Howard’s Gmail username for 15 years.
An animated anthropomorphic being in Jewish folklore created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud) and brought to life by a rabbi.
(Note: No relation to Gollum, J.R.R. Tolkien’s split-personality proto-Hobbit.)
She had had two and a half years to contemplate her impending widowhood when she decided to create a life-sized facsimile of her husband Howard, fitted with sound equipment and loaded with recordings of Howard’s voice, organized into a menu of common Howardisms, which she could play back on demand.
This was no joke, she insisted.
Backstory: The Years
From the moment Howard was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she’d strained to comprehend the possibility of him no longer being around. To evoke Wallace Shawn’s lispy Vizzini in The Princess Bride, it was…
Now, being a straight-talking mental health therapist, she’d also hasten to qualify that this assessment of Life After Howard was by no means the product of some kind of lionization. Howard, she’d emphatically point out, was absolutely no saint, and their marriage had not been some glossy romantic fantasy. He could be as distant as a neighboring galaxy, stubborn as a mule, lazy as a stoner, and until he lost 75 pounds due to his illness he snored like an elephant passing gas.
All that said, Howard was deeply loyal, fundamentally kind, funny more often than not, together they raised their son, renovated a couple of houses, traveled, adventured in the great outdoors, made art and music, and, looking back, the good simply far outweighed the bad.
No, the inconceivability of Howard being gone for good had very little to do with his relative attributes as a person, and everything to do with the 27 years they’d been a couple, the 23 years they’d parented together, the 22 years they’d been married. They were a package deal, not to be sold separately, but she was thrown for a loop, as she’d not been given an Expiration Date.
Urning Your Keep
It was always going to be cremation.
Not out of any religious or atheistic or any other kind of superstitious belief, but more to do with an aversion to burial. Cemeteries, those typically pastoral settings, spotted not with sheep or cattle, but by headstones above and corpses below, had always creeped Howard out. While he appreciated the symbolic utility of reminding our death-phobic culture that we are all food for worms, he nevertheless felt strongly that worms could carry on just fine without his meager calories.
In November 2020, after having published a particularly serious blog post — on the website he’d created specifically as a means to wrestle with the particularly serious topic of his own impending death — Howard attempted to lighten things up by writing a TV commercial parody titled And Now, A Word From Our Sponsor: Urning Down The House – The Cremation Urn Superstore.
She’d found the humor of the blog post to be a bit too dark and too close to home for her taste, and, godamnit, it had a Christmas theme, and you don’t fucking mess with Christmas.
However, she couldn’t deny that it was very effective at jumpstarting the important-yet-uncomfortable conversation they eventually needed to have, concerning what’s bluntly called, in the mortuary business, ‘deposition of the body.’
In the commercial parody, she and Howard’s ghost are sitting on their living room sofa and looking up at the cremation urn containing his ashes on the mantel over the fireplace, and ever since she’d read this post on his blog this was the image her brain referenced whenever she started thinking about what would be done with what’s horrifyingly called, in the cremation business, his ‘cremains.’
Beyond setting this scene, Howard was absolutely no help at all. When asked, he had no ideas as to what should be done with his remains, no wishes for any particular type of urn, and no preference for where his ashes, bone fragments, and the metal fillings from several molars would be spread, if spread at all. After all, he’d say, why should I care? I’ll be long gone!
She, on the other hand, anticipated the empty house.
An urn on the mantel seemed the least she could do to retain Howard’s presence at home. But, it didn’t take long for her to conclude that even this would be inadequate, if for any other reason the fact that Howard’s most notable personality trait was his prodigious gift of gab. If she was being honest, she’d miss his voice as much as his visage, even though both could thoroughly annoy her at the drop of a hat.
Additionally, she couldn’t envision herself as one of those wives who engage in tearful one-way conversations with an urn or headstone on a regular basis. How terribly unequitable and unacceptable such an arrangement would be? She loved him, but, she was certain, this would make her feel pathetic.
Building The Golem
Her first idea for Golem Howard was to simply have him embalmed, but this was before she learned that embalming doesn’t last very long, and also that it’s illegal, not to mention disturbing, to keep an embalmed body around the house indefinitely.
Besides, the smell of formaldehyde, while dissecting a frog in high school Biology, had nauseated her so severely she spent half the class and nearly the entire class period that followed in the girl’s bathroom.
And so, that was that for embalming.
She’d read something somewhere about a new-ish service available to bereaved pet owners who lose a beloved lesser-animal member of the family, a more durable and likeness-preserving alternative to taxidermy, yes, freeze drying.
Alas, neither taxidermy nor freeze drying services are available for human beings.
Um, no. Average cost of a Tussauds wax figure = $300,000.
Definitely not going to happen.
Approximate cost = $1,000,000
Even more definitely not going to happen.
Modified Inflatable Sex Doll
Yeah, she could cover it with fabric of some kind, but she’d never be able to not think of the kinky innards.
👍🏼 Life-Size Cardboard Cutout
Reasonable cost (approx. $75), regrettably 2-D rather than 3-D, but, she decided, it will have to do.
Also, should the Golem ever trigger a particularly painful memory of marital disharmony and irritation, she especially liked the potential cathartic benefit of being able to destroy the cardboard cutout in an impulsive fit, launching it off a cliff, for instance, or shredding it and setting it aflame in the fireplace, all without breaking the bank.
Testing, Testing, 1-2-3, Testing
“You want to do what?”
“I want to make recordings of you saying things that help me remember you.”
“NO! No ‘buts‘! In fact, that goes immediately on the Rejected list.”
“Oh! I see! This is one of those moments where the correct response is, YES!!! Great idea! Let’s do it!“
“Exactly! And actually, that one goes on the Approved list!”
