Friday, August 7, 2009


I went by my mom’s house to check up on her. We took a brief walk. She seemed rather unfocused.

As a distraction, I showed her Dave Carroll’s video, United Breaks Guitars, the country music customer service complaint that is making its way around the Internet to great acclaim.

When I first saw it I kept thinking how I wished I could have run over to my folks’ home and share with my dad. I know he would have loved it and I would have loved showing it to him. ...But I can’t.

My mom loved the video, too. Just after it finished, she looked at me and said excitedly that she couldn’t wait to tell Gloria about it. She abruptly stopped talking and just looked at me for a few moments, and finally quietly and sadly added “Oh.” Clearly, the shock hasn’t worn off.

Gloria is dead

She was diagnosed months before my dad. She outlived him by almost twenty–eight months—much longer than expected, an extraordinary outlier. Last week a doctor told her “You shouldn’t be here.”

Allowing for her age and other factors, my aunt was in the top 0.1% of lung cancer victims. But that’s all moot now. Gloria, my aunt and my mother’s favorite sister of her three is dead. She died yesterday morning, apparently in her sleep.

Gloria was an amazing woman, determined and strong in spirit and strength. She had been shopping for fall outfits with my mom last week. She was driving just two days before she died, albeit in a lot of pain (she took her first dose of morphine a few hours before she died). But on the same day she last driven her car, she told my mom that she thought it was time to begin hospice care. It was scheduled to have begun yesterday.

Actually, I don’t think it was the disease that killed Gloria. Yes, the cancer had metastasized and spread to her brain, spinal column, and elsewhere, causing her great pain. And it was clearly going to win soon. But the cancer had not completely debilitated and wasted her, as it had with my dad, as is typical. She did not spend her last few weeks confined to a hospital bed, her body shutting down around her like my dad. Instead, I think that she had at last come to understand that she really had reached the end of her life (her initiation of hospice being indicative). And in so accepting, her body, exhausted from her unceasing effort to live as long as possible while simultaneously fighting the cancer and bearing up under the burdens of [palliative] chemotherapy and radiation treatments, simply shut down.

Losing an older friend or a family member is a disconcerting experience. We grow up with a sense of the preceding generation being a safety net beneath us, always there, more experienced and wiser, ready to catch us when we fall. With each death the net becomes more tattered, eventually completely fraying into the illusion it always was. We are left with the sobering realization that we are in fact floating over the inevitable void, into which we, too, will eventually will be drawn.

My mother has lost three of the four most important people in her life, all to cancer: her mother, husband and sister. (And she herself has had three instances of melanoma). Now I’m all she has left.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

I cried today, twice, as Kate held me. I miss my best friend. I miss my dad. I will, every day, for the rest of my life. And I know that I am not alone: My assessment of the universe stands.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Counterpoint and Bookeneds

A week ago today, on June 14th, I married the love of my life. A week from today, on June 28th, I will be standing atop a hillock, in the middle of a wheat field, overlooking the small Spanish town of Ambrona, about two hours’ drive from Madrid. I will be one of about thirty Americans there. An untold number of Spaniards and at least one Frenchman will be there as well. The wedding was four months in planning. Planning for this event, though much more informal, began more than twice as many months ago.

I have not been to Ambrona since I was eighteen, a newly–minted high school graduate. I spent much of that summer there. At the time, there were numerous pits in the ground, sectioned off by pegs and long white strings, and filled with lots of older folks, covered with sweat and clay dust and, as a consequence, a rather viscous mud. (Those ‘older folks’ were principally Cal upper-division and graduate anthropology students. If conditions were similar today, their peers would all seem quite young to me by comparison, such are the many years that have passed.)

We are meeting there to remember my dad, who passed away fifteen months ago. The location is one of the four big archeological sites he excavated. (The others are in the Omo river basin in southern Ethiopia, Isimila in Tanzania and Yarimburgaz in Turkey.) It is my expectation that people will be gathering in those places as well (two of the three other sites are being actively excavated).

