Tag Archives: death

Alja at 6 weeks

Farewell My Love

Time has ceased
But cherished memories still linger
This is the way of life and all things
We shall meet again
You are only sleeping.
―José N. Harris, Mi Vida

Last weekend, we put our sweet dog, Alja, to sleep forever. The one I always called Monkey Dog because she was always jumping and playing and doing something silly, who was so alive and conscious. She heard planes go overhead and would watch them go. You could see her nose follow the path. She greeted everyone like they were her best friend that she hadn’t seen them for years, even if she had never met them. She was smart. She understood “squirrel” and “fox” just by the tone of our voices. Spelling didn’t work. She would jump up at the first “S”.

When we picked her out at the breeders, she was so small you could have held her in one hand. The breeder wanted us to get to know her while she was still in her family but I couldn’t go at the time, so Wolfgang would go alone and she would stumble over to him and fall asleep between his feet, full of trust and love. When we brought her home, she fit on a quarter of the blanket we had bought. When she was full grown, she was too big for the blanket.

When we were renovating this house, I was here alone with her and wanted to go back to Frankfurt after having done some work and she sat at the top of the stairs to the door and wouldn’t come. She had decided that this was home. She will always be a part of this house to me.
When we went hiking in the mountains, she was always climbing up high rocks and trying to pull ahead. Her joy and excitement were catching. It made the hard work less hard. Walking in the woods here near the house with her was one of the joys of my life. She seemed so alert and engaged. It was having a real companion on the way.

Fun in the mountains

Fun in the mountains

She was always my husband’s dog really. I took an “Animal Communicator” course just to see what might be possible and another participant in the course who tried to contact her said that she asked Alja who her favorite playmate was and she saw “some guy,” she said and seemed upset. She expected another dog. But I knew that Alja’s favorite playmate was my husband. He would lay on the floor and she would try to get the ball away from him. She never tired of that game.

But she and I had a special relationship. In the house, I always talked to her like she would understand. Somehow it felt like she did. People say that dogs don’t understand. That they just hear blah, blah, blah, treat! blah, blah, blah, walk! But that’s not how it felt to me with her. She seemed to know and sympathize.

Two and a half years ago she started to get sick and my life went on hold. The doctor had an idea what was making her sick but he wasn’t really sure so we tried lots of things. She would get better for awhile and then it would be worse again. So we would try something else. She lost muscle mass, she became incontinent. We tried something else. That really didn’t work either and she became blind. And the loss of muscle mass accelerated.

Monkey Dog

Monkey Dog

Three weeks ago, I stayed home with her while my husband went sailing to get his sailing certificate. We had planned to put her in a pension and I would go with him but she was just too fragile to give to anyone else. We had the feeling she wouldn’t live out the week. And I was tested for the first time in my life. My whole day was wrapped around her, getting her out to pee every two hours all through the day and night, getting her food, making sure she was ok. The bond between us deepened in a way I can’t really describe. And her condition improved at least some. We started to hope that she was getting better.

Then last Friday when I was already in bed, she started bleeding from the nose and it wouldn’t stop. She was hemorrhaging. We have a very kind vet who came over at midnight and he said he believed the bleeding would not stop. It was too thin, not showing any signs of clotting and that she would probably bleed to death. So we helped her go. We held her in our arms as she took her last breath.
My house is empty and my heart is broken.

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My mother and I backstage at Carnegie Hall,

On the Tightrope

But she wasn’t around, and that’s the thing when your parents die, you feel like instead of going in to every fight with backup, you are going into every fight alone.
―Mitch Albom, For One More Day

On June 5, 2016, it will have been five years since my mother died. Somehow I feel like I never really grew up until she was gone. I feel now like I am walking a highwire without the net that I had always sensed beneath me, always took for granted without really noticing it was there. My father died when I was in my twenties and that was hard enough but my mother was there. Always. We fought, we bitched and sometimes I felt like she was the biggest pain – but she was always there.

I have to admit, I didn’t appreciate all she did for me when she was alive. I was too wrapped up in my own drama and my own story about what she “didn’t do” or “hadn’t done”. Now that she is gone, I think of so many things and I realize every day what my responsibility was in our relationship. I would so like to apologize for what I did, what I said, to tell her I am sorry I was such an ingrate, so unfeeling sometimes to the point where she said once that she was afraid of me. But I have only realized those things now because that net is gone and that feeling of vertigo is what makes me look in the first place.

My neighbor above me where I teach has a little boy, just under two years old. My neighbor is beautiful, intelligent and strong willed. She is over 30 and a therapist. She has always seemed to me to have everything going for her.-But I watch her struggle every day not to give in to her feelings of frustration, confusion and anger when her son doesn’t want to do what she would like him to do. He is a little ray of sunshine most of the time but she told me that last week he threw himself down in the middle of street screaming and beating his hands on the pavement. She wasn’t even sure why he did it. She had a look on her face I will never forget.

And I think of my mother, beautiful, intelligent and strong-willed and the mother of three children before she was 25 in an era where women were supposed to function regardless of what they were going through or how overwhelmed they felt. When I was five, my mother pushed my father to support her to finish her degree so that she could teach school. It was unusual at the time and I really see myself in that bull-headedness. I know that she “felt” better after she started teaching, more herself, more in control. And the money she made was used for us. It helped pay for all of our schooling and got everyone of us out of a financial disaster or two. Funny enough, I never saw that as an expression of her love. Not until she was gone. I never understood what money might mean to a depression baby, who had lived on the road during World War II because her father was a colonel in the army and they moved a lot. Now I know and it is too late to tell her.

I think of her every day. I miss her every day. For some things, there a no second chances. Take every chance you get to say I love you. Don’t wait.

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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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