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.
I’m so sorry for your loss, David. It’s so good that you have his words saved for posterity and, presumably, photos — no instagram, of course! He was a real inspiration and I hope his words will continue to inspire you as they have to some extent inspired me over the last number of years.
Thanks, Gordon! It’s definitely a devastating loss. We all knew the moment of his end was coming, but we never imagined it would ever actually arrive. Howard taught me how to write and think and how you must own and stand up for what you believe in — even it it’s unpopular. There’s nothing wrong in being rigid, because, in the end, as Howard always said, the only life you own is your own.
It is at this juncture, that you, as one of his closest apprentices, are to be the teacher, mentor, and leader that he taught you to be. Generation upon generation, leaders beget leaders.
His wisdom, tenacity and morality will be from here on out lived in you.
That’s just the way it is supposed to happen, Lillian. I always told my students Howard Stein is their instructor too, because he taught me and I was teaching them through him — but now that his teaching and mentorship is gone — I am suddenly, and unfamiliarly — alone. I’m sure I’ll adjust and get by — Howard would demand that — but I always liked hearing that sort of thing directly from him.
I understand. Sometimes it’s more than just the ‘words’ a person says. It’s hearing THAT person say them….
That’s exactly right, Lillian. Howard was always teaching. Always prodding. Always pointing you in a new direction. I’ve always tried to challenge myself to always do that — but when Howard was in the room, or on the phone, or in a letter — everything changed and the intensity level was raised a hundred fold.
Hearing you say: “but when Howard was in the room, or on the phone, or in a letter — everything changed and the intensity level was raised a hundred fold.” brings tears to my eyes.. literally.
I KNOW someone like that. It’s my machinist friend. He brings the same type of __________ (I don’t even know what to call it) emotion? strength? ambition? direction? everywhere he goes. And intense goes without saying…….
It’s a tough thing to lose, and my sympathies are specifically with you. I can understand now why it won’t leave your mind.
I appreciate your caring and thoughtfulness and insight, Lillian. It meas a lot to me. Thank you.
“At night, I get scared”……. I guess it’s ok to say it now,,,, but sometimes even that feels like one is violating the ‘code of ethics’ regarding the friendship…
Did you ever feel like that with Howard? Like everything you and he spoke of was confidential? personal, real, and not to be shared with the ‘general public’ because they ‘probably wouldn’t understand anyway’…… Does that make sense? Did you have that sense of deep connection with Howard in that type of way?
Where is this “Code of Ethics” regarding friendship published, Lillian? Did you write it?
Howard Stein had no secrets and kept no secrets. Everything was open and transparent and out on the table — and if you didn’t like that, you were gone. People can’t control you or blackmail you or punish you if don’t believe in keeping secrets.
Howard was also a writer, and was surrounded by writers, and he knew that everything was ripe and open for fair — or unfair! — play in print or on the stage or in a script because that’s the nature of the beast of creation. He also knew I was always taking notes and trying to preserve the things he said for publication — especially over the last few years of his life. Many of our conversations were actually lectures. He spoke. I listened to remember.
My ultimate goal was to get him published in all 14 blogs before he died, but his illness only allowed him to write for about half of them under his own byline. He’s on the author list of all the blogs, though, and will remain there, because his influence is everywhere and inescapable.
David – what a beautiful, sad tribute to a friend and mentor.
Hi Nancy! It’s great to hear from you again.
I thank you for your comment. Inescapable loss is something you never get over — I suppose we should all be thankful we knew Howard was ill and that we had the chance to cherish every last moment we had with him.
We all get scared sometimes. It must be scary to fall asleep thinking this just might be it.
To know your heart is weak, and to know you are so tired — and you need to sleep, but want to wake up — terrifying.