My mother will be by my side. My sister, who could not join us will be with us in spirit. My wife, who is still recovering from our wedding, is staying home by choice; she is right that the event will be no honeymoon. The one day recuperating and three days we spent in Monterey following our joining was far from sufficient for either of us. We will be going to Hawai’i for ten days for our ‘official honeymoon’ on the Monday following the events in Spain. (I will be recording the entire affair so that both my sister and wife will be able to see what will have transpired.)

This is my trip. I knew last summer, just a few months after my dad died, that I would have to go. I need the closure. When I mentioned my intent to my mother, she thought it to be a wonderful idea and wanted to accompany me. We set a date. It was at which point I reached out to my dad’s friends and colleagues to see if any of them would like to join us... There will probably be at least sixty joining my mother and me on that little grassy hilltop. We are stunned and gratified. Many more who cannot join us have sent us brief remembrances and thoughts of my father to read aloud. I know there will be tears.

The site has long been quiet. No stakes nor pegs remain. The pits have long since silted up in the winter rains. Wheat grows over the shallow depressions that remain, all but hiding them. There is little evidence of what took place for all those years my father worked there save for a bumpy gravel road up to the site and a one room ‘museum’ that is as much a storehouse for some of the bigger fossils that were found there well more than two decades ago. Every once in a while, somebody comes by to check on it.

For me the trip will be frantic: I leave for Madrid Thursday morning, arriving Friday morning and drive to Siguenza, about twenty minutes from Ambrona, where I will stay for two nights. The memorial is on Saturday morning. On Sunday morning, I drive to Madrid and catch a flight back to the states. I arrive into San Francisco at 11PM. I then continue on to Hawai’i at 4PM the next day, Monday. Then I will relax. But the effort will be worth it. It will be a closure, a bookend, for myself, my mother and many of my dad‘s friends. My mother and many other people are more sanely going to stay and enjoy more of Spain, as well as England, France and Morocco, and other destinations.

And so the joy of my marriage is counter-pointed by the memories that are being evinced as a pack and prepare. I find myself at perhaps the most profound moment in my life, looking back with tears while looking ahead with smiles. Life is complicated.

Monday, March 10, 2008

One Year

In a few short hours it will be one year since my dad died. Remembering the aching slowness of the first few weeks following his passing, it seems amazing that the remainder could fly by so quickly.

We’ve survived our first Thanksgiving, our first Christmas and now we will live through the first anniversary. None has been pleasant for there has always been a ghost among us. One who may haunt each of us for the rest of our lives. For the dead-but-loved never really leave us. They stay deep inside of us, a chronic ache that adds poignancy to our experiences.

A few weeks ago, I was driving up to my mom’s home. I was driving my dad’s old white Honda Accord; part of my inheritance and a frequent reminder. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and I had the window rolled down. It was about the time my dad used to come home from work.

As I rolled up San Luis Avenue near her home, I espied my mother taking her daily stroll around her neighborhood. I tapped the horn twice ('beep beep') and called out 'Hi!' My mother looked up and saw the car and froze. She started to tremble. "Why it’s... it’s... It’s been so long! I’m so glad to see you!" And then she sort of shook her head and stared at me and she started to cry. She was still crying several minutes later after she finished her walk and we met back at her home.

No, those we love, those we need and cherish, never really leave us. They are there, right inside.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Half A World Away

A couple of weeks after my dad died, I allowed this blog to be indexed by search engines (notably Google. Theretofore, though this blog was publicly accessible, if you typed ‘F. Clark Howell’ into Google or Yahoo, these entries from this blog wouldn’t appear among the search results. As I wrote then, one of my impetuses for so doing was:

A number of people have commented that they think other people facing the loss of a loved one may find value in reading about my dad’s disease and death, and my experiences of it. One person even recommeded I formally publish the text. Again, I am flattered. If other people find useful information or solace herein, then this effort will have served a far greater purpose than I ever intended.

