I think in Howard’s mind and heart, we cemented our friendship the season we played lepers in the church Christmas program. That was more than twenty Decembers ago. Never ones to be considered a-team actors among the choir and drama talented, Howard and I somehow got chosen to be the adult members of the leper colony. Howard and I usually served in capacities behind the scenes and quite frankly I don’t remember why that particular season we were given acting roles. I would have said it was because both Howard and I knew how to talk, in fact, we could flat talk your ears off. Truth is though we really didn’t have any lines to speak of so it wasn’t the loquaciousness of our natures that garnered us the roles. Our script consisted of moaning and groaning in pain until Christ healed us. At that point we would leap for joy, literally. Swathed in brown robes and discolored bandages, he and I hobbled our way on stage, every night in practice, while the crew adjusted the lights to provide the most dramatic effect. Guess it was just God that got us the roles because what actually happened over the course of practice and then production was that Howard and I spent a great deal of time sharing what those lepers must have really felt like when God healed them. There was one night, during a performance, that one of our fellow lepers, a child of God who suffered disabilities in her everyday life, got to Howard and me. I remember Howard put his arm around me and I put my head on his shoulder, he cried as much as me, and we sat there marveling at how our small little part in this reenactment of Christ’s Grace had gotten to us. I know by that time we didn’t have to say much to each other, all we had to do was to let the music and the truth of Scripture and God’s grace wash over us. Howard and I, well we became the kind of friends that only God could make.
Over the next two decades, our lives moved to separate places, at least in part because Howard stayed in choir and I didn’t. He and I both shared a joyous love for music, but what you have to understand about Howard was that singing in choir, in practice and on Sunday, was as necessary and important to Howard as breathing. I mean it. It was a staple of living for him. I got a job and our lives didn’t intersect over music much then, but always when the skill of Howard’s hands and mind were necessary to take care of whatever sick beloved pet I had. When I think back about it, not once did Howard ever fail to help me no matter what I asked.
Like the time I decided that my beloved dog Red, the alpha of our home pack, the dog that no one ever wanted to see coming around the side of the house should you come to visit, the one who had grown up with my sons and who considered himself their personal body guard, had worried me one too many times when the local bitches went into heat. “Howard, I would like to bring Red in and get him fixed…. Hey! I have a great idea! I bet the boys would love to see you work!? I said in a moment of inspiration. “Do you mind if I bring the boys in to see the operation?” Silence on the phone, then, “You want to bring your sons into watch me neuter their dog?” “Sure”, I said.
Howard got a lot of mileage out of that story over the years.
Then the day came that I knew that Red was sick, too sick. I called Howard. “Howard, its time to let him go. Can I bring him to the clinic? I’ll just bring him home and bury him here in the yard afterwards”. This was a ninety pound dog. Even in my grief, I heard that familiar stunned silence. Howard had already agreed in sincere compassion to give Red the shot. Finally, trying to find the right words he said, “Janet, I have had a lot of sick dogs brought into the clinic, but I don’t think I have ever had anyone carry one out to take him home and bury him. I’ll come to your house.” There in the back yard, Howard crying as much as me, for a dog that had threatened to bite him more often than not, I cradled Red and Howard cradled us both. I might have the potential to be a veterinarians’ worst nightmare, but I bet no one has ever boast of a more tender house call.
Not long after Jake went to heaven, Moses, truly Jake’s dog and then mine when God called Jake home, was suffering. Moses had been trying to pee for more days than I care to admit. Howard knew I wasn’t one to spend much money on my animals but this was a different time and place. The place in my heart for loss was too raw, too open to lose this dog, Jake’s dog. Crying so much I could hardly hold Moses, Howard came into the examining room, took a look at both of us, and with his healers hands and the compassion of a friend, knew this was more about a mother’s broken heart. He set about his work and with the crisis was over a few hours later, Moses quite successfully peeing around a large number and chunks of stony rocks in his bladder, Howard put his arm around me, drew me close, and smoothed my hair. I remember that day. Never bashful to show his heart, he cried with me, in relief and in sorrow.
Saturday, at 7 in the evening, Howard went home to be with His father. When I got the news, Bob and I had been waiting, knowing it was going to be soon. We were in the car, and the full moon was hitting her stride and as Bob and I rode together in silence I counted five shooting stars, a result of the extravagance of this December Geminid meteor shower. I let the memory of Howard and I having Monday choir practice in his living room this last month wash over me, I realized Howard and I had come full circle. It had been his idea, to sit and sing together. I could feel Bob’s eyes turn to search my face in the darkness of the cab. With a knowledge born of standing, witnessing, ushering his own oldest son into Heaven, he said, “Howard was singing praise, healed and happy, before the last beats of his heart.”
See you Howard, my Christian brother. Don’t worry, those of us who love you, we will care and love your family, till we see you,.. again.. singing, praising, with you, on higher ground. Rest in peace.