Hospice 5: Thanks for being different

In Catholicism, there is the sacrament of Last Rites. A believer facing imminent death can confess their sins and be forgiven. It doesn’t what you did or how often or maybe you forgot about that minor theft. If you’re truly contrite, you’re good. Clean slate. Off to Heaven with you.

Outside Catholicism, there is a larger tradition— almost a trope, really — of the dying person saying all the things they meant to say at the very last moment. This provides a certain amount of closure, and it’s a bit of cheat. The recipients of that information can take it in, but they can’t act on it. Specifically, they can’t act on it with the dying person. That window of opportunity is closed for business. You don’t have a chance to integrate that new information and alter the trajectory of your relationship.

My father wrestled with his faith, and his own secular view of the world. While he left the Church (and came back to it, briefly), he did have certain firm pillars in his emotional landscape. One: he loved his children. Absolutely. But like many parents (myself included) he didn’t always know how to connect with his children, or support them, other than financially.

What my father liked to do was make quiet pronouncements, usually as we were packing the car to leave. “You know I love you.” (To which I might reply, “I know.” or “Love you, too.”) There were variations on this exchange, such as “I appreciate you coming down,” or “Thanks for helping this weekend.”

On the rare occasion when the two of us were alone in the car for a drive or sitting together on a long flight, he might attempt to pierce the veil and talk about his own family, or his marriage, or my writing. Something.

Frank didn’t get SF. He’d read a few books that I’d loaned him, but he didn’t dig anything written past the pulp era. The fact that I wrote, and continued writing with only occasional professional success impressed him. He also appreciated that I was following my own path, which included things like fencing, Buddhism, and raising a daughter with theatrical dreams.

Even if he didn’t say it very often.

As I was leaving his bedside recently, he held my hand tightly and thanked me profusely. He was grateful, he said, that I had brought something “different” into his life, and that my daughter was “unique.” (I would have to agree with that.)

My father worked a lot of years, with a busy private psychotherapy practice and a challenging marriage, all with an eye toward seeing his children grow up and be successful, using the some of the traditional metrics of college, military service and/or professional careers, marriage, and grandchildren.

In addition to helping him fulfill that goal of “raising successful children,” apparently I had brought something different to the party. Something that made him proud. And happy.

I always suspected that was the case, and it’s nice to have it finally confirmed, even if it’s at the end.

Now excuse me while I check in on my daughter. She’s grinding out a model boat using scrap lumber so she can have a prop for her D&D game. I don’t exactly understand why she’s putting so much energy into this particular accessory, but I certainly encourage her effort.

I’m sure it will be a fine vessel.

Hospice 4: The Licorice Will Outlast Me

My father has never been a foodie. He had things he really liked (chicken cooked over oak wood & Folgers coffee) and things he didn’t (akvavit). He was interested in new cuisines, when he happened to come across them while traveling, or when we made dishes for the holidays. My wife, for example, found a traditional Swedish fisk soppa (fish soup) recipe that called for a stock that took about two days to make and featured massive amounts of butter and cream. We had it for Christmas dinner several years running, and Frank would always say, “This is really neat!” (He also used to ask, “Have we had this before?” but that’s another issue.)

“Neat!” was the ultimate compliment in his book. I eventually parsed the term as something akin to “Great” or “Excellent.”

When I was 10, he and I took a week or so and travelled through Europe on trains. He encouraged me to try escargot in Paris (I wasn’t impressed) and locally made pork sausage and pastries in Heidelberg (much better).

We also ate a lot of licorice, specifically Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, a staple of British confectionery shops. My first memory of these was seeing big bags of the candy in airport duty-free shops, and I always associated it with visiting relatives in Sweden.

Once my father entered managed care, I used to send him gift boxes. They included large-print books and Allsorts (except for an odd period when you could find only Australian licorice on Amazon).

When I visited him last week, I saw several bags of candy on his nightstand. (Pretty sure they were brought by my sister.) There were also packages of Twinkies and cookies because the staff was concerned about his weight loss.

During an awkward pause in the conversation, I asked if he was still able to eat the soft candy without his dentures. (He’d stopped wearing them because they caused him pain.)

