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Memories - Farrell, 2000 - Retyped 

    Memories of Carl Michael Fischer by Catharine Fischer Farrell, June 2000

In 1969, when Carl was traveling around the world and eventually to Schaffhausen, no one knew where he was or the existence of the bustling town of Schaffhausen in the Saarland. We had no knowledge of the Fischer family history. It took almost ten more years, in 1978, when Carl (Dad) offered some clues to our family origins.

 

It was in Honolulu, Hawaii, that Dad was stricken with pancreatic caner and given six months to live. I left San Francisco in June 1978, to care for him as long as I was needed. As the summer and his illness progressed, Dad made attempts to put his affairs in order, among these his personal papers. One afternoon, he and I winnowed a box of materials; those worth saving are the contents of this album. Most papers were placed in a large, manila envelope which I was directed to entitle, "Fragments of a Documentary Vita."

 

The amazing survival of these materials is worth noting. As I assembled the contents of the envelope and a small box into this album, I discovered for the first time the yellowed newspaper articles, the tattered certificates that had been moved scores of times from pillar to post throughout Dad's adult life. How he managed to keep track of these personal documents is a mystery and a testament to their value to him. It is somehow comforting to know that these papers are finally here in a solid, well bound book for others to appreciate.

 

A good thirty years from the time of Dad's visit to Schaffhausen, we now know much more about the Fischer family origins and history. I have made a few additions to...

[2]...the album, contributed by the Kewanee Historical Society: The Biographical Notes regarding John Fischer and Louisa Fischer, the photograph of John Fischer's grand house. As the new century dawns, we hope to discover more of our past and present histories through newly found relatives, perhaps visit Kewanee and Schaffhausen.

 

But this album is first and foremost a chronicle of the life of Carl Michael Fischer. I would like to humbly place on paper some of my recollections of the last several months of Dad's life. It fell to me to care for Dad during the precious spring and summer months of 1978. His good humor, grace and humanity, which were the components of his courage, are qualities that inspire me still. Often, I will recall a chance comment of his or a brief exchange and know that my stay there in Hawaii with him enhanced my life in countless ways. I hope that by writing down these random memories, I will not only honor Carl, but that his words and wit will live on to inspire others as well.

 

One afternoon as Dad was sitting in his reclining chair in the living room of his small, high rise apartment in Queen Emma Gardens in downtown Honolulu, he suddenly began to talk about what had the most meaning in his life. His words became spotlighted with significance. He said, "It's not the awards I've received that's important to me or being quoted in the New York Times or appearing on television; none of those achievements are important.

 

"What I am grateful for is that there were people in my life who loved me ... that I was able to love others. I am grateful for the chance to study history ... to study and learn to love poetry ... for the beauty of the world. All the awards and fame I may have received once or twice are nothing. It is the love of people and the love of beauty that I am thankful for having in my life."

[3] Another time in the morning, we were out on the lanai, the open air room. I remarked on the thunderous sound of the morning rush hour traffic.

 

"How can you stand that racket," I asked. He responded, throwing his arms out to the sounds like an orchestra conductor, "I love it—c'est le grand effort humain!" [French: The grand human effort!]

 

Dad told me how his doctor broke the news to him about his terminal cancer. The doctor asked him, "How do you feel about dying?" Dad answered, "I guess I can manage somehow ... " He reported this answer to me with great, good humor, delighted that he could see the irony in the doctor's question.

 

At other visits to Hawaii in the years before Dad's illness, I recall that he once arrived to pick me up at the airport with the smell of burning carpet in his car. He had been delayed in traffic and was smoking, flicking the ashes from the front window. The burning ashes had returned via the open back window and started a fire. It wasn't until the smoke enveloped the car and flames erupted that Dad pulled over and sought help. He arrived late with no comment. Only after my prodding, did he admit to his disaster. This was the Toyota that he would loan me to drive around the island, cautioning me not to dent the last good, undented fender.

 

Driving with Dad was always an adventure. In 1978, he had just purchased a brand new, Volkswagen Rabbit, metallic, dark blue. Once he was no longer able to drive himself, I became his chauffeur for trips to the doctor and to Kaiser Hospital. This did not stop him from cursing at the other drivers, honking the horn, flipping them off, etc. I could only point to him in response to angry looks. He, in turn, would laugh.

[4] At home, Dad enjoyed reading the New Yorker, his lifelong, favorite journal for its commentary, cartoons, fiction and, most of all, poetry. One day he was reading a short story at the table on the lanai, which was perched on the 9th floor. Below us were the open air, lofty common rooms, filled with cane, card tables and chairs, where blue-haired, elderly ladies played endless games of bridge.

