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Author pens a tribute to late husband
"You cannot hold an eagle in a cage," Dagmar Christine Albert told orderlies at the nursing home where her husband John had been confined as a result of early-onset Alzheimer's.
It's fitting that the cover of her touching memoir, <i>To Johnny, With Love</i>, features a picture of an eagle soaring over the the B.C. wilderness he loved.
The book, is as the title suggests, a love letter to the man she adored ever since they met as young people barely out of their teens in the chaos of post-Second World War Berlin, and a celebration of the life they built together as immigrants to Canada; daughters Linda and Ilka, and their thriving grandchildren.
It's also the sometimes-heartbreaking story of a strong, otherwise healthy man who was only 54 years old when he exhibited the first symptoms of the disease that would ultimately claim his life, and the woman who remained lovingly at his side, almost every day of the 16 years of his gradual decline, except when sidelined by her own need to recover from a devastating car crash.
But it's also a book that deserves to be read, not only as an insight into the effects and realities of Alzheimer's both for a patient and his or her family, but as a work of literature.
For in <i>To Johnny, With Love</i>, Albert, 86, a White Rock resident and member of the Langley Writer's Guild, has accomplished a rarity – a book written with beautiful clarity and simplicity; with a poetic sensibility, but without an ounce of pretension.
That unpretentiousness is clearly evident when one meets Albert in person – and in her frequent admonitions: "don't make me famous!"
"I had no intention of publishing this book at all," she said in an interview arranged at the encouragement of her friend and neighbour, Lynn Cockrill.
"I've been a member of the Langley Writer's Guild for 13 years and they encouraged me to do this. I wanted it to be a tribute to my husband – instead of a grave stone, I wanted to do this."
That Albert has succeeded, with the help and guidance of editor Wendy Dewar-Hughes, there can be no doubt. Her husband's presence is lovingly recreated in the pages of the short memoir, and not only in passages where she movingly and imaginatively gives voice to his confusion and anguish at not being able to communicate, and his sadness at the loss of the home life they led together.
She also creates a vivid portrait of a man who loved the outdoors and cherished a realized dream of leasing 60 acres of wilderness Crown land north of Lillooet and turning it into farmland.
He spent 10 years doing this while balancing his passion with a demanding job at a large car dealership, she relates, before what she describes as "the fog" began.
From John's early confusion at simple tasks like tying his tie and adding numbers, she traces his decline – and the resilience and coping skills of his family and caregivers – until his last days at the nursing home.
Albert said she knows her insistence on continuing to treat John as the man and personality she knew, even in spite of the many obstacles, is not a viewpoint shared by all. Individuals have a different approach to Alzheimer's, she added, and she felt blessed to have an incredibly supportive mother ("She was only 20 years older than me, and 10 times as strong," she said) as well as a family to help – unlike others faced with the same situation.
"I was very careful (in the book) not to be argumentative, and not to be critical of anyone else."
It's evident in only a brief interview that Albert has many other stories to tell.
Born in Germany, she was the only daughter of an engineer who was employed by a Japanese company in 1934, and a mother of Russian and German parentage who had been caught up in the events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917.
A childhood spent travelling throughout the Far East changed dramatically when her father died shortly after Pearl Harbour, and mother and daughter were left to fend for themselves in wartime Japan – including living through the last terrible air raids on Tokyo and Yokohama.
"I will never forget those years – they give a person a different outlook," she said, adding that her memories as a teenager having to grow up very fast include a lasting sense of the ordinary people in Japan – "neighbour helping neighbour."
Another story she doesn't include in the book is how she first met John in Berlin, in 1947 in the emotionally charged atmosphere of the court trials that took place following the war.
"I was 19 and he was 20 – it was two months after I arrived back in Germany. He was a translator working for the Americans, and I worked for them too, because I could speak English."
Albert recalled she was translating for a judge in court, and John was translating for the plaintiff, and after she had translated some testimony, John took issue with it.
"My husband-to-be raised his hand and said 'I'm sorry, the young lady translated that wrong,'" she said.
"I thought 'oh, yeah, goodness what a terrible guy this is.' But on the way out, he was standing there. He said 'my name is John Albert, can I take you home?'"
"Two years later we were married."
To Johnny, With Love is available at amazon.ca and, locally, at Black Bond Books stores.