He could, he replied, but he wasn’t interested. That was a sign he was fading. He loved that candy and made my mother crazy when he found it at Costco in 2 kg bags.

“Do you want some?” he asked, gesturing to the bags. “It’s going to outlast me.”

I refused the offer. Even if he wasn’t interested, I wanted him to be able to turn his head and see those colorful bags.

That would be neat.

Hospice 3: A Matter of Honor

My mother wasn’t the first woman to whom that my father proposed. According to the stories, he dated a lot when he left the army. Apparently it got so bad that my grandmother Ethel once pulled him into the kitchen and said something like, “And I suppose you’re not going to marry this one, either.”

His track record wasn’t great. I think at least 3 other women turned down his offer of wedded bliss before my mother broke the streak.

Fast forward to last year. A friend of mine was working at 23andMe, so I decided to get some DNA kits for the family and my mother-in-law, just for fun.

I posted my results as publicly searchable, and as it turned out, so had several of my American cousins.

Then my sister sent me a letter. An unknown woman had found one of my family on 23andMe, and the results predicted they were first cousins. That cousin reached out to my sister, who agreed to talk with her. The woman was adopted, and was interested in finding some family connections.

Her name is Honor. And her history was interesting. A sample:

  • She was born about a year before my oldest brother
  • Her birth father was listed as “German” in ancestry, tall, with black hair and brown eyes
  • Her profile photo showed distinct Schlosser characteristics, and
  • The clincher was her DNA – it shared a partial match with my daughter and a strong match with me

When my father was reminiscing about old girlfriends, my sister took the opportunity to ask about Honor. Did he remember dating a woman that fit her birth mother’s description?

O mais oui. He was completely clear on that. He remembered the birth mother, remembered dating her, knew she had gotten pregnant, and definitely remembered that the family wanted nothing to do with him. A bit later, my sister set up a Facetime call between Honor and (our) father. From all reports, it went well. He was glad that his “first” daughter was doing well and happy to make her acquaintance at the end.

So I have a half-sister. Have had one for my whole life but never knew about her until recently.

Not everyone is happy about this news, of course, but there isn’t a lot we can do at this point. At least the truth is out.

I wonder what else we’ll learn before the end.

Hospice 2: The Ice (Cream) Man Cometh

Because of the pandemic, only immediate family are allowed inside the facility, and then only one at a time. (For now: that might change as we get closer to the end.) My spouse and daughter have to stand outside by the window, in the sun, in what is essentially a parking lot.

Before I went in, I gave my keys over in case they wanted to retreat to the car and cool off/charge phones/sit down.

So we had a visit. It was going pretty well, although I was noticing more signs of weakness and a tendency for my father to drift in conversation. But when we asked if he needed anything, or wanted anything, he perked up and said, “Ice cream!”

I replied that I would bring some on my next visit. Outside, however, my daughter decided to act. She had just heard the passage of what appeared to be the neighborhood ice cream truck, so she jumped in the car and headed down the street in pursuit. She caught up with the guy, but he was empty. (It was a pretty hot day, and this was late afternoon.) A couple of locals directed her to a nearby grocery store, and she acquired a bag of those small ice cream sundaes you used to get in the cafeteria, or summer camp. Plastic cups with a paper lid, something even a weak 91-year-old could open.

He ate two of them. For a few minutes, he was 12 years old again, mowing lawns with his friend and discovering chocolate ice cream, the best thing in the world.

Sample – ice cream cup

Hospice 1: Two Tattoos

As long as I have known my father, he’s had a tattoo on his right bicep. It was just part of him: a rose with some red petals, green leaves, and a name underneath. It appeared when he was working in the yard, or hanging out at the beach, or splashing about in the cold rivers of central California. I didn’t give it much thought. I always assumed he got it when he was in the army, like everyone else in his generation.

This week I learned the full story. In 1946, on his 18th birthday, he decided to “do something wild” and got himself good and drunk, then somehow made his way to the local inking emporium and related the story of his current infatuation: Leora. She was an “ultra-beautiful girl” and he had fallen hard for her. He wanted to get a tattoo, and it “had to be her name.”

