Tom Howard’s Last Piece of Pie

My dad and me. Photo taken on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2017

Two months ago I lost the person I loved most in the world. I lost my dad. He died on March 9, 2017 at 6:30 AM, of metastasized melanoma.

The spot on his head first appeared in 2015, a raised and rough growth, a pebble of a thing that took up residence on the otherwise smooth and shiny surface of his skull. He had it removed in July of that year (while I was traveling around the world) and when they didn’t get clean margins they removed more from this delicate, non-elastic region, borrowing skin from his thigh to patch the missing piece of scalp. He had been so pleased with the plastic surgeon’s reconstruction that he called him “an artist” and wrote him a thank you note. The scar was barely visible.

Last family photo, taken February 25, 2017

Life went on. For the next year and a half he read books—spy thrillers mostly—washed his car, played Solitaire, went on daily lunch outings with my mom to El Pollo Loco where they shared their favorite taco salad, attended U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary meetings, and drank his daily martini at 5:00. But behind the scenes, lurking under the skin’s surface, the cancer was spreading. Like a nest of newborn snakes, it ventured forth, slithering into his lymph nodes, his prostate, throughout his entire skeletal system. It went into his lungs, creating such a deep and growing colony of tumors that he was coughing up globs of blood.

On a mid-January morning this year, when I was visiting for my mom’s 80th birthday, when I watched him cough into a tissue, leaving a dribble of bright red blood on his chin, I knew it was bad. I didn’t know how bad. We wouldn’t know the full diagnosis until after his PET scan a month later. But I knew, in the way a twin can sense their sibling a thousand miles away is in trouble, that his life as we knew it was over. That the cancer would take him. And, by the looks of the blood clots, soon.

No one coughs up that much blood and lives.

After my mom’s birthday, after the Women’s March in Washington, and after a few weeks back in Iowa where I was getting updates from my sister as the oncologist appointments got underway, I flew back to California. I could have saved $150 if I bought a ticket for three days later. My instinct told me every day counted—or maybe it was the news from the oncologist who said there was “no treatment for this” and “We will do everything we can to make you as comfortable as possible”—so I booked the earlier, more expensive flight. Paying that extra money was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I packed a mammoth suitcase thinking I might be there for more than a month. I was prepared to stay six, whatever it took, however long I was needed. I know now I could have just packed a carry-on.

And so, I was there.

I was there in Redondo Beach in my parents’ apartment, the sliding glass doors letting in the ocean breeze, the sun’s blinding late afternoon glare reflecting off the dark blue sea, the surfers catching the last waves before sunset.

I was there because my latest book proposal— about how to stay optimistic in this political era—was turned down. I was so damn lucky for the rejection. With a looming book deadline I would not have been able to spend those three and a half weeks of February into March with the father I loved. The last three and a half weeks of life of the man whose seed created me. The dimming, dwindling last days of the man who loved martinis, hot fudge sundaes and banana cream pie. The man who loved me. Who understood me like no one else. Who could solve every problem I ever had with his laughter. Even if I had gotten the book deal, I would have been there. I would have walked away from the offer. Family—my dad—came first.

I was there, sitting by his side every one of those remaining days, every morning stretched out on my mom’s side of the king size bed, careful not to get my dirty feet on the bedspread, playing Clair de Lune for him—his signature piece he played so well on the piano—on my iPhone from YouTube, drinking my café lattes and listening to him breathe—or struggle to breathe. I repositioned his oxygen nosepiece, making sure the prongs stayed in his nostrils, and watched his chest closely, making sure it was still moving up and down. Making sure he was still with us. I listened to the rhythm—four or five breaths, then a pause. The pauses were so long I found myself holding my breath along with him each time he stopped. When he coughed, as he inevitably did from the growing number of nodules that choked his lungs, he woke himself up and began breathing again. And I, too, would begin breathing again, not realizing I had stopped.

I was there to rub lotion on his bald head, now dotted with moles and rough spots and scars. I was there to massage his feet, to give him some semblance of comfort, the way the hospice pamphlet suggested. I was there to hold his hands, studying his age spots and fingernails, memorizing the heft of each digit, including the digitus medius manus, as he taught us the Latin term for “the middle finger”—as in giving it. They were strong yet gentle hands that had healed so many people. As a dentist, a holistic one who truly cared about his patients overall well being, he helped improve not only their smiles (and in turn their confidence) but also their health. He understood how every part of the body is connected to another, that through orthodontics (without pulling teeth unnecessarily, mind you) the curvature of the mouth’s palate would change and, thus, this would change—improve—the structure of the cervical column and that would affect the entire spine for the better. His hands had practiced therapeutic massage and cranial osteopathy. His hands had played Clair de Lune just a week earlier, shocking us all when we thought he lacked the strength to get out of bed, let alone sit at the piano to serenade us with classical music.

