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This is not a eulogy for Karl Schulz

Posted in Self-Obsession with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by TheCanadian
In the days before the boy started to neglect his Ojii.

The days before the boy started to neglect his Ojii.

This is not a eulogy for Karl Schulz, but I wish it were.

Karl was my wife’s neighbour for the last twenty years, and though I’ve only been married for two years and living in Wisconsin for even less time than that, I first met Karl eight years ago and saw him nearly every day I was in Oshkosh. Every day, I saw him in his yard, feeding birds. Every day, I saw him on his riding mower, smoking a cigarette. Every day, I saw him, standing at the side of the highway, collecting his mail, the hazards on his little red truck flicking on and off. I saw him every day, sometimes as many as a hundred days a year, and yet I had only spoken to the man three times. His wife Pat I spoke to those same three times, plus two others – once just to say hello as I passed her in the front driveway and the second at her husband’s funeral. And yet I thought that Karl was an extraordinary man, and every day I’ve been here in Oshkosh, I’ve looked out my wife’s dining room window at Karl and Pat’s, and wondered what they were up to and if they would mind some company just dropping by. But I never dropped by.

Karl was born in 1928 and lived in Oshkosh during the Great Depression. He told stories of that time, and how he managed to survive with so very little. His endeavours in an attempt to help provide for his family involved no small amount of ingenuity and even a little theft, stealing chickens and keeping them a few days to lay eggs, and then eating the eggs before eating the chickens. I know this about Karl not because he told me, but because of things I learned second-hand from him telling my wife. From my own few conversations with him, I know only that Karl was an avid hunter and enjoyed fishing. I know he and his brothers built several houses on the north side of town, and I know that he wrote poetry less skillfully than Roberts Frost and Service, but no less passionately devoted to rhythm, humour, and natural beauty. And I know that in spite of all of the photos at his memorial, pictures of hollowed-out deer and strings of lifeless ducks and cold, still fish piled in pails, Karl loved all animals, evident in the dog biscuits he kept in his garage for his neighbour’s black lab, and evident in his delighted eyes as I pointed out that the squirrel running back and forth between hidden cache and garage door was taking the dog biscuits – an act of survival involving no small amount of ingenuity and even a little theft.

I know these things, but what strikes me most is how little I know of my late neighbour at all, and how much I always wanted to know more. This is not a eulogy for Karl Schulz, but I wish it were. I didn’t know him well enough to eulogise him. I’d only spoken to the man three times.

We didn’t even know Karl had died until a week after the fact. An old fellow with an oxygen tank on a scooter had to tell me this news, by the by, as we stood making random conversation on the roadside the way two strangers do.

But didn’t I just see Karl out mowing his lawn yesterday? I see him every day.

At the funeral, we stood in a long line of family, friends, neighbours, all waiting to share words and an embrace with Pat, a woman no less extraordinary than her husband of sixty-three years. Nephews and cousins, old friends and new, we all stood waiting to offer what we hoped would be comfort and affection in a new dawn of absence – and by “we” I mean “they”. My wife gave Pat a hug and tried to express what Karl meant to her, and Pat held my hand as she told Kelley just how Karl had adored her and loved our garden. But all I could do was stare, hand held, red-eye dumb back at Pat, knowing what a horrible tumour loneliness is to have growing in your stomach.

You see, my other problem was that my grandson no longer loved me. And this shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, since he’s only a year plus a season. And really, what does anyone love at that age? He loves grapes today, though yesterday it was raspberries, and he loves books by Eric Carle. He loves watching Monsters Inc., though yesterday it was ballet, and he loves oatmeal cookies made by my wife. He loves ducks and bathtime and climbing all over and to the top of anything he can get near. He loves his mom and his Mia, and I think he liked me for a while once, but I have become for him a nuisance or irrelevance at best. Once, he would pull books from the shelf and crawl with them into my lap so that I could read to him, and he would take me by the fingers and lead me to the bathroom where we could sit together and I could make his yellow rubber duck “zoom!” across the linoleum tile to his perpetual delight. But now, books are pulled from my hand when I try to read to him, and he goes in search of someone – anyone – other than his Ojii to read to him. And he seems to have no memory of the security I once offered and the patience I shared, leading him through the house and up and down stairs before he ever had the balance to do it himself and when no one else would indulge him.

And this shouldn’t surprise me. Babies are pure Id and all he knows is what makes him happy. And so I spend a lot of time in delight and sadness as he walks away from me in search of more pleasant adults to honour with his attention and good humour. He breaks my heart when anyone else gets to read him Dragons Love Tacos twelve times in a row, even as I laugh at how excitedly he points to the dog hiding beneath the tablecloth as the dragons with tummy troubles incinerate the house. “GOU!” he proclaims excitedly, his word for “dog”, jabbing the page with a tiny finger.

It’s difficult to be too upset about all of this, not just because he’s such a bright and charming and wonderful little boy, but because in him I see something of myself, too preoccupied with my own needs, too selfish and self-obsessed to see what I’m doing or not doing to those around me.

My wife wasn’t wrong, telling Pat as she did that we’d not known about Karl’s passing, that we’d not been to see her since finding out because we have a sixteen-month-old baby living with us who requires so much of our attention – it’s a good excuse, and perhaps even part of the reason. But the truth is that we didn’t know and hadn’t been visiting because we hadn’t been visiting and so could not have known. Yes, we are trying to start a business, and yes, I am trying to find work, but even this day, the day of our neighbour’s funeral, we were making dinner for people we didn’t even really know, new business clients, when really we should have been doing something for Pat. Yes, there was the boy and he is a handful, but I had no shortage of time to obsess darkly about my unemployment and how much more profitable to my family my own death might be than my living was turning out to be. And even in looking after the boy, taking him for a walk every day, I passed my neighbours’ home, knew that they loved the little dude and found as much joy in him as I did, and yet not once did I stop in to say hello.

The boy has an excuse for his self-obsession, being far too young to have learned yet that king and kingdom are one. I have no excuse, for I know the health of the kingdom owes more to the well-being of its subjects than to that of its lord, and yet I forget daily, and I neglect my land, shut away as I am not in a tower but in a dungeon of my own creation.

This is not a eulogy for Karl Schulz, but I wish it were. If I could eulogise him, it would mean that I knew him, but really I know nothing. I know only that of all of the men I’ve met in Oshkosh, Karl was a king, seated at a round table of friends and family and love, appreciative of even the tiniest subject in his domain – so much so, not only would he not begrudge their small acts of theft, but he even found joy in their genius.

Karl always laid his birdseed out on a bare wooden bench for all the critters. While I shout and hiss to scare squirrels from birdseed I mistakenly imagine should be preserved only for the chickadees, while I ignore those who might be aching to be remembered, while I sit here still writing in a journal rather than going and holding someone’s hand as I should, knowing what a horrible tumour loneliness is to have growing in your stomach.

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