Caring for a parent

I’ve just had to cancel a trip today to go take care of my mother. She’s 89. We’re not exactly a long-lived family, so she’s now outlived her siblings, her husband, and his siblings. And while she still lives by herself, she needs to see her doctors regularly, takes an amazing variety of pills every day, and sometimes needs additional medical care.

My mother was brought up the old-fashioned way when it comes to illness. One can complain about one’s ailments, but there’s no point in bothering to see a doctor about them unless you’re having a near-death experience. And it had better be a real near-death experience; you must actually have seen the grim reaper hovering nearby before you qualify.

So we have phone discussions like this.

“Brian, what are you doing?”

“Oh, just about to leave for a trip to New York.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. I’m in the hospital and I was wondering if you could come up.”

“WHAT? When did you go into the hospital? What’s happening?”

“Yesterday. I was feeling so bad I checked myself in. The doctor was just here and says I need [a major medical procedure].”

“When is this going to happen?”

“Oh, it might be tomorrow, or Wednesday, or . . .”

“Well, I guess I’d better cancel my trip.”

“No, no, you don’t need to do that. I can get someone else to take care of me. Besides, when are you getting back?”

“I was planning on coming back Thursday . . .”

“Oh, that will be fine.”

“Don’t be silly. You don’t even know what day they’re going to operate, or how many days you’ll be at home before I get back. I’ll have to cancel my trip and figure out how to get up there.”

“Well, that would be nice.”

Now all this, you must understand, is as reliable as a script, and yet at the same time is perfectly honest. Such are the complexities of parent-child relations when the parent is elderly and wants to stay independent and the child is allegedly a responsible middle-aged adult. My mother doesn’t like to trouble her children with minor problems like being hospitalized and facing surgery, really does feel badly about my canceling my trip on her account, and yet is also quite happy I’ll be coming up to take care of her. And I will be regretting the canceled trip, so I’m no angel, but will be there at her bedside in a few hours.

Anytime I’m bothered by this arrangement, I think back to when I was in third grade. I had to have eight teeth pulled, because my baby teeth weren’t dropping but my adult teeth were coming in. This was a serious problem because, my reputation to the contrary notwithstanding, I do not have a big mouth. So the dentist decided to do this as in-hospital surgery. Really. Insurance companies let you get away with things like that, back when “Flower Power” was not an ecological slogan. Well, anyhow, I had the surgery, which was my first time in the hospital since I had been born. And I was lying there in bed in the evening, feeling lousy. Then my mother came in. And she sat down on my bed, and gave me a present: a chocolate ice cream soda, fresh from the fountain at the local drug store, my absolutely favorite beverage in those days. Forget pain, sore gums, and the like. I had a chocolate ice cream sodaAnd my Mom had brought it for me.

And she came to watch me get my doctorate, too!

And she came to watch me get my doctorate, too!

That mattered a lot when I was 9. Now that she’s 89, my showing up is what matters, so that’s what I’ll do.

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Chapter 24 of Prophecies and Penalties

Reading is fundamental (to demonolatry)

Reading is fundamental (to demonolatry)

Emily Fisher is going to be tried by the Children of the New Revelation for corrupting the young and for being a demonolater. She is confined to her residence, not by the High Council, but by her half-sister to protect her from mob violence. While she frets and fumes, she has three visitors: an alleged demon, an alleged holy man, and someone who deliberately evades the guards set at Emily’s door. What do such portentous visitors want? Find out in “Visitors,” chapter 24 of Prophecies and Penalties.

Prophecies and Penalties is a weekly serial about an investigation of a murder at a religious commune that is spiraling out of control. If you haven’t been reading it before, you can start here.

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A brief introduction to Ms. Sanderson

Back in December, I wrote a Christmas ghost story, Nightfeather: Ghosts, about a curious young woman named Sanderson, who lived in a not-particularly-desirable community called Farnham, and her even more curious encounter with ghosts, some of whom were over a century old. Well, it was a popular story, and there were calls for a sequel.

This isn’t it. I haven’t yet come up with a story to match the original. But I did once sketch out just how it was that Ms. Sanderson happened to be marooned and meet up with Mac and Doc. So here for your enjoyment is that short sketch, “Sanderson comes to Farnham.”