I asked my father if he had stumbled into the shop and pointed at the designs on the wall, and said, “That’s it! Number 6. Give me that one! But make it with Lenora.” But he didn’t. His recollection was that he sat down with the artist on duty, described Leora and all her glory, and the guy set to work (not doubt puffing away on an unfiltered Camel).

Leora was apparently not impressed enough by this sign, and went on her way. My father continued his romantic adventures until my future mother agreed to his proposal.

Frank Schlosser, Germany
Frank Schlosser in Germany, post WWII
Rose tattoo
Faded rose

When we visited my father in hospice two days ago, it was the first time we’d seen him since Christmas. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I was allowed in the room, but my spouse and daughter had to stand outside and basically wave through the window. They could also talk a bit, but between masks and bad hearing aids, it wasn’t ideal.

My daughter Lilly-Karin turned 18 this past January, and she had decided long before then that she would mark the occasion with a tattoo. Of course, these days, you have to be at least 18 (or have written permission from your parent/guardian). Showing up hammered will get you thrown out of a respectable shop, and no one is smoking Camels or anything else. Times change.

So my teen did a lot of research, saved her babysitting money, and then borrowed the car on her birthday. She went to a shop recommended by her friends and walked the artist through her design: a flower. A California poppy, to be exact. Since she has flowers in her name, she wanted to continue the theme, and also celebrate her birthplace.

She showed up late for dinner, apologetic, but happy that she had staked out her first mark of adulthood.

When my father heard the story, he was delighted to announce a new connection to his granddaughter, but wished he could see her ink. I took a picture later that afternoon, printed up a copy, and delivered it the next day.

Golden poppy tattoo
Eschscholzia californica, California poppy

He was very happy, and proceeded to thank me for bringing such a unique being into the world. (Not that I had much choice in the matter – Lilly-Karin has always chosen her own path.)

Anyone who has spent time with a dying family or friend knows that at the end, the stories come out — good and bad — and you do your best to reconcile that information with your own experience and feelings.

My father and I were close at times, but often distant. Now that he is gently slipping into that good night I am pleased that we had this additional moment to share at the end.

Hug your loved ones, if you can.

Poetry and the Pandemic

I wrote “Seven Cups of Landfall” last year, well before we had any idea of the coming pandemic. The poem is not thematically linked in any way to the illness, or the Shelter in Place. In fact, it comes from a image I had for a story — seven cups lined up on a shelf, somewhere on an alien world. But the story never materialized, and the few lines that I wrote as part of a speech for one of the characters eventual became a seven-stanza poem.

That’s what writers do — we repurpose and recycle. If a character doesn’t fit here, then it might work there. And that cool visual that messes up the flow of a scene? Nail it to the wall of a new chapter.

The last poem I published was a lifetime ago, in 1994, when I was teaching English Comp 101 at community colleges in Tacoma, Washington. One of the faculty members edited a poetry magazine and asked the staff to volunteer some words.

My contribution was something of an homage to all those dead white guys I studied in college and forced my own students to read. It was, well, let’s call it derivative. I still enjoy parts of it, though, and it reminds me that I can achieve writer goals (“Sell a poem!”) even if it takes a long time.

Now I need to get back to making new words, and wearing my mask when I leave the house because a virus and human stupidity are trying to kill us all.

Wash your hands. Stay safe. Maybe read some poetry.

Another one escapes the trunk

Stupendous Stories Showcase

Writers have trunks, literal or virtual, which we fill with the unloved, the uncompleted, the unsold, and the leftovers. Stuff we liked, stuff we loved, stuff that for one damn reason or another never found a home.

Sometimes there are Very Good Reasons you don’t sell a story/novel. Bad prose. Unlikable characters. Annoying dialog. Other times… it’s just the Wrong Market or the Wrong Time or We Like it But We Won’t Buy It.

“The Carpetbaggers Ball” is one such story. I wrote it a *long* time ago, and it’s part of a series of First Person Who Isn’t Really Karl stories that could probably fill an anthology. This one had its roots in my decade in Los Angeles, and I was playing around with some of my usual themes: isolation, loss, music, and the 1%.