“So, these recordings will remind you of me, both for real and aspirationally?”
“Very funny. Now, I’ll start recording and you say the YES!!! Great idea! thing again the same exact way.”
“Ok. Countdown from three: 3-2-1, Go!”
Deliberations over the full menu of Howardisms to be recorded took place over the course of several days, usually during dinner and/or dessert, fueled largely by wine, for her, and chocolate chip cookies for Howard. These brainstorm sessions were frequently punctuated by mercifully therapeutic laughter, only occasionally by contentious disagreement, and resolution of the latter was, more times than not, heralded by a Howardism that would decidedly make it to the Approved list: You were right and I was wrong!
While the items that failed to make the Approved list were by no means offensive, and while they could even be humorous and endearing to some extent, it was ultimately agreed the chances were slim that, amidst the numerous characteristically Howardish expressions to choose from, the Rejects were unlikely to get much air time.
A small sample:
[Fart Sound] “What?!”
Howard would say that the only truly funny thing his father ever did over the 20+ years he lived with his parents was to periodically fart loudly, most often while sitting in his leather recliner, immediately followed by calling out loudly, “What?!” And though she and Howard were unable to pin down precisely when he took up the torch, establishing this as a family patriarch tradition, it was most likely around the time when their son was old enough to recognize the comedic value of a well-timed gaseous emission followed by an energetic inquisitive exclamation.
“What? You don’t eat fruit?!”
Another expression originated by Howard’s father, this one was initially infuriating rather than intentionally humorous. Over the years, however, Howard’s recitation of the following dialogue, which took place when he was home for the weekend one time during his senior year of college, never failed to elicit uproarious laughter.
[Howard and his father are seated at kitchen table, in the middle of which sits a bowl of mixed fruit.]
Father: [sliding fruit bowl toward Howard] Want an apple?
Howard: [smiles] No thanks.
Howard: [smile gone] No, really, thanks.
Howard: [grimace] No!
Father: What? You don’t eat fruit?!
Howard: [Expletive-laced Rage Bomb]
“Alexa, play the Grateful Dead”
She didn’t by any means hate the Grateful Dead, but her appreciation of them did not extend to appreciating the near-relentless frequency at which Howard played their music at home. After a couple of decades of this, the three years prior to ALS amplified considerably by the fact that Howard was in a Grateful Dead tribute band, the Amazon smart speaker arrived one day and this Howardism could occasionally be fingernails on a chalkboard to her.
“Are you sure, I think that might:
Be too much work
Take too long
Cost too much…”
Howard would always say that his intention was to be helpful, to analyze her enthusiastic proposals, and identify the obstacles so that they weren’t overlooked and didn’t bite them in the ass. She, on the other hand, experienced this default response to her enthusiastic proposals to be a joy-draining wet blanket, hence the alternative aspirational aforementioned Approved list item: YES!!! Great idea! Let’s do it!
The Approved list eventually contained upwards of three dozen selections, the recording and editing of which — using an app on her phone, it was decided — became an enormous, time-consuming, and nearly joy-draining wet blanket, almost as if Howard hadn’t warned her that this very thing could happen.
Nevertheless, she was ultimately delighted with the results from all of that hard work, and felt she had indeed captured for posterity the definitive collection of Howardisms that will help preserve his memory and his place in her life.
A representative sample:
“Oh My God, that’s funny.”
Her theory was that this expression had some basis in Howard’s New Jersey-New York-Jewish upbringing, though she wasn’t precisely sure as to why. It was delivered with absolutely no inflection, no exclamation or emphasis, seemingly unbefitting a statement that clearly invokes a supreme being. Alas, she simply knew no one else who said this.
“Ok, let me walk you through this.”
Imagine Howard’s out of town, perhaps at a conference that his employer, the university, had sent him to, let’s say in southern California, he’s in a large lecture hall at University of California at San Diego enjoying the keynote address, surrounded by colleagues from all over North America, when he receives an urgent text message from his wife who is in Seattle, has been driving around lost for quite some time looking for a continuing education training session she’s supposed to be attending, she’s wondering if there is any chance at all that he could help, and ended the message with the address she’s trying to find. He leaves the lecture hall, walks several doors down to a computer lab, logs into a computer with his guests credentials, opens Google Maps, enters the address, calls his wife, puts her on speaker, and says, “Ok, let me walk you through this.“
“You mean it’s not a fountain?”
If anyone she knew could extract the maximum mileage possible out of a joke it was Howard, and in this case, not only did he score big, big laughs every time he told it, but the punchline alone, delivered periodically in certain situations, with just the right timing and a completely anachronistic New York-Jewish accent, could send her rolling on the floor laughing.
A man travels all over the world seeking the meaning of life. Failing everywhere he looked, his last ditch effort led him to a remote cave high up in the Himalayas, where a very old, bearded holy man sat in meditation. The man asks the sage, “What is the meaning of life?”
After a long pause, the sage opens his eyes and says, “Life is a fountain.”
“What do you mean life is a fountain?!” shouts the man. “I have traveled all over the world and now many treacherous miles in these mountains to learn from you, and all you have to tell me is that?! That’s ridiculous!”
The sage replies, “You mean it’s not a fountain?”
“Remember hon, one room at a time.”
Propelled by one of her most enthusiastic proposals ever, she and Howard had torn the roof off of their 2-bed, 1-bath Craftsman bungalow and began building a second story, adding two more bedrooms and two more bathrooms. Once the new roof was on and windows installed and the threat of rain coming in had thus been mitigated, she became temporarily overwhelmed by the remaining tasks and details, one day shopping for a light fixture for the hallway, the next a ceiling fan for the master bedroom, then a showerhead for the master bathroom, then paint colors for their son’s bedroom, bouncing around like a pinball, until Howