Father’s Day gift, delayed

My father passed away a week ago. In the interim, the wildfires have produced orange skies and hazardous air. Ash falls everywhere, and even taking walks seems like a chore.

We also passed the six-month mark in our Sheltering in Place, which means all the easy things are done. We’ve baked and cooked and binge-watched. We’ve also worked our usual schedule.

But things are a tad easier. I don’t look at my emails, wondering what’s changed. No more texts comparing my father’s cognitive state between one visit and the next. No more tracking the credit cards to make sure my mother isn’t being billed for some service he ordered last year and forgot to cancel.

The grief is there. I dust around it as I clean. I add it to the laundry with the rags. I check it off the shopping list. I add stamps to it as I forward mail to my daughter at college.

When I couldn’t check the air quality app anymore, I started picking up the garage. I was organizing the art supplies and vacuuming last week when my father hit his last stretch. I left things half-finished, including an unopened bathroom faucet.

We had replaced the fixtures in the master bath about 10 years after fighting an incursion of black mold. The faucet was decent, but not great. The water always had a metallic taste. So I asked for a new one for Father’s Day, something expensive and German that should outlast the house. And now I finally unboxed it.

It was hard to fold myself into the space between the sink and the shower, and harder still to unscrew the old connections. The whole process took twice as long as predicted. (I think I pulled a muscle as well.)

My father used to do basic handyman stuff around the house, and it usually had this “good enough” quality. He was impatient, and aligning edges and hiding the screws wasn’t high on his list. I’m not terribly handy myself, although I have the benefit of YouTube and occasional advice from paid professionals (“Didn’t you ground that switch? What’s wrong with you?!”).

At the end of the day, I had a beautiful chrome faucet that produces a strong flow while saving water. And the water is clean and refreshing.

Happy Father’s Day to me. Miss you.

Hospice 10: And Then There Were None

Schlosser Clan, circa 1946

I spoke to my father on the phone briefly last Sunday. We were driving back from the store, on a hot, dusty afternoon. I’d heard that he was slipping, and I had just returned from Chicago, wondering when I might see him again. (I was waiting on the results of a COVID test — airports, y’all.)

He had trouble following the conversation. His speech was halting, weak. I told him that we’d set up our child at college and she was having a good time, despite the quarantine. Her roommate was a great match, at least so far. He was pleased to hear that.

When I asked about him, he said he was tired of sitting on his ass. Just tired.

Two days later, I got word that my father was no longer able to swallow, so he couldn’t take his pain medication. I contacted hospice and they assured me that they would switch him over to sublingual morphine. Then after sitting with that image for a few minutes, I packed an overnight bag and my work laptop.

The drive down wasn’t fast: enough people were back at the office that traffic in Silicon Valley felt more like pre-pandemic times. Once I escaped San Jose, I grabbed dinner, and drove hard. My soundtrack was old Prog rock, a Tom Papas comedy special, and a welcome phone call from my best friend, Dan.

I’d left a message on Dan’s voicemail, and the transcription read, “My father is going shopping.” What I actually said was I thought my father was getting ready to “shuffle off this mortal coil.” We had a good laugh over the foibles of technology.

Santa Maria was quiet at 9:15 pm, and I settled into a spare room. Woke up at 1:30 am, and watched my monkey brain as it jumped through the canopy of my thoughts. Fell back asleep around 3 (?).

The alarm woke me at 6:15, and I stumbled into the kitchen to make strong tea. Before I could finish, the phone rang. Frank had died during the night. The oldest member of the clan. The last child of John and Ethel Schlosser.

Off I went to Hillview to meet with the nurse. In the few weeks since I’d last seen him, my father had shrunken in on himself. He was a corpse: thin, pale, silent.

The temporary room where they’d moved him was nearly bare: only a few photographs on the wall. No birthday cards, no drawings. It might have been a hotel room, or a doctor’s office.

The funeral home sent two attendants about an hour later. They were very solicitous and respectful. They made sure I knew what they were doing at every step, and gave me a choice to stay or wait outside. I stayed, although I had to back into the backroom to give them room to maneuver the gurney.