The dying process is like that. Death can come slowly, gradually, and just when you think the final hour has arrived life can burst forth again in unexpected, fleeting fragments. These energy bursts, confusing as they may be, give bystanding loved ones a tidal wave of hope that perhaps, hey, wait, he’s not as sick as we thought. Maybe he is not going to die after all. And then, no, the terminal, evil, motherfucker of an illness sends him back to bed, weaker than ever, and you call the hospice nurse to increase the morphine.

I was there to make him his favorite dessert, banana cream pie, the pie that prompted my dad to propose to my mom when she made one for him six months after they started dating. I made the pie just the way he liked it, with a graham cracker crust, made-from-scratch vanilla pudding, and meringue topping. I made three banana cream pies in three and a half weeks, wondering, worrying, if each pie would be his last.

I was there to spoon feed him bites of the pie when this once robust man no longer had the strength to lift even a small fork, cutting the sliced bananas into miniature sizes he could swallow. With his appetite diminishing by the day, we had to ask him what, if anything, he was hungry for. His big blue eyes would brighten and he would say with a smile, drawing out the syllables, “Piiiiiie.”

The day before he was moved to the hospice house—euphemistically and somewhat disturbingly called a “transition center”—he couldn’t finish the tiny sliver of banana cream pie I had served him on a cocktail plate. The plate was part of a collection of four, each decorated with a different martini-themed design. Martini glass-emblazoned items could be found in every corner of the apartment—a cutting board, cloth napkins, coasters, a decorative plaque that read “Martini Bar,” a flag that had hung on his old sailboat but now waved on the balcony to signal when it was Happy Hour. Anything with a martini glass on it was an obvious gift for the “man who had everything”—as long as said martini glass contained three olives.

I left the martini plate, with the remaining piece of pie and the teaspoon still on it, in the refrigerator, in case he would want to eat more later.

There was no later.

Tom Howard’s last banana cream
pie, his favorite.

When I came back to my parents’ apartment from the hospice house (er, transition fucking center) the morning of March 9—after he was gone, after our family had gathered around his hospital bed with his body still slightly warm, after saying our final goodbyes before he was placed in the lime green body bag (so thoughtlessly, so visibly the only item in the clear plastic bag marked “Patient’s Personal Items” even though he was wearing a grey Washington State University t-shirt when he arrived), before he was sent over to the crematorium—I went to get something out of the refrigerator. I was looking for milk or cheese or juice or something, who knows. I was so numb I can’t remember. When I opened the fridge door the remains of his last slice of pie stared back at me. The bananas had turned brown, the crust soggy, the meringue sagging and weeping. The martini design on the plate, which had previously looked so cute now seemed offensive as the day’s approaching Happy Hour would be anything but happy.

I was there, sleepless the entire week after he died, in my bed that looked out over the King Harbor marina. I stuck earbuds in my ears and listened to Clair de Lune, the extended play version, over and over. Gone was the humming, hissing and pumping sound of his oxygen machine. Gone was the moaning and crying sound of his pain from down the hall. Gone was the beloved man whose spirit had been so big and so vibrant. To fill all that empty space I played the music at full volume for hours while the moon rose—and then set—and the rest of Redondo Beach slumbered.

I was there to clean out his closet with my brother, even when it felt way too soon, helping to load the SUV with my dad’s sport coats, sweaters, t-shirts and trousers, ties and belts, and a surprisingly extensive collection of size 12 shoes, including several pair leather loafers tucked so far back in the closet they were covered in a layer of light green mold, such is the humidity living by the ocean.

I was there to write the obituary and place it in the Ottumwa Courier and the Quad City Times for $156 each, editing down the word count to save money from the original $300 quote each. I didn’t know obits were so expensive. And I didn’t know I would find myself arguing with the editor over AP Style Guidelines—over the correct placement of commas, semi-colons, and parentheses—after she changed my format, which I had spent hours so carefully crafting.

