Category Archives: family

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 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 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.

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