Today is the third day in a row I’m writing about the death of the great author and teacher, Dr. Howard Stein, because I just can’t get his life out of my mind. Every time we’d meet or speak on the phone, I would take copious notes because I didn’t want to forget anything he told me.
Every conversation was ripe and ready for memorialization in a blog post or in a future thinking endeavor. Howard Stein was always teaching, and when you had his attention, you were the most important person in the world to him. He was staunchly rational and fearless almost up to the end; and I say “almost” because during the last few months of his life, he confessed to me that, at night, he would get scared.
The last year or so of Howard Stein’s life was based on a routine of awakening, “closing open circles” of friends and acquaintanceships, going to the doctor, and then collapsing back at home to get ready for bed and, he hoped, the next day.
Howard told me it took him four hours in the morning to get ready for the day. His heart was failing him, and what used to take him only a few minutes, stretched into infinite hours. By 1:00pm or so he would be “ready for the day” and he preferred to have conversations in the early afternoon. A year ago, he always preferred an early morning chat around 10:00am.
As Howard detailed the moments of his waning days, his becoming scared at night alarmed me. I’d never heard him express such a raw vulnerability. He was always impenetrable and unbeatable. At night, he felt wholesomely alone and he feared when he fell into sleep, he would never wake up again. It was in the dark hours when he unwound from the day, and night crept upon him, and sleep began to overtake him, that he would become scared at the unknown and what, if anything, the morning might bring him.
It must have been terrifying to be so alone in the company of a lovely wife and a strong extended family — but, in the end — we all must face the final moment wholly alone. Nobody else can die for us. Howard was fond of telling stories about “taking your own life in your hands where it belongs” — and the opposite turn of that phrase is that we are also required to take our own deaths in our hands, too.
As I now stumble through my remaining days without my great mentors and incredible friends Marshall Jamison and Howard Stein, I realize I don’t have any mentors or close friends who are now older than me. That is a new experience of being completely on my own in the wilderness and that reality scares me. There’s no one else to turn to now for wisdom and a range of experience that rallies against mine. I’m alone in the wind and tumbling down into my own inevitable darkness.