Category Archives: grief

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.

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