 

He said, "Katie, come here and listen to this—it's really a great piece of writing!"I came out with a dish towel and listened as he read aloud with animation. I responded, "Must be Valdimir Nabokov."

"WELL!" He declared in a huff, as I'd correctly named the author, and threw the magazine over the railing.

I was stunned and stood silently, waiting to hear the scream of a blue-haired lady being struck by a flying magazine. Silence. We both laughed (me from relief).

 

(I did recall his recurrent threat that all Protestants were to be thrown over the railing of the lanai... "Over the edge!" He would say.)

 

I would often read aloud to Dad from the little book of poems that he kept as his most prized possession, A Little Treasury of Modern Verse, a throw-off book from the closing of the Merchant Marine Base in Pass Christian (1950). He loved hearing the Francis Thompson verses, which I would read to him by the flickering, lantern light after dinner in the evenings. These poems continued to be his delight, those and the ones he tucked in its pages from issues of the New Yorker. This book he had carefully rebound in 1977, as it was in danger of falling apart from overuse. The new cover, bright blue, was perhaps Dad's favorite color, not just to match his cornflower-blue eyes. Blue was an expression of his overriding optimism.

 

He was a great fan of spy novels, like the James Bond series and other bestsellers. These I would continue to buy for him throughout the summer months. As he...

[5] ...became weaker, I purchased a lightweight, aluminum easel for him to prop up the books and magazines in bed. Eventually, I had to divide the paperback books into four parts, as Dad became too weak to handle even a paperback book. Dad regretted that the books were cut into parts, but saw the need.

 

Early in the summer, Dad had asked for a wall hanging, to be hung where he could contemplate it from his reclining chair. This was a large hanging, machine embroidered, of a single tree with all four seasons in four parts of its branches: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Again, he felt that it was perhaps indulgent to ask for something expensive at the last stage of his life. I encouraged him to ask for whatever he wanted and he accepted the hanging as a focus of meditation.

 

The Catholic cathedral was a short walk away, and Dad was pleased that I began attending noon Mass each weekday for his intentions. I got acquainted with the priests there who also were praying for Dad and who did finally visit him in the apartment before he left for the hospital.

 

Even though it soon became almost impossible for Dad to eat, he had cravings for certain foods. In the morning he sometimes woke me by kicking the futon on the floor of the living room where I slept, saying, "Get up and make breakfast for your dying father." We laughed over his humor—something I grew to appreciate over time.

 

While I prepared his food, Dad would claim that I needed "constant supervision," even telling me exactly how to slice bread. He asked for specific dishes, even from outlying stores or restaurants, then was able to only eat a few bites. He called this his" pregnant woman syndrome."

[6] The day that he went through his papers was the day of his discussion of the Fischer family, the Mursener family, and some comments about the Stadlers (mostly that Ludwig was a mystery, "No one knows anything about Ludwig—he could be Jewish.") He spoke of his own trip to Schaffhausen, how he saw people who "looked like him." He mentioned that the Murseners were from East Germany, but he was under the impression that they might be from a Slavic part of Germany (not true). He wasn't sure about either his mother or grandmother, Louisa, but thought they were both Slavic Germans (not true). He knew that the original Fischers were Catholics and that he might have been secretly baptized as a Catholic as an infant. Being a Catholic was an important part of his identity and cultural roots, having survived the Lutheran influence of both Granny (Louisa) and his mother (Elizabeth).

 

Dad had a strong devotion to Mary, and kept her wooden statue in a prominent place (wall shrine) in the apartment. He was pleased that the Honolulu cathedral was run by the Sacred Hearts (honoring both Jesus and Mary). He claimed to have his own "little mystical system" and the cathedral priests said he was at peace with God. Indeed, he seemed to be content, through unreasonable at times.

 

It was his lungs that got him in the end. We did have an oxygen tank at home that I would carry from his bed to the reclining chair. But on a checkup visit, the doctor found that there was fluid in both lungs. We were sent to go home and pack for the last time.

 

As we prepared a small suitcase of essentials, Dad said that he "felt like he was getting ready for summer camp." He stood for a long time at the doorway, saying goodbye to his home. The hardest to leave behind were the miniature geraniums on the lanai. He even said goodbye (not in person) to "Brunhilda," the cranky neighbor who had frequently complained about his noisy parties in years past.