I was there to design the memorial card, collecting photos from my four other siblings, sorting through 81 years’ worth of memories and culling them into the mere four photos the online template would allow. I was there to buy stamps and place them on the pile of 150 cards so that when my mother felt well enough to create a mailing list and address the envelopes it would be one less thing for her to do.

I was there. And now I’m not. And he’s not. He has “transitioned.” To where—well, isn’t that is the ultimate nagging billion-dollar existential question? To a “better” place? God, I hate it when people say that. At least he’s in a place—or space—free from pain.

It was so good yet so hard to be there. It made my heart physically hurt listening to him cry out during the night, in distress from the cancer that terrorized his bones, cancer that caused unimaginable pain, cancer that according to the PET scan—which he never read because he was determined that he wasn’t that sick, that he was going to get better—had deteriorated his left ribs, clavicle, and humerus (the shoulder head, a term I had to look up among many other body parts listed in the report.) No one, especially not my dad, should suffer like that. Ever.

It was so fortunate to be there. I will forever be grateful for that time—those last three and a half weeks—I had with him. Even when it meant cleaning the commode, wiping the urine off his private parts, holding him up in the shower. Even when all that tore at my heart so badly and squeezed my chest so tight I laid on the guest bed thinking that I was the one who was going to die. (I found out later, after my doctor sent me to a cardiologist, that I was suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s a real thing, caused by trauma and stress.)

I am thankful I could be there to give back to him, to have had even the smallest chance to repay him for all that he gave me, the many, many gifts that have made my life so rich—a healthy childhood, a college education, trips abroad to give me a bigger world view, a feisty and generous spirit, and above all, a mandate to be positive, to see the good in people, and to be of service to others.

He was there to bring me into this world. I was there to help him out of it.

He said just three days before he died, “Words matter.” I write these words for him. I write these words so I don’t lose him.

But I haven’t lost him. He is always with me. His spirit lives through me. I carry on his values. I carry his DNA. And for as long as I live I will continue to carry on his love of nature and cocktail hour and banana cream pie. He had a good, long life, sticking around longer than many humans do—longer than my husband who died at 43.

When Marcus died I was annoyed when my dad said, “We all have to die sometime, Boo.” But he is right—was right. We are all like a juicy novel with a beginning, middle and end. Our lives unfold like turning pages of a book, each varying in length. We are just passing through, each of us contributing our own chapter to the bigger story, and as such our purpose should be to live—and die—as gracefully (and painlessly) as possible, striving for a happy, morally sound ending.

My dad also said, in one of his ever-surprising nuggets of wisdom doled out over the years, “When I die don’t mourn for me. Just go out and have a hot fudge sundae.” Another thing he would say, especially during times I was down, was, “Onward and forward.” I have never been as down as I am now.

So in the spirit of my dad, the Great John Thomas Howard, I am going onward and forward—straight to Dairy Queen.

I love you, Dad. And I miss you.
(For more about my dad, read my Father’s Day post from last year.)

Revisiting Grandma Genny’s Workplace…and Her Crumble Topping Recipe!

City Clerk Ann Cullinan
with my Grandma Genny’s recipe

Life back in Iowa can often be strange and wonderful. It seems every week brings a new surprise, often in the form of a renewed connection to my roots. Roots I didn’t even know I still had. I came back to my birthplace of Ottumwa, Iowa for a drive-by visit this summer, only to have a peek at my childhood home, then move on and return to Southern California to settle down. I lived in Ottumwa until I was 12, then my family moved to Davenport. I graduated early from high school (to get the hell out of this boring state!) and left Iowa for what I thought was “for good” when I was 17. Fast forward 30 years later. Ha!

Never say never.

Four months after my “quick visit” to see my childhood home, I’m still here in Iowa. Grant Wood summed it up best: “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” I live here now, in the American Gothic House, just 15 miles from the house where I grew up with my four siblings.

I didn’t expect Ottumwa to factor in much to my new life in Eldon. I figured I would gravitate toward more left-leaning Fairfield for my shopping and socializing — and espresso addiction. What I hadn’t considered is my history. I hadn’t even acknowledged that I had one. I’ve moved many, many, many times in my adult life — from Iowa to Washington State to Mexico, Colorado, Jamaica, Switzerland, France, Thailand, Chicago, Kenya, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Germany, Portland, Mexico again, Texas, and back to Portland, in roughly that order. Just reading my own list makes me tired! I’ve moved so far and so often I didn’t feel I had any roots anywhere. “Home is where you hang your hat,” my Grandpa Lyle used to tell me. An old boyfriend said something meant to be less complimentary: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” I just shrugged it off. Who wants to be a moss-covered stone? Not me! As far as I was concerned, roots were for people who lived in boring Iowa.

