you needed to get out of the way. Something I have inherited. His face was pretty stern looking, at least later in life. I will never forget the look on his face when he drove by me as I was dragging main with my friends when I was supposed to be at the movies. White heat! And the couple boyfriends I brought home always said, “Your dad hates me, I can tell!” And I would always say, “He always looks like that”.

He was a mechanic by trade and was really good with his hands. At home, he made beautiful, simple things out of wood. If he had been born 20 years later he might have been a furniture maker. He always seeemed like an artist to me. But life made him a mechanic in the local meat packing plant. He was really good with cars and loved to tinker on them on Saturday afternoons. I used to ask him about what he was doing while he worked. “Dad, what is this?” “A carburetor.” Silence. Nothing more. No explanation. He just kept working. All the cars he ever had – at least until his kids started driving – were always in tip top shape. In the 70s, he finally sold an old 50s Chevy station wagon that looked like it was brand new and nearly cried as he watched a young kid in town drive it into the ground in less than a year.

One of my favorite memories is when he was fixing the heel of one of my shoes – he could fix anything – and we were talking about how I got blisters from all of my shoes, I think I was 16 at the time, and he said, “You and your mother – pointed heels and pointed heads!” My dad was always good for a euphemistic phrase. Swear words didn’t come out of his mouth that I remember but the phrases he used were great – colder than a well digger’s butt, hotter than a popcorn fart. You get the picture.

At parties or events, my father used to stand at the side and watch. Drove my mother nuts. She wanted to go and do. He tended to want to stay home. On the other hand, he loved to dance. I will never forget seeing my parents dance at the wedding of my dad’s youngest brother. It was amazing to me to see the energy and joy that flowed out from my father. At the resort we went to nearly every summer, my friends told me my dad looked like a movie star. When my parents came to hear me sing my final recital in college, my dad stood at the side of the reception with his hand in his pocket. My voice teacher at the time was also 6′ 4″, a great man and teacher, and he siddled up to my dad and they stood there together exchanging just a few words but a smile krept across my dad’s face. I will always be grateful to Ken Smith for doing that, may he rest in peace.

My parents had their problems over the years but they always found ways to keep finding each other. Back then CB radios were all the rage and that hobby really made a quite difference in their lives. The radio appealed to my father’s technical side and the social life associated with it appealed to my mother. They bought a motorhome and started travelling to events. That was also perfect because they were taking “home” with them. “High Pockets” and “Low Pockets” were their CB nicknames – my dad being 6′ 4″ and my mother 5′ 6″ – and I made them a design for a business card. Things were good in 1983.

His illness seemed to come on suddenly. My parents had recently been on a cruise to Hawaii – the first cruise they had ever taken, when he collapsed in the kitchen in end of September 1983. The tests showed a large tumor in his lung and 5 tumors in his brain. Radiation therapy was recommended. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and went back for a couple of days. I remember my dad sitting there looking shell-shocked and my mother talking about fighting it. But I knew my dad was terribly frightened of cancer. Both of his parents had died of it and when my mother had kidney cancer 8 years before – which was operated successfully and she outlived 35 years – my father broke down crying in the car with me and sobbed, “Maybe it would have been better if we hadn’t known.” I went back to Washington and promptly totalled my car. One of the last things he did before he couldn’t do anything anymore was to buy my mother a new car and promise me her old one. That was what he felt was important.

When I would call, my mother would always say, “As good as can be expected.” What my younger brother told me later was the his horror at having to carry the man we all felt was the strongest in the world. They told me very little of how it was with the treatments but after 6 weeks the diagnoses was “terminal” and I took a leave from my job and went back to be with him.

I didn’t do much. Visited him in the morning. Went home to practice while my mother was there after work. Went back for a couple of hours in the evening. He laid there with his eyes closed most of the time. The pain must have been tremendous. At Thanksgiving time he seemed alot better and it was hard for us and the visitors who came to believe that there was no hope of recovery. And he was antsy to get out of bed. But by then he was too weak to move and after a couple of days he relapsed into sleeping most of the time. One time he seemed to me that he was choking and I panicked and yelled, “Nurse!”. His eyes flew open and he growled, “What are you screaming about!” I couldn’t believe it. But he hardly spoke otherwise.

I had an audition scheduled in New York for middle December 1983 and my family encouraged me to go. It seemed to us all that he was going to hang in there for a while. So I packed my car, my mother’s old car that he had given me, and stopped at the hospital on my way out of town. I held his hand and said, “Daddy, I will love you all my life.” And I left.
Three days later he was gone.

I did the audtion, sobbing. Thankfully someone I knew was on the jury and could explain what had happened but I shouldn’t have been there. Then I flew home. We had a visitation and my brother picked me up at the airport and drove me right to the funeral home. Painted and cold in that box, he didn’t look at all like himself. But what meant a lot to me were all the people who expressed their condolences. We lived in a medium sized town but it seemed like everybody new Bob Johannsen and knew to respect him. These things are important when you lose someone.

His children are now all older than he was when he died. We’ve made it this far. Funny how young this feels now that I am here. My mother died two years ago, still lamenting that he left her alone, although she had a good life because of the precautions he took to give her financial security. And even after all these years, I still miss him. I still talk to him in my head. I still see his graceful movement and stellar blue eyes. Daddy, I will love you all my life.

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