Category Archives: hospice

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 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