The death of a 93 year-old man forces you to think about the small things and the big. My wife Vic and I drove from Cincinnati to Cleveland early Saturday morning on the last day in December after her mother Betty had called us Friday night: Howard had died in his hospital bed in the living room while she watched Jeopardy, one hand in his, and waited. Howard had spent the last year in home hospice care, both of them sleeping in the living room—we’d been losing him for a long time.
At 11 on that Saturday morning Betty looked pretty good, as good as the last time we’d seen them just three weeks before. I didn’t feel much, not as much as I expected, but we all felt unprepared. Now what? One of the things you have to think about after the death of a 93 year-old man is the empty spaces. What do you do with the vacuum?
Howard’s body was gone, donated the night before as planned to the Case University anatomy lab. The next morning a medical equipment van pulled in and a polite man in a brown uniform asked to take the hospital bed out of the living room. That was the hospice system in efficient action. It took him less than ten minutes. Now both Howard and his recent resting place were gone, leaving a bare floor.
Betty also wanted her bed moved back upstairs, so I helped carry it up, and then cleared out the commode, the plastic floor cover, the stacks of diapers, the tub of medication bottles, the boxes of rubber gloves, and Howard’s best brown shoes. The invalid Howard had so occupied our attentions for the past year, we’d lost touch with the man. Now we had an empty corner in the living room. What fills this vacuum? People would be coming to visit. We needed more chairs. Betty and Vic and her brother Frank talked around the dining room table and Betty took nearly every call that came in while Vic started her lists.
I putzed around out back and found a rake in the garage and was half way through filling the first bag when the rake handle snapped—a clean perpendicular break half way up the wooden handle. If it had broken at an angle, and if Howard had been here with me, we likely would have set two screws and a splint and wrapped a tight coil of wire around the splint and kept on raking, with the satisfaction of having spared a rake from the junk heap. But it wasn’t that kind of break.
The next morning, New Year’s Day, Frank and I drove to Home Depot and bought a rake with a fiberglass handle, more leaf bags, a chromium battery for Betty’s watch, and some adhesive for three loose linoleum panels in the kitchen floor. By the end of the day I’d filled six bags, not just because the leaves were begging for attention, but also because during much of our early years of kid-rearing, when Howard and Betty came to help for a week a month, I spent some of my best hours in the yard raking leaves with Howard. He taught me how to overload a wheelbarrow with leaves and faggots using a bungee cord or clothes line and haul the load to the slash pile. Later he handed down to me his red plywood wheelbarrow with removable slats that dates back to his childhood. I use it almost every weekend. That man knew how to take care of his tools so they outlived him.
In the basement buried under a heap of laundry, I found the broken rocker that had lived for so many years in the living room. On the work bench I found the rocker’s arc that had snapped off years ago under a grandchild’s rowdy rocking. This break had a nice angle and slipped tight into its place. Sunday afternoon Frank and I glued the two loose joints and the rocker’s arc with gorilla glue and C-clamps. We set the glued joints under pressure with loops of clothesline twisted tight by a chopstick. I first learned to glue a chair with clothesline and chopsticks from my father-in-law about 35 years ago. Howard had an appetite for repairs, which is part of what led him to and kept him in social work as his profession. This appetite, this penchant also made him a loyal friend and family man and a forgiving grandfather, patient with the things and people that don’t work as they were meant to.
Estimating funeral attendance is hard to do. Howard and Betty’s priest Rev. Rosalind Hughes warned us to expect empty pews and a modest turnout at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid on January 7, an occupational hazard of surviving into your 90’s. But people came to this memorial service on short notice from Texas, Colorado, Utah, New York, Massachusetts, California. Some drove through harsh winter weather. The night before the service we fed at least thirty out-of-towners, and Vic’s cousin organized us into a circle to introduce ourselves and talk about why we came. After the service on Saturday, over a hundred people gathered for lunch in the church basement, photo albums covering four tables. The opportunity to speak about Howard was taken by one after another, stretching out over an hour. They spoke with choked voices, salty cheeks, or rowdy laughter of his humility, his humor, his attention to listening, his sharing of his love of sailing and wooden boats, the powerful effect his respectful approach had on people in moments of self-doubt. We could feel the man. Into the vacuum we revived his life.
The night after the service we fed another 35 people and again we gathered in a circle to tell something about ourselves to this tightening web wrapping itself around the modest and meaningful life of Howard. This was more than the usual funeral weekend. Occasionally someone alluded to the grim election two months ago or the inauguration two weeks ahead or the uncertainty we all face. This was a gathering of die-hard liberals, carefully avoiding politicizing the remembrance of a fellow die-hard liberal. No one said so, but I wonder if the recent election of a man who is commonly associated with bullying, billionaires, fear, and narcissism is part of what drove us to this emotional and vocal celebration of a man who was Trump’s polar opposite: compassion, thrift, contentment, and selfless service. We needed to touch Howard, to tap the goodness of his life, to get our bearings. Howard be thy name.