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Chapter 23 of Prophecies and Penalties

Emily Fisher has escaped the spiritual hazards of Sacred Mountain. Now that she’s recovered from her ordeal, it’s time to return to more mundane concerns, such as solving Stephen Nash’s murder. But while she’s been convalescing in Lakeview, new developments among the Children of the New Revelation threaten to derail her investigation, and much, much more. “For all of Gabriel Fisher’s children are damned” in chapter 23 of Prophecies and Penalties, my weekly serial about a murder at a religious commune in Vermont. If you’re not following the story yet, you can start here.

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It is good to be the king

Others will never be royals, but I already am! (Credit: Hendrik Sendelbach)

Others will never be royals, but I already am!
(Photo credit: Hendrik Sendelbach)

Today’s the 37th birthday of the heir to the throne of Sweden (Happy birthday, Vicky!) and tomorrow’s the 329th anniversary of execution of the would-be heir to the British throne, the Duke of Monmouth. Americans are rather ignorant of monarchies, not having one, Emperor Norton excepted, so here is a quick guide to monarchy.

Aren’t monarchs descended from a long line of previous kings stretching back to time immemorial?

It's who you sleep with that matters!

It’s who you sleep with that matters!

Only if you have a short memory. The current branch of the British royal family, the one Americans know best, only took the throne in 1714. And the Swedish royal family is descended from one of Napoleon’s ex-marshals, who married one of Napoleon’s ex-mistresses, and only took that throne in 1818.

Sorry, wrong legendary origin. They’re really great military leaders who hold their lands by right of conquest, right?

Try again. The current British royal family came to power by an Act of Parliament in 1701, and no British monarch had taken the field since George II in 1743. Ever wonder why his grandson George III never came over with the British Army to defeat George Washington? That’s because the British government remembered how poorly his grandfather did.

A lot of the other monarchies fared no better. Perhaps the most pathetic example is the Spanish monarchy, which was driven out of that country in 1931, and regained the throne only at the invitation of the winner of the subsequent civil war. Even then, they had to wait until he died in 1975.

At least it’s hereditary, father to son in an unbroken line, once they do come to power.

I could have been King of Sweden, or at least a Harry Potter clone! (Credit: Oskar Karlin)

I could have been King of Sweden, or at least a Harry Potter clone!
(Photo credit: Oskar Karlin)

You do know that the current monarch in Britain is a Queen? Not that women were eligible in Christian Europe until modern times. In fact, so venerable was the tradition of male rule that Sweden didn’t officially change the law to give women an equal shot at the throne until 1979. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden wasn’t born the heir to the throne; she became the heir at the age of two, displacing her younger brother.

Besides being female, supposedly the other major disqualification was being illegitimate. That’s why the Duke of Monmouth was executed: he was the oldest son of the previous monarch, Charles II, but he was illegitimate, and when he tried to take the throne he was guilty of treason.

And yet . . . Queen Elizabeth’s own hereditary claim to the throne runs in part through a woman named Katherine Swynford (1350-1403). Katherine was mistress to the Duke of Lancaster, and her children were all illegitimate. But they were legitimized after the fact, which in the eyes of some still left them ineligible for the crown. So, the real rule is that illegitimacy counts against you, unless it doesn’t.

Oh, and some monarchies ignore the principle of primogeniture altogether. The Saudis pick the heir among their royal family according to family consensus, while one of the Princes of Andorra is the elected President of France!

Let’s forget about all that. So what does a monarch actually do?

The man currently pulling Queen Lizzie's strings (official portrait)

The man currently pulling Queen Lizzie’s strings
(official portrait)

To take one example, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (shortly to be the Disunited Kingdom if Scotland secedes) summons Parliament, presents it with a program of measures she wants enacted into law, and dissolves Parliament when it defies her will.

Just kidding! Actually, it’s the Prime Minister who does all that. In these matters the Queen just does whatever she’s told, sort of like a puppet.

So what does Lizzie actually do? Well, she looks regal in ceremonies that require her presence. She administers her personal fortune, which is worth probably billions and had become largely tax-exempt. And one suspects she hopes to outlive her son to keep that tramp Camilla from ever becoming queen.

And that’s the state of most monarchies in the world, which are bound by constitutions and representative assemblies. The monarch is a figurehead. If they actually do something, it’s a Constitutional crisis. Though let’s give the previously-maligned Spanish monarchy credit: Juan Carlos I prevented the military from overthrowing a democratic constitutional government in 1981.

There are some absolute or near-absolute monarchies still around, in such places as Swaziland and Monaco. The only ones that matter are in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Brunei, where they help retard the nation’s progress.

Could we ever have a monarchy in the United States?

