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A love story for the ages filled with grief, giving
It’s been just about a month since Ga Neille Hostvedt sat at her husband Dennis’ bedside holding his hand and watching him slip from this world into the next. She smiles when she recalls his love of life, his brilliant blue eyes and his caring soul. Her eyes fill with tears and her voice trembles when she speaks about him.
“He was my first love,” she says. “All throughout the years, I never forgot about him.”
And now, after his death, she wants to share him with others through her memories and what he’s left behind.
It was when they were in third grade and living on Mercer Island that they became friends. Ga Neille remembers that she lived within walking distance of Dennis’s house and would visit him often.
“He wasn’t like the other boys,” she said. “He was kind. You know boys at that age, they’re just — well — boys. Not Dennis. He was sweet and quiet.”
Throughout their childhood, they were friends. By the time they turned 16, their parents let them date. They did all the traditional things kids did in the 1950s, including going to prom together.
Dennis’s father was an expert woodworker and Dennis learned the skill from him. Dennis built a boat by hand and the pair took it out on Lake Washington several times, Ga Neille remembered.
“One time, we got out a ways and it capsized,” she said. “We had to swim back to shore.”
Soon, high school was over and it was time for college. Dennis received a full scholarship to attend the University of Washington. Ga Neille had plans to go to Central Washington College in Ellensburg.
“We talked about getting married, but we both had college plans,” she said. “And we were so young.”
So they each took their own direction. Time passed. She met and married another man and after college they created a life in Idaho, where they had three children, two boys and a girl.
That life was good and brought her many things including a career helping others as a volunteer for the American Red Cross and as a Court Appointed Services Advocate, helping children who were abused or neglected. As an artist, she painted murals and conducted art classes in the park for the Idaho Arts Commission.
But her life, too, had its difficulties. Early in their marriage, her husband was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and within a few years became a quadriplegic. For years, her life became about caring for him. In early 2002, her husband died and she found herself without a life partner.
Dennis completed his engineering degree from the University of Washington and married his college sweetheart.
He took a job with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. He was working as a project design engineer in the nuclear division at the shipyard for the Department of Defense. Things were good for him. Then tragedy hit. An accident took his wife and two young sons in 1976.
Despite losing his family, he continued his career, where he worked 33 years and rose to being a manager. He opted for an early retirement in the late 1990s, so he could pursue his passion for woodworking. He created his own business, Denny’s Fine Woodworking, building custom furniture.
In 2002, a multiple-year high school reunion was planned at Mercer Island High. Ga Neille decided to go. She was excited to see some old high school friends and hoped that Dennis would be there.
He didn’t show. But she spoke of Dennis to one of their teachers, Don Miller. Somewhat disappointed, Ga Neille went back to Idaho.
A few months later, one afternoon, the phone rang. She picked it up, said “hello,” and heard a voice she recognized.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I knew it was him. His voice was the same, only deeper.”
Their teacher, Mr. Miller, had passed Ga Neille’s phone number along to Dennis, she later learned.
They spoke several times and then decided to meet. She came to Seattle. He picked her up at the airport.
“I told him I’d have on a big-rimmed white hat, a white dress and be carrying a red rose,” she said. “That way he’d know me.”
In-flight, unexpected turbulence resulted in tea spilt down the front of that white dress. Seltzer water used to try to remove it left her dress wet, but she deplaned ready to see him anyway.
The flight was early and by the time he arrived, she was the only one standing at baggage claim.
“I looked pitiful,” she said. “I tried to cover up the tea stain with the rose.”
It didn’t matter. They were together once again after all those years apart.
“I knew right then and there,” she said. “All those feelings of ‘first love’ came flooding back to me.”
They decided to take a trip down memory lane and drove by the homes where they grew up, the old high school and then stopped in to see that science and mathematics teacher who had helped to reunited them.
“We had root beer floats,” she said. “And we just thanked him for getting us back together.”
After many phone calls, emails and several months of traveling back and forth from Bremerton to Boise for visits, they decided to get married. They had a small ceremony in Sedona, Ariz., on March 14, 2003. The newspapers in Bremerton and Mercer Island carried their love story and ran their wedding picture and their prom photograph.
