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

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.