But ever since I moved into the American Gothic House strange things have been happening. My memory is getting a workout, synapses dormant since childhood have been firing, new connections to old people keep appearing, and these funny little root-like stubs seem to be sprouting under my feet.

For starters, my best customer for my Pitchfork Pie Stand pies, David Vass, owns the South Side Drug in Ottumwa. My dad’s dental office was just down the street from this drug store, which had a soda fountain, and as kids we went there for milk shakes after getting our teeth cleaned. (I know, I know.) The soda fountain (and its $1.75 milk shakes!) is still there and so are many of the employees from 30 years ago, who remember my dad – and they even remember me!

A man on the board of directors for the American Gothic House Center, Steve Siegel, informed me he lives in Ottumwa—in my grandparents’ old house. Not only that, he bought the house directly from them 31 years ago. He knew my grandparents!

My dad’ parents,
Genevieve and Lyle Howard

And then this week, I was told through the American Gothic grapevine that the outgoing City Clerk of Ottumwa, Ann Cullinan, was in possession of a pie recipe that came from my Grandma Genny! Ann has worked for City Hall for 43 and 1/2 years. She worked directly with my grandmother, who served as Ottumwa’s City Clerk herself for many years, and essentially took over my grandma’s job when she retired. Ann’s last day at City Hall is today so I rushed over to Ottumwa on Monday to meet her – and to pick up the recipe.

I don’t remember my Grandma Genny as being much of a cook, and certainly not a pie baker. She was a career woman! She was an elected government official! She wasn’t going to get stuck in any kitchen making all the meals. She was also a product of her generation and, like many others of her time, was enticed by the new packaged, processed, “quick and easy” products that promised to make cooking and baking, well, quicker and easier. The only recipe I inherited from my grandma was for her cranberry bread, which, years later, I found out was the exact recipe printed on the Ocean Spray cranberry package. So when I drove to Ottumwa to meet with Ann I didn’t set my expectations very high for what this recipe might be. Perhaps the pie crust was made with margarine and not butter. Perhaps the filling called for some ungodly quantity of sugar.

Ottumwa City Hall. Still the same after all these years.

I entered the elegant old building, the place my grandma had worked all those years ago, the same place I had been inside many times when she worked there. While I didn’t remember what the inside had looked like before, I knew nothing had changed. These were the same marble floors my grandma had walked, the same wooden chairs on which she sat, the same fluorescent lights under which she read her legal documents. History, nostalgia, awe – I was flooded with a range of emotions. I could practically feel the moss growing on my skin. Or were those roots—awakened and fertilized by long forgotten yet familiar ground?

My grandma spent more time in this courtroom than in her kitchen.

Ann greeted me warmly. She said she remembered me coming in to see my grandma when I was in grade school. When I was young. Long before I left Iowa to see the world. My life had barely begun back then. And now here I was. All grown up. And living 15 miles away.

“It’s not exactly a pie recipe,” Ann warned me. “It’s just for a crumble topping.”

I didn’t care. It was from my grandma. Well, it was from Ann, the closest I would ever get to my grandma now. (Genny died 20 years ago, one year after the death of my Grandpa Lyle.) I inspected the recipe, nodding approvingly that the ingredients included real butter, brown sugar and flour. “That’s the same way I make it!” I told Ann. “Oh, but I see Genny adds cinnamon, nutmeg and baking powder to hers. I’ll have to try adding those extra things.”

From the Kitchen of Genny Howard. And now it’s in my kitchen.

“It’s good, I’ve been making it that way ever since she gave me the recipe,” she assured me. “Now I need my recipe card back. Let me make you a photocopy.”

Ottumwa will have a new City Clerk after today, one who will not have worked with or have even known my grandmother. But based on my experiences so far, I’m sure there will be other people in this town of 25,000, who knew her. And surely there are other people who knew me from way back when. It will be surprising, strange and wonderful to meet them again. Thirty years after I left, I am discovering so many things since my return to Iowa: the joy in rediscovering family connections, the grounding sensation of finding I actually do have roots, and that even though it isn’t France, I am happily learning that Iowa is definitely not boring.