Their vehicle was a white cargo van. As they left, an Amazon truck passed in the opposite direction, its gray paint job an imperfect mirror of the funeral vehicle. Yin and yang. Pick up and delivery.

Later in the morning, we called the funeral home and authorized the cremation for later this week. The skies are so filled with ash, would anyone notice?

Rest, father. We’ll take it from here.

Hospice 9: On the outside, looking in

Normally, members of the immediate family can sit with a resident during hospice. Due to the pandemic, though, they limited that to one person.

When two staff members at my father’s facility recently tested positive for COVID-19 virus, they cut in-person visits. So I sat outside Frank’s room, along with my wife and daughter. My daughter was scheduled to leave for college in two weeks (where she would undergo her own quarantine before the fall semester), and she wanted to have a final visit with her grandfather.

It was difficult. He managed to position himself close to the window so he could see and hear us. The staff made him wear a mask (even if it slipped).

It’s been almost two months since my father has received a blood transfusion, with a commensurate drop in his blood oxygenation. That translates into even more pronounced cognitive decline and paranoia.

On this visit, he was convinced that “the military” owed him a chunk of money, a reward for keeping his unit expenses under budget. He didn’t have any documentation, but he had a distinct memory of a photo of a number of American soldiers by a river, carrying what might have been German swag.

I assured him that I was very clear on his financial picture, and there were no loose ends with the VA. His financial advisor had all the accounts, and they were invested in boring, conservative funds. Don’t worry about it. (Later, I realized he was conflating one of the many WWII documentaries he’d watched on the History Channel with his never-ending dream to leave behind a sizable inheritance for his family.)

Still, he insisted. Fortunately, my wife interrupted, and reminded Frank that his granddaughter was leaving for college soon. Perhaps we could talk about that?

And we did. He remarked on her “crazy pink” hair, the opportunities of Chicago, and his belief that she would be successful.

It was, on the whole, a good visit, but one that ended in tears all around.

P.S. Two days later, when I was back home, my father called me. This was a good sign, I thought. He’s using his mobile phone again.

“Can I ask you a favor?”

Sure.

“Do you have your mother’s phone number?”

He was asking me for the landline number, which is the first speed dial on his mobile.

The number hasn’t changed in half a century. He called it every day from the office to say he was leaving. He called it from the hospital when he was under psychiatric observation. And he asked the staff at the assisted living facility to call that number when he couldn’t find his phone.

I took a deep breath and gave it to him.

Hospice 8: The Santa Maria BBQ Gambit

My father turned 92 this past weekend, and I spoke to him via FaceTime. The next day, I showed up in person with a card made by my daughter. I’d reminded her that even with his glasses, her grandfather couldn’t see very well, so she should use large lettering and lots of colors.

When I got there, I found other birthday cards and notes, but most were still in their envelopes, or tucked under articles of clothing. So I used some putty to tack Lilly-Karin’s mini-poster on the wall, next to the photo of her tattoo, where he could easily see it.

During my visit that day, and the next, his gaze would drift toward the wall, and he’d remark that “now we knew for certain” he was 92.

Birthday card poster

The next day, I arrived with my wife, and Frank was napping. As soon as I moved a chair close to the bed, he woke and asked about the news. “What’s happening?”

I gave the usual response: the weather, COVID-19, only a month until L-K leaves for college. He sat up a bit. “But what about the BBQ?”

I thought he was referring to the brick BBQ setup back at their house, the one built adjacent to the deck. I replied that it was basically covered since no one was using it this summer. And that once he passed, we’d probably give his equipment to my niece and her husband, since they were definitely fans of BBQ and outdoor parties. Whoever buys the house gets the rest.

No, he said, what’s happening with Santa Maria BBQ? Had there been any news about Santa Maria BBQ in the paper? I looked at my wife, who shrugged. I replied honestly that I hadn’t seen any news, or read anything online or heard mention on the Food Network.

He leaned back and contemplated the wall. “There’s a real opportunity there. You should buy it.”

Buy Santa Maria BBQ? You mean, like, the copyright and the recipe?

Yes, he said. “You could make a lot of money.”

