When I came to do my master’s thesis in English, two points were very clear. If I was going to spend the better part of a year researching and writing, I wanted the result to be publishable. In addition, having gone through the agonies of trying to find a new perspective on Hamlet, I wanted it to be original. Eventually, I decided to write about the American fantasist Fritz Leiber, whose work I had been enjoying since the sixth grade. That decision not only got me the publication credit I’d craved (it’s still in print under the title Witches of the Mind), but also meant that I was accidentally there for Fritz’s last days and wrapped up in the whole unhappy story.
Here’s how it happened:
When my thesis became a book, my friend Paul Zimmer arranged for Trish and I to meet Fritz while we were in the Bay area. Fritz was diffident with people he didn’t know well, but his friend and soon-to-be second wife, Margo Skinner – a socialist, journalist, poet, and practicing alcoholic – was outspoken enough to fill any awkward gaps, and everyone was soon on friendly terms. On subsequent visits, the four of us went out to dinner several times, and we met at a couple of science fiction conventions in Washington state twice as well, where we acted as their designated wheelchair attendants. Neither Fritz nor Margo needed a wheelchair full-time, but they often found them convenient in crowds.
I wouldn’t say we were friends, but we had become friendly acquaintances. So, when Margo conceived the madcap idea of taking the train across North America to a convention in London, Ontario, Fritz and Margo asked if we could be their native guides in Vancouver (it had to be the train, because Margo was terrified of flying). It would prove to be the last trip for both of them.
Everything about the trip seemed cursed from the beginning. A thousand inconveniences plagued Margo, Fritz, and their housekeeper (who had come along to help push their wheelchairs) from the beginning. They got as far as Seattle, and we were driving down in a van borrowed from my in-laws to pick them up – when we had engine trouble and had to turn back just south of Belllingham.
Fortunately, a Seattle science fiction fan stepped in, and got them to the border the next day, and we spent the next day showing them Vancouver, lunching at the hotel Vancouver, wheeling them around the aquarium, and going out for dinner in Stanley Park, so that Fritz could have some fresh salmon. I remember, too, Fritz staring at an otter through the glass at the aquarium, looking as wide-eyed as a child, for all his over eighty years. The next day, we saw them off on the train, and that was the last easy day they had.
We later heard that the trip to London was even more nightmarish than the first leg of the trip. For much of the time across the prairies, the air conditioning was out of order, causing them almost to collapse. When they got to London, the hotel wasn’t wheelchair accessible, and the convention staff assigned to them were unreliable.
But it was when they headed south to Chicago to catch the train back to San Francisco that the nightmare really settled in. The trip turned into a ten hour ordeal that left Margo and Fritz dehydrated. Not only did they miss their train, but Fritz collapsed in a semi-comatose, only occasionally coherent state.
Fritz’s son Justin and his grand-daughter, Arlynn Presser, got Fritz on a plane home, and Fritz went directly to California Pacific. Margo followed via train, resolutely refusing to fly. Meanwhile, knowing nothing of events, Trish and I were planning a holiday in the Bay Area, staying on the floor of the library at Greyhaven. We arrived to find a badly distracted Margo, and soon realized that, whatever our holiday would be, it wouldn’t be restful.
Instead of playing tourist as we’d planned, we found ourselves part of Margo’s life support for 12-14 hours each day, along with a punk poet, an ex-dominatrix and Dolores Nurss, who claimed descent from one of the Salem witches. That wasn’t the way we wanted to spend our holidays, but what else, in all decency, could we do?
We also found ourselves spending far too much time in Fritz’s hospital room, watching his labored breathing and realizing increasingly with each passing day that he wasn’t going to pull through, or even become completely conscious again. However, the one time he roused even a bit, his only clear words were that he wanted to get well again, “So he could tell stories.”
I think that everybody broke down when they heard that.
The situation quickly became worse. Although Fritz could well afford his hospital care, he was over eighty, and the hospital clearly saw him as not worth making much of an effort for. The standards of basic hygiene seemed appalling to my eyes, and the fact that Fritz developed pneumonia there seems to confirm my impression. Meanwhile, Margo, who was dealing with her own cancer, and had seen death too often to be deceived by Fritz’s condition, was on the verge of a breakdown.
Matters weren’t improved, either, when Fritz’s son Justin arrived. Personally, I liked both Margo and Justin, but they didn’t like each other, and the strain of them remaining polite only added to the growing tension.
The end was as obvious as inevitable, but we couldn’t wait for it. I had teaching contracts that I had to fulfill, and we had to leave. A couple of days after we did, we learned that Fritz had died. “Senile decay” was given as the cause of death – meaning that his body had stopped working because he was too old.
I can’t claim to have known Fritz long or well. Still, the memory of those final days returns to me sometimes. I often think the hospital’s shabby treatment of Fritz and tell myself that, if I ever fall ill in the United States, I’m getting back to Canada if I have to push my gurney up the highway by myself. Sometimes, too, I’m in a dream in which I’m pushing Margo through miles of hospital corridors, only to finally get outside to stand on a windy, darkening street while cab after cab sails by – an event that actually happened on our last night there.
And I still can’t hear Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” without tensing, remembering how we played it over and over in the hopes that it might lead Fritz back to consciousness in his final days. It never did, but the music has become haunted for me, anyway. I used to mark student papers to that music, but now the associations with the last day of Fritz are stronger than any other memory I have of it.