— (31 March 2007)

My encouragers have been proven right: On February 23, 2008, I received the following e-mail:

Hello Brian,

I just wanted to drop you a note to say thank you for your wonderful blog on your father's battle with cancer. My mother passed away of cancer just yesterday, after a four-month ordeal during which I was with her all the time. I had read your blog during that time, and it helped immensely to deal with what we were going through. I particularly appreciated the honesty with which you wrote, without romanticising the uglier aspects of dying.

You have my heartfelt thanks.

Best regards,

Sunil D'Monte
Bombay, India.

I do not know how many other people have stumbled across this blog, if any. But if only for Mr. D’Monte, I am amazed and gratified.

Monday, September 17, 2007


I’m a 45 years-old man and I just spent a couple of minutes clutching my Teddy bear. Ridiculous!? The bear is a souvenir of a recent trip to Peru with Kate. I found him in a shop for Peruvian handicrafts. He is extremely soft–it’s amusing to see people pick him up for the first time: They see him on my sofa and kind of laugh. Then, almost invariably, they bend over to pick him up for a better look for they know me and they know that his presence there implies he’s something special. The moment they first touch him they discover that specialness. He is extraordinarily soft! It is almost unbelievable how soft he is. His fur is made from baby alpaca.

I bought him as much because I knew I could never communicate the unbelievable sensuousness of touching him as a desire of finding an especially worthy small child on whom to bestow him. However, he has grown on me, gamely and genially sitting as he does in the middle of one of my sofas. And he’s become a conversation piece and a happy reminder of a remarkable trip. So he may remain in my company for quite some time to come.

I named him ‘Peru Bear’, both to acknowledge his provenance and as an homage to my dad, who from my earliest memories, called me “Pooh Bear” after the character in the A.A. Milne books, which I adored as a child and of which I demanded incessant repeated readings from both my parents. (My childhood Teddy bear was named ‘Pooh Bear’, too, for that very reason.)

I am listening to the voice of my father. Tears are running down my face. It is playing back on the little digital voice recorder I purchased to record his stories when he was first diagnosed. Alas, circumstances being as they were, I have just a couple of hours. What I have is extremely precious. The portion that I am listening to was recorded December 3rd, 2006, just over three months before he died. He is chatting with Kate’s parents in my parents’s bedroom. He is his typical self: Charming, warm, entertaining and fascinating. People are chuckling and laughing. His topics range broadly, from his early years with my mother to working with Louis Leakey. Stories that I always just kind of took in stride but now realize in part define just how remarkable a man he really was.

At worst, I cried inconsolably. I felt like the ground was falling away from under me.

Grieving alone, when there is nobody to hold or console you, is doubly miserable. I ran and grabbed my bear. I needed to hold on to something warm and comforting. I clutched the bear for a few minutes as I cried deeply and the tears surged.

I miss my dad terribly.

The worst part of watching my dad die was the feeling of absolute powerlessness, of wanting to do something–anything to help him, to prolong his time with me just a bit, fundamentally selfish though that was. Listening to him now brought back those feelings. There is nothing more horrifying that watching the life being inexorably and irrevocably drained from someone you love.

I have searched on the Web for the phrase “I miss my dad”. I found thousands of blog posts, essays, poems and other messages from people of all ages who deeply miss their own dads. And I have been told that my blog induced some of its readers to hours of tears as it evoked them to relive the losses of their own parents. I am somewhat comforted knowing that I am far from alone in the strength of my feelings. But I realize, too, that I am afflicted with a gaping rent in my psyche that can never be mended. The loss is simply too great.

I think about my dad every day. I want to talk to him. To see him. To see his face light up and hear him say with his distinctive, cheery intonation, “Hi Brian! How are you?” when I walk in to his home. Pressing ‘play’ doesn’t begin to come close.