(My dad passed away on February 23…this was his eulogy)
A couple of weeks ago, after endless weeks of setbacks and difficulties and trials, my Pop told me this story. He said there was this farmer who hired two little boys to do some work. Their first job was to move a huge 8 foot tall mountain of manure. The first little boy dejectedly picked up a shovel and was crying as he shoveled.
The second little boy ran up and quickly picked up his shovel. He started shoveling away, eagerly, scoop and after scoop with excitement and a big smile. The farmer looked at the kid and said, “What the heck are you so happy about?” and the kid looked incredulously at him and said, “With all this poop there has to be a pony in here somewhere!” Classic Howard, I know.
A few days later, I was trying to encourage dad through yet another setback, and said, “Look for the pony Pop, look for the pony.” He said, “You know Lauren, I am starting to think I might find a zebra in all this.” This of course launched one of our discussions about life, and about how answers and gifts don’t always show up looking like you want. And that sometimes what we find, is even better than what we ever imagined.
Our conversation, this joke, highlighted that wonderful thing about my dad, his eternal optimism and humor, his belief that we must always hope for, and actively look for, the positive. He said a thousand times these last weeks when encouraged about outcomes, “I hope so, I hope so, I hope so.”
I believe my Pop has found his zebra.
My brother Tom, also noted last week that it is in adversity that someone’s true character reveals itself. When we see how they conduct themselves when their chips are down, when they are in pain.
Dad had lost his left side. He knew deep inside he would never golf again. But even when faced with adversity, Classic Howard remained class act. Indeed, it is what our family saw in my dad throughout the last months and days that confirmed really, what we already knew about him our whole lives. That he was one heck of a guy.
When nurses, or Sheridan or any of us would do the smallest gesture for him; he said, “Thank you.” Even on the day he passed, as people were doing things to make him more comfortable, still it came out, that kind and now soft and gentle voice, “Thank you.”
He remained concerned with how his illness had impacted others, telling Jenna he was sorry he missed most of her 5th grade year, telling me over and over how worried he was that Sheridan had sat for hours with him on a folding metal chair every day, and expressing concern about us coming to visit when there was bad weather. He was insistent that we send Olympia chocolates and get vouchers for golf lessons to the nurses in the ICU in Baltimore. Classic Howard.
About 3 months ago, dad was lying on a gurney in pre-op in Baltimore, ready to go in to get a PEG tube put in. It was quite a serious procedure actually, and we had asked Father Colin to call and pray with him before the procedure. Father Colin nicely said a prayer over the phone as we held it to dad’s ear, and we waited quietly for a response from dad. And dad blurts out, “Fr. Collin we still are going to organize a St. Mary golf tournament and I bet I can raise 25K for the church the first year!”
Classic Howard was always, and remained about the other guy; about what you can do for the other guy. About gratitude, being considerate, and manners, and humor, and kindness.
How lucky we his kids were, to be the “other guy” our whole stinking lives.
He called me a few weeks ago in the middle of the night and announced, “Lauren, I decided that even though I may never be half the man I used to be, half of me is good enough and I will be grateful and take it.”
He quoted endlessly of late, a line from an old John Irving book, “This can’t change the me in me.” And it didn’t. The stroke, and age really, never stole a single ounce of the Howard in Howard. And every time he repeated that line to me, I thought to myself, “Thank God, thank God. Lucky us.” Because having just “Half the Howard” still left us all… way ahead of the game.
My brother Tom called Dad “The George Bailey of Hagerstown.” So the astonishing part to all of us through these last months, was witnessing his internal struggle, not with the stroke and losses with it, but with the thoughts that I suppose we’ll all have as we sense we are in our sunset years. “Did I lead a good life? Did I do the best I could with this life? Was I a patient and good father? Could I have done more?” Those nagging questions baffled us because they seemed to convey that he didn’t grasp what an astonishingly good life he had led. Not just as a friend, or a husband, or a civic leader, but to us, as a fantastic dad.
It wasn’t until my long drive home to NC that I realized what it was that those questions really highlighted. It occurred to me that it is only a truly, humble man who sincerely asks those questions. It’s not that he wasn’t sure that he made a difference; it was that it was always so important for him to always challenge himself to do better or more, so much so, that those questions never went away.
It is no secret that I think my Pop hung the moon. The depth of our relationship now resonates in a lyric from his favorite show Les Mis. As Marius sings, “You would live, a hundred years, if I could show you how.” And Eponine replies, “And you will you will keep me safe…and you will keep me close…and rain, will make the flowers grow.”
It wasn’t that my dad was perfect or that he never did anything wrong-he would be the first to tell you that. His honesty about his own flaws was a lesson in itself.
But he got an awful lot right. He taught us how to handle the hard stuff and take inventory of our actions. But most of all, he taught me the quite-perfect lesson that life is easier when you look for ponies, and happier when you understand that rain, does indeed, make the flowers grow.
That’s classic Howard. He’s the guy who told his kids, “Keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole.” The guy who reminded us over and over, “That turtle didn’t get on the fencepost by itself.” The guy who nudged us to always, always take the high road. Classic Howard was the guy who told us repeatedly as kids, “I would cut off my right arm for you;” and the guy who played endless games of Monopoly to I suspect, teach us investment strategies.
He was the guy who threw endless bags of baseballs to my brother each night to teach him to pitch. The guy who turned jump ropes for hours for me, and the guy who talked cancer down to size for me, sometimes twice daily for 42 weeks. He was a guy with an innate gift for knowing what we needed to feel loved and nurtured and supported and cherished. And he did those things, every day of our lives. We had the happiest of childhoods, and that gift, has lasted us a lifetime.
My Dad absolutely adored the Legend of the Starfish. His favorite part of the story, the closing line, was a line we heard him say many times in our lives, “Well, it made a difference to this one.”
My dad was a man who walked the beaches of life and with every single step forward, paused to fetch a starfish, and with love, toss as far as he possibly could out into a new life. When others might be too busy moving forward, dad actively kept his head down seeking them. Yes that slows your forward movement in life, but gosh does it improve the width of your life. Even in his last days, I witnessed him bend to pick up, the last lucky starfish.
He liked to say he still had it in him to change one more life for the better. Everything he did, it seemed, was about making a difference for just this one. It was about big things, like adopting the apple of his eye Jenna later in life. It was about stopping what he was doing to talk, whenever we kids needed advice or solace, and tossing us out to where we could swim and breathe again.
It was about making a point of choosing to play golf with the people who really needed partners. It was about helping someone solve a financial problem, or giving someone a mulligan, or signing up to volunteer for United Way board at age 81. It was about quietly and anonymously saving someone’s dignity. It was about teaching other men to fish, and feeding them as they learned. Giving buoyancy. It was about jumping right in and shoveling with a smile to help someone else, find their pony.
It was about always reaching, to change one more life for the better. That was our dad. That, was classic Howard.
I was a starfish. Pam was a starfish, Tom was a starfish. Jenna was a starfish. The grandkids were all starfish. We feel so lucky.
So, I am going to ask you now, if you were a starfish, if you knew of one of his starfish, if you were taught to fish, or touched by Classic Howard in some way….If you were one of the ones he was talking about when he said, “Well it made a difference to this one”…I will ask that take a moment, and think of him, and lift him up now, as we walk him home.