I received a lot of praise and encouragement, though the story soon joined the ranks of We Like it But We Won’t Buy it. It was a bit long, and needed a stronger arc for the MC. The basic premise (body swapping through tech) also turned off some people who thought that particular trope was mined out.

Fortunately, the editor at Stupendous Stories had a different opinion. He liked it, and wanted to buy it. Unfortunately, after he committed to the sale his own module of Mundane Reality™ threw some serious errors, and the publication went on hiatus (see The Almost Lost Year).

Fortunately for me, and the magazine’s fans, the editor managed to bring Mundane Reality™ under control sufficiently to produce a new e-pub (with print versions coming Real Soon Now). I downloaded a copy and re-read it to check for typos or other annoyances to correct in the next edition. Much to my surprise, I still liked “Carpetbaggers.” It feels true to the time I wrote it, and even resonates well now.

I hope you had a chance to download the free copy. If not, you can toss a few coins at Amazon and get one now. Or wait for the print copy.

The trunk is getting empty.

2019 – The Almost Lost Year

It’s odd thinking of 2019 as “last” year. So close to “lost.” Indeed, 2019 was almost a lost year in many respects.

I drafted this blog the other day but realized after 1,000 words that I was wandering. It didn’t help that I’m still fighting the flu/holiday crud. So let’s shift to bullet points, eh?

Major themes of 2019:

  • my daughter’s preparation for college
  • changes in my professional life
  • my aging parents
  • oh yes, that writing thing

The teen

  • Applying to college is HARD
  • There is research, online visits, physical visits, tests, more tests, essays, and auditions if you’re a theatre kid
  • Trying to balance all that while maintaining good grades is well, trying
  • Costs are insane. We’ve been saving since she was born and it’s still going to be tricky. (It’s also the reason I’m still working unpleasant jobs.)
  • Early on, we threw in the towel and hired an admissions counselor. It’s not the same thing as the Varsity Blues scandal.

While there are still applications pending, I am relieved to report that at least one theatre program has extended an invitation and some scholarship money. We won’t know the final outcome for several months but my wife and I can start thinking that yeah, maybe we didn’t screw this one up.

Day job

  • Started looking for a new job in mid-2018 following Kyocera’s corporate realignment and departure of my best friend on the team
  • Found a small, ninja-like team at Kaiser who were doing interesting things in WordPress and U/X
  • Abandoned regular employment for a new contract, only to discover that upper management had been working on a major reorg
  • In the space of a few months, my senior manager retired, my manager retired, the technical liaison quit, the marketing writer quit, and several contractors were eliminated
  • The two remaining folks from the original team had to re-apply for their jobs with a very secretive, inflexible, bureaucratic-worshipping cult based in Inda.
  • I started looking for work again in mid-2019

On the plus side, my new line manager is much more open to remote work, which has been a gift considering the situation with my parents.

The Elders

Back in 2018, the entire family got together to discuss moving my father into an assisted living facility. He was still pretty functional, despite multiple bouts of cancer and other age-related issues (he turned 90 that year). Unfortunately, he delayed the move, and his physical and mental condition deteriorated.

  • Last summer, he ended up under psychiatric observation following a low-key incident at his local ER.
  • Upon release from the hospital, he went into physical rehab, then into a memory care residence. The transition was not handled well.
  • The ensuing problems have meant a lot of time on the phone and driving down to Central California to deal with stuff.
  • My mother is also dealing with various age-related illnesses and can no longer manage the house by herself.
  • Fortunately, one of my nieces lives nearby and helps out a lot, but it’s not really her job.
  • My siblings and I continue to work to try to find a resolution for their separate housing and preserving their finances.
  • The holidays were stressful. Full stop.

Stress and Writing

  • Too often, I found myself tired or stressed or sick, and the thought of tromping into the word mines was overwhelming.
  • I didn’t publish anything in 2019.
  • I sold two stories to the same magazine (in 2018 and 2019) but the magazine’s publisher had his own family and job challenges, which delayed and delayed the issues. In fact, I’m still waiting.
  • I worked on a lot of stories but only finished one new flash piece for a contest.
  • Managed to send out lots of submissions, though, and received several encouraging notes from editors.
  • I participated in NaNoWriMo. That helped.
  • It also helped that I organized my first writing retreat — Write Here Write Now 2019 — in Baltimore. Some very patient, good folks showed up and put in words. We had some much-needed fun.
  • The Nebula Awards conference in Woodland Hills also charged the battery. Seeing Space X was very cool.

