Yesterday, I received the one phone call I’d been dreading for over 30 years: “Howard Stein is dead.”  It turns out Howard died back on October 14, 2012 after an eight-day hospitalization, but I didn’t learn of his death until yesterday.   I knew he was deathly ill the last year, and when his surgeon recently refused to do a final operation, Howard told me his heart had finally turned against him and become a “ticking time bomb.”

As I paged back through my calendar for the last six weeks to memorialize the final events of my life with Howard, I reflected back on our final telephone conversation on October 1, 2012.  He told me how much he appreciated the letter I wrote celebrating his 90th birthday.  He said he read the letter every day.  That meant a lot to me.  He was my master.

One the first day of October, Howard and I left it that Janna and I would visit him in Stamford, and that he would check his doctor schedule and call me back to let us know what day would work best.

I never heard from him again.

A week later he was in the hospital — never to see the sky again.

As you can see in the graphic below, I tried to call him on October 5th and 11th to check on our visit date.  There was nobody home when I called.  On October 22 and November 13 I wrote him letters — our one, ancient, guaranteed way of always getting in touch when time and tide and humanity and the phones failed us — to inquire about the visit.

I had no idea was writing to a dead man.

Now I know how Bartleby really felt working in the Dead Letter Office.

I first met Howard Stein in 1983 or so when I was an undergraduate Playwright at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I had submitted a One Act play to the SUNY-Purchase Playwriting Contest and I won first place.  Howard was the Theatre Department Chair and he wrote me an award letter that included a first prize check of $300.00USD.

I had no idea at the time that the act of writing that play was the start of a great mentorship and daily friendship that endured longer than any other relationship I have had in my life.  Howard brought me to graduate school in The City of New York at Columbia University with a renewable Presidential Scholarship that helped pave the way to a bright East Coast future for me from the cold-minded and middling storms of the Flatlands.

To celebrate Howard’s 90th birthday — the birthday boy was born on the Fourth of July! — his family asked many of his friends and colleagues and former students to write a letter for inclusion in a special “Birthday Book” they were creating for him.  I was honored to participate, and in the joy of his life, I’ll share what I wrote to Howard with you now.  This is the letter he told me he read every day.

Howard Stein: A Man of One Morality

July 4, 2012

Dearest Howard,

On the celebration of your 90th birthday, I want to share my respect for the driving force in your life that you have willingly gifted to me and shared with many others: There is, and can only be, one morality that defines a lighted mind.

Morality is not something negotiated or bartered or sold. Morality is as necessary to the living as the essence of the spirit is to the definition of the human conundrum. Who am I? What am I doing here? Why am I still alive? Those universal questions of being are satellite wonderings that twist and compress and test our moral core. How do we respond to failure? Where do we go to consecrate our moral tension? How do we deal with the moral failings in others?

You taught us how to tend our morality by reading dramatic literature and using those lessons of despair to enhance our compassion in the world. We strengthen our belief system to prepare us for suffering. We learned morality is the one thing that cannot be given to us or taken from us. Our morality is sacred and immortal — but that doesn’t mean the lesser among us will not tempt us into the immoral morass of the middling-minded. Morality requires discipline and tempering.

In the ongoing example of your distinguished life, you have proven your perseverance — and triumphs! — over The Plague of the Ones: “One Eye,” “One Ear,” “One Shoulder,” “One Kidney,” “One Knee” and, basically, “One Foot,” and they all serve as undeniable proof of your determined morality and undying will to live.

The easy path is to give in, to give up, and to go gently back into that good earth — but your habit of action continues to teach us that the truer path, the better way, the higher line, the inconvenient, and painful, moral road, requires us to lift our pitiful heads from the ground and brighten our bewildered eyes to the sky and gaze upward into the sun to recognize the unfamiliar horizon to be led back to the prehistoric sparks of time that have lighted our dark way since the first fires of the human mind. Thank you for sharing the moral truth of your long and luscious life.

Much Love and Everlasting Respect,

David W. Boles

30 Comments

  1. I suppose, in honor of the man who has lost his best friend: I MUST post exactly HOW I feel about this whole thing. If it’s not in an article, it doesn’t exist…….. so I’ve heard……
    so here goes…
    This is WHY I understand how and why Mr. Boles feels the loss he does:

  2. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. But OK. I’m alive. I know that much. Can’t say as much for the people we love and miss…….. so goes the circle……. Shalom, my friend…..

    1. Can I have a motorcycle now? Please? Hubby says no….. I just wanna be the craziest white woman anyone has ever met………
      I want to read the smoke……..it’s possible you know…..

  3. Wow… I will always miss Howard, though we hadn’t spoken in years. He was a wonderful man with such a generous heart, and an unwavering supporter of his playwriting students. He has never left my thoughts. I think the last time I saw him was in 1993 when he kissed me on the cheek at graduation at Columbia and said “Thank You.” He touched my heart as an artist, as he did everyone he met. He always said, “You gotta be a sucker.” He was saying that as an artist you’ve got to care, always, even if you know it’s going to break your heart. I don’t think anyone out there taught that except for Howard.