[7] Dad stood up in the elevator on the way down to the garage in the basement of the building, refusing help. I was praying that he would not fall, still an imposing figure even in the advanced stages of his illness. At the hospital, Dad refused a wheelchair, but insisted on walking on his own from the car to the check in counter. He had his Kaiser plastic card out and threw it on the counter, saying, "I lost the game, and I'm cashing in my hand." A final drama. He was whisked away into a wheelchair and up to a ward.

 

In the hospital, Dad made his presence felt. His favorite saying was, "You're BAD to me." A family friend had a large button made for him to pin on his gown that said just that. As his condition grew worse, he was moved to a private room on the 8th floor. But before he left the ward, he wanted to thank each shift of the hospital staff. For the morning shift, he requested dim sum; for the afternoon shift, he wanted German chocolate cake; for the graveyard shift, he wanted pizza ordered from McGoo's on Waikiki—all on the same day. I had the help of Dr. Nora Hubbard in arranging the dim sum. A drive out to the leeward side produced the chocolate cakes, and a payment to McGoo's secured a midnight delivery of the pizzas.

 

The next day, Dad greeted me with the complaint that the night staff had scared him by walking in "like children" he said, waking him up, so wide-eyed and happy to receive their surprise pizzas.

 

On the 8th floor, Dad soon became bed bound, unable to take even a wheelchair outing to the hospital lanai to see the marina and the sea. For his last birthday in September, he wanted only one present, to see his sons. John and Michael both came for a last, heartfelt visit. True to Dad's need to orchestrate a family visit, he wanted us to take Dr. Hubbard out to lunch and to buy her presents for her friendship and care of the family. Which we did. After I dropped John off at the airport the following morning, I swung..

[8]..by the hospital. Dad said he gave me an "A-" for my efforts on his birthday, pretty high praise from him.

 

As Dad's body weakened with the cancer spreading to his lungs, he seemed to tolerate pain more readily. It seemed that he was at peace without medication. He responded with appreciation to each member of the hospital staff, to each visitor. The day before he died, he said of an orderly, "Isn't he remarkable? He knows he is limited, yet he tries so hard to do the right thing. That's why we say that everybody is a miracle."

 

I left that evening, only to be called back to the hospital almost immediately. When I arrived in his room, he was surrounded by nurses who were saying the rosary and crying. His voice was broken and very, very deep. When he saw me, he said, "It is so good to know that there is a wellspring of love." His deeply resonating voice sounded like he was already from the beyond, experiencing infinite love directly.

 

I wanted to find a priest for the last rites, but could not locate those I knew from the cathedral (it was midnight). Eventually, I phoned a nearby Catholic church and a priest there came quickly. I said to Dad, "The priest is here already." He responded, "How capricious of him!" Those were the last words Dad spoke to me directly—a pun.

 

I heard him repeat the prayers the priest directed him to say. Then he slept. I slept at his bedside through the night to awaken to a glorious day. The turquoise ocean was visible from his private room window. The priest from the cathedral eventually came and blessed Dad again, still sleeping.

 

Dad then awoke and was struggling with his breath; his eyes were leaking a white substance. I knew he was close to the end. the nurse came in and asked me if I had...

[9]...given him permission to die. When she left, I began to talk to Dad, telling him that we all loved him and wanted him to be at pace, not to suffer anymore. As I held the oxygen mask up to his mouth so that he could breathe more easily, I put my arm around his shoulder and began to speak the name of each friend, each family member who loved him.

 

As if encouraged (he could hear perfectly well, but could not speak), he began to let go. Each breath was more and more shallow, until the last breath left his mouth and he was gone. He went peacefully, gracefully, lovingly, willingly.

 

I was sobbing, but did not realize it. I fell on my knees to pray at his passing. It seemed at that moment that the room was filled with a powerful wind.

 

There was a lovely funeral mass at the Honolulu cathedral with massive bouquets of flowers left over from Pope John Paul I's funeral High Mass (two popes died that summer, this second on September 28th, two days after Dad). But what I really remember the most vividly was the scattering of Dad's ashes on a volcanic point on the Oahu southeast shore, Lanai Lookout. Michael Fischer and his son, Steven, and I walked to the edge of the point where strong waves were crashing. As Michael threw the ashes into the surf, he said, "Dad, you gave us all such direction."

 

Then he said, "Look at the sun!" The setting sun had just sunk beneath the mountaintop clouds and broke out in brilliant rays, quickly turning the clouds into the many colors of a tropical sunset. The palm tree leaves shone like silken banners. It was a moment of intense beauty.

 

A fitting tribute to one who loved beauty and the enduring power of love.

Lanai Lookout at sunrise, Washington State Photography