The next 10 years were filled with “doing everything possible that we’d always wanted to do,” she said. They traveled the world, played golf, went snow skiing, and, of course, Dennis handcrafted furniture.
“He was an expert craftsman,” she said. “From picking out the very piece of wood to create the object, to sanding and varnishing and more sanding and varnishing — he loved the process. Everything he made was special. He’d pick just the right wood, the right smoothness and character for each piece he made.”
His boat, Tomara, was featured in the book “Classic Wooden Motor Yachts,” and he was featured in the magazine, PassageMaker. The family home he helped his father build on Mercer Island recently sold for more than $1 million.
In May of this year, Dennis began having problems swallowing. He went to the doctor. He learned he had terminal cancer.
“He’d been skiing and hiking the week before that,” she said. “They told us six months without chemo, and maybe a year or a bit more than that with chemo. He chose to do chemo. He loved life and he wanted to live.”
He lived exactly seven months, two weeks, and three days, she tells.
He never feared death, she said, and even with a chemo pump, he played golf with his buddies, making sure he lived every day he had left to its fullest.
“He always kept a smile on his face,” she said. “He never let the disease get ahold of him.”
They spoke about how he was an organ donor and about how he wanted to donate his body to science. She encouraged him to do that, as did her first husband. They got his affairs in order.
One morning, she found him standing at the window looking out at nature that surrounded the house where they lived.
“I knew he was just trying to soak it all in,” she said. “It was like he was wondering whether he’d be able to remember it after he was gone.”
Toward the end, he had trouble breathing and was hospitalized. He was on oxygen and couldn’t speak. But he worked up enough energy to be able to be taken off oxygen for a last farewell.
“He told us he wanted to have a party with his friends while he was still here, rather than a funeral afterward,” Ga Neille said. “So we had everyone who was important to Dennis come and say their goodbyes.”
They laughed and told stories. They drank punch and had cake.
But soon, he needed to rest and everyone left. She sat with him and he asked her something.
“He wanted to know if he’d be with his first wife in Heaven or with me when the time came,” she said. “We asked our pastor and he said that in Heaven, everyone is equal and we’re all together. I think he found peace in that.”
His death came soon after that, on Nov. 24 at 2:52 p.m. She sat with him for a time and then she went home. She didn’t have to make arrangements because there was to be no funeral. His body would be go to the University of Washington medical school for research in cancer causes and treatments.
But within a few hours, the phone rang. It was SightLife, in Seattle requesting that Dennis’ corneas be donated to give sight to others.
“I had no idea that someone 71 years old who had been ill could give their corneas,” she said. “Of course I said ‘yes.’ I knew Dennis wanted to be an donor.”
Since, she has received a letter from SightLife and she’s taken it on to pass the word about cornea donation to others. She hopes to someday meet the two people who received Dennis’s corneas, “but that will be left up to them,” she said. “I don’t want to intrude.”
She wonders, though, will those people see life as Dennis did? Will they have his ability to see the best in people as he did?
Her days now are filled with completing paperwork with banks and insurance companies and making sure all of her husband’s affairs are completed. She plans to spend the holidays with her children and grandchildren.
“I’m sad,” she said. “But when I get sad, I remind myself that some women never find love. I was lucky enough to have love twice and to have two good men in my life.”
Of course she has her memories. “And that old chair with the broken leg,” she adds.
“We found it in Poulsbo one day when we were just walking,” she said. “It was just sitting outside of a shop. Dennis knew from looking at it that it was an English-born shield back chair probably from the 1930s.”
There was nothing wrong with it except that broken leg, and she knew he could fix it. So she went back the next day and brought it home to him.
“It was our way of making plans for the future, even though we knew he was sick,” she said. “He started working on it, taking out staples that had been used to repair it. His hands were hurting, but he was determined to fix that chair.”
It wasn’t in God’s plan to have him finish that project, she now knows. But she’s comforted by that chair. And by other things as well.
“I made Dennis promise me that he’d give me a sign that he was in Heaven,” she said.
“A couple of days after he passed, I was just watching the sky and all of the sudden there was this cross in the clouds. I just knew it was my sign.”
To find out more information about SightLife go to www.sightlife.org, or call 206-682-4666.