Not without completely changing the Constitution. The Constitution establishes the United States as a republic, and by a republic, the founders meant a nation whose government belongs to the people, as opposed to a monarchy, where the nation in theory belongs to the monarch. And, the Constitution guarantees a republican form of government to the states as well.

The one and only Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (Don't recognize him? Go look up Joshua Norton (c. 1819 - 1880))

The one and only Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico
(Don’t recognize him? Go look up Joshua Norton (c. 1819 – 1880))

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Chapter 22 of Prophecies and Penalties

Emily could wish her investigation was this simple

Emily could wish her investigation was this simple

Every step she takes, Emily finds her own past curiously intertwined with the murder investigation she is conducting. So she decides to engage in some spadework, to try to understand some of the strange phenomena she’s encountered by retracing her steps. But as she finds out, sometimes there’s nothing more dangerous than “Going where one has gone before,” chapter 22 of Prophecies and Penalties.

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For love of maps

The cover design has become simpler and features a color photograph usually, but it's the same magazine

The cover design has become simpler and features a color photograph usually, but it’s the same magazine

I grew up a map fiend. No, this is not a statement of my spiritual status, but instead a proclamation of an abiding interest in maps. When I was a kid, we got many maps through National Geographic Magazine, which tended to include one about every other monthly issue or so. I pored over those maps and practically memorized the explanatory notes that came on them. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was a note about the legal status of the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that ultimately led me to taking a vacation there over a decade ago.

And then I added almanacs to my map study. To those who don’t know them, American almanacs in my youth were these thick volumes running hundreds of pages, packed full of information. Much of this was general-purpose reference information, covering everything from copies of the Constitution to a list of all the times major league baseball franchises had moved (a much shorter list in those days). And then there was the section on the nations of the world, with accompanying color inserts of all their flags and maps of each continent.

So I kept current with political developments, which led to one of the more amusing quirks of my childhood. I would examine maps and globes, and proudly announce how many “mistakes” they had, because they were out of date. People remember me for this.

Every gas station chain gave you free maps

Every gas station chain gave you free maps

I also took over reading road maps and providing navigation for our family when we went on vacations. My mother couldn’t read a map. My father would often wait until the last moment to give my mother directions, which would cause her to make the wrong turn. So I took over. It became an excellent experience in developing patience and planning skills. Not only did I have to mark out a route, I had to adjust it if my mother should happen to make a wrong turn despite my directions.

It's not "Rosebud," but it did play a role in my youth

It’s not “Rosebud,” but it did play a role in my youth

Not long after that began, my father let me use his copy of The Literary Digest 1927 ATLAS of the WORLD and GAZETTEER. Colonial empires, territories and boundaries subject to plebiscites, vanished kingdoms, mysterious vassal states, names that had changed for one reason or other . . . oh, I was in seventh heaven, let me tell you. I had so many, many questions that required trips to our (outdated) encyclopedia, not to mention bedeviling the staff of the public library in town. So my study of maps grew from geography to history.

Well, I grew up, and my appreciation of maps grew with me. And they could still set off all sorts of questions, and sometimes interesting quests that ran far from the library (or these days the Internet). For example, back in 1987, eastern Massachusetts was divided into two area codes for phone numbers. To explain this, the phone company put out a map, overlaying the area code boundaries with the municipal boundaries within the state. I took a look at that map, and realized that although I had lived almost my entire life in Massachusetts, there were still many towns I’d never set foot in.

This is the Gosnold Monument on Cuttyhunk. It's on an island, so you can't walk up to it. I guess visitors are just supposed to admire it from afar. (Source: Wikipedia/John Phelan)

This is the Gosnold Monument on Cuttyhunk. It’s on an island, so you can’t walk up to it. I guess visitors are just supposed to admire it from afar.
(Source: Wikipedia/John Phelan)

So I decided to embark on a quest to visit every single city and town in the state. There are 351 of them. I had to make rules. Traveling through on a superhighway didn’t count. If possible, I had to find the town/city center, which for some towns is a challenge. That’s why I bought street maps of every municipality in the state, to find my way through and between towns, especially towns without state highways. (Yeah, today people would use GPS.) Complicating matters, several towns are on islands. So it took me until 1994 to finish, which I did by taking a ferry to the island of Cuttyhunk, part of the town of Gosnold.

My girlfriend, then and now, was with me on that trip. She’s quite proud of helping me finish the set. And she allowed me to talk her into that Baltic trip, another result of my map fascination. What can I say? Nerds of a feather.

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