And there it was. For years my father has worried that he wouldn’t earn enough money to see himself through retirement, or take care of his family after his death. He has put money into some dubious investments, and tried to patent a number of ideas all with an eye toward making the Big Score. He didn’t want to be wealthy, per se. He just wanted to have the financial freedom to be able to do what he wanted.

We talked a bit more about the BBQ gambit, and I assured him that I didn’t have the investment capital for such an undertaking, nor was I particularly interested in trying to corner the market on red oak-fired tri-tip beef.

I also assured him that there was enough money in his retirement accounts to take care of my mother once he passed. If we downsized and watched expenses, things would be fine. That seemed to help.

At the end of his life, my father was trying to have one more success, or at least sock away some cash. It’s okay, Dad. You did what you could.

Which is the most any of us can do.

Hospice 7: The breeze compensates for a lot of things

My father has entered a state I think of as Schrödinger’s Patient, or Schrödinger’s Parent.

Intellectually, I know that he’s dying but there are times that I don’t know if he’s dying quickly or slowly. Sometimes he has energy, his eyes are animated, or he sits up in bed and leans forward to engage you. Other times, he lies back, he drifts, he looks at things that aren’t there.

It’s an uncertain state. A quantum fluctuation between this life and the next. Maybe. Yesterday we opened the window when we visited. It had gotten a bit warm, and the predictable afternoon breeze was welcome. He remarked upon it at least twice.

“This is great. The wind. The breeze. I’m really enjoying it.”

He wondered about where he was going. What was the next thing that was happening. What is the next state? What is the transition?

I thought he was going to talk about his faith, or his thoughts about death. Then he shifted a bit in the bed and said, “I might be going here.” And then he turned to the other side, “Or I might be going there.” And he stretched his toes, “Or I might reach my feet down and scoot off the edge of the bed, and use my walker.”

“I don’t know.”

He’s entered a kind of profound lizard brain state, when the smallest movements, actions, and thoughts demand utmost attention. Philosophy wasn’t really on the menu.

It’s both affirming and sad to see it happen to a man who had such intellectual curiosity through his life. He mused that “all one’s accomplishments… deciding which side of the bed you were going to curl up on.”

But the breeze was good. And that was all he needed at that moment.

Hospice 6: Conflation Station

My father was feisty today. He was able to sit in his chair for a brief time, and later, propped himself up in bed and leaned forward to ask questions.

Sometimes, though, he needed two or three tries to find the right subject-verb-object combination, or he’d assemble part of the thought, only to have it drift away like a leaf on a stream.

What I noticed (and had confirmed by a sibling) was the conflating of people, events, and things. He reported that the governor had died (“and that was good”) but couldn’t say which governor. Or when. He also mixed up which grandchildren had called, or which nieces or nephews had brought him early birthday cards.

The paranoia is creeping back. He feels the hospice nurse was “just covering her back” and he was being medicated against his will. When we dug deeper into that, he acknowledged that he liked not being in pain. So pain medicine is okay.

My sister broached the subject of his final arrangements; specifically, what did he want to do with his ashes? His response: “I don’t give a shit.” He was going to be dead after all.

So we talked it over while sitting in the backyard today. I joked that maybe my mother could use him to fertilize her plants (she’s a serious hobbyist gardener). We also talked about putting the ashes in the BBQ. Or near the BBQ, which is where you could find Frank most weekends, in good weather (which is much of the time in Santa Maria).

Years ago my parents had installed a deck and a brick BBQ with power and a gas line so my father could easily prepare tri-tip over oak coals, or chicken cooked on a rotisserie. I think my father burned out two or three motors before he finally had someone build a heavy-duty unit that had enough torque to handle two fryers. (My daughter, who is not a big meat eater, has always liked her farfar‘s chicken.)

So after we had a good laugh, we decided that yes, the plants behind the BBQ should be the final resting place for his ashes. I’d like to remember him sitting up there, listening to his Big Band or Classical CDs, having Costco vodka with lots of ice, and waiting until the perfect moment when he’d pull the birds off the rack and call for a knife to confirm what he already knew.

It was time to eat.

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