Looking ahead to 2020

  • More self-care. I had three separate, nasty bouts of flu/bronchitis/crud in 2019. I lost about a month.
  • More writing and less news. The political world is a spinning dumpster fire on the best of days.
  • More reading – so many good things by good people. Why not enjoy that?
  • Letting go. The teen has reached her 18th birthday and will be heading off to college. Time to stop worrying about the little stuff.
  • Dealing with the inevitable. One or both of my parents may pass away soon.
  • Tea and whiskey.

A quick note about NaNoWriMo 2019

Since my novelette/novel concept has to be completely replotted (and that’s a digression for another day), I’ve decided to use November — specifically NaNoWriMo — as my motivation to finish/edit/get to Beta readers 4 short stories. One per week! It’s like my own lazy Clarion workshop!

Included in the lineup is my short story draft from WriteHereWriteNow, a novella that’s been kicking my ass for mumble, mumble months, a fantasy piece, and an odd flash story that seemed really easy when I first conceived it but is now demanding a bigger trailer and top billing.

Good luck, everyone!

Death has two speeds

My experience of Death falls into two general categories: quick and slow. There never seems to be a middle ground, a saunter. You either see it coming and have time to prepare (and fret and worry), or bang! It’s right there, and you deal with it mostly in the rearview mirror.

My father is fading. He’s nearly 91 years old, and it’s clear to anyone with even a modicum of medical training that he’s not long for this life. To his credit, he is the last survivor of 9 (!) siblings, and has set a new endurance record for his bloodline.

It’s no small feat to push yourself into nine decades; it’s even more impressive when you consider the time he lived — standards for healthcare were much lower, nutrition was worse, the air pollution in most major cities was worse, and seat belts and antibiotics  and yoga classes didn’t exist.

My father has survived a tour as a paratrooper during the latter part of WW2, 60 years of tobacco use, 70+ years of drinking, a bout of cancer, lifelong anxiety, depression, lack of exercise, and the Catholic church. But his main spring is winding down. Mentally and physically, he’s batting in the bottom half of the ninth inning.

The very languid approach of death has given the family a lot of time — perhaps too much — to deal with the challenges of his later  life care. Thus far, he has stayed at home but at a very high cost, physically and emotionally. The last few years have been an exercise in simmering grief.

Very soon I expect to get the phone call that tells me that he’s passed, or is in the hospital, attached to expensive machines trying to eke out another few weeks of life. Then I’ll put the grieving process into full speed, and deal with it.

But it’s really tiring.

Karl and Frank

Frank’s 90th Birthday

Then there’s the quick death. The unexpected fatality. The oh-shit-I-just-talked-to-them-yesterday moment.

I met Chris Cornell at a writing workshop in Texas, and was delighted to discover that he lived only one town over. I enjoyed his writing, his humor, his gentleness, and his generosity. When he started a publishing company and invited me to submit a story to a new anthology, I was happy to participate. It was a great experience and I looked forward to future collaborations.

I last saw Chris two weeks ago at the Nebula Awards conference in southern California. He was happy and full of life.

He died on Monday night. I got the news on Tuesday. Apparently, he was riding the local transit (BART) and just keeled over.

I realize there are many invisible health issues — high-blood pressure, for example, but I hadn’t heard anything and he was still relatively young. There were decades of stories waiting to come out.

Death, however, came swiftly for Chris, and now his family and many friends are heartbroken, shattered.  There is a collective shock and disbelief that has only begun to settle into grief.

I’m still processing, of course. But I do know there will be one less glass raised at our next writing getaway.

Just as there will be one less place set at my parents’  table in the near future.

Fast or slow, Death comes, so keep your eyes open. Hug your loved ones.

Raise a glass.

Chris reading from ABANDONED PLACES at Book Passage, San Francisco

karl reading in San Francisco

Launch of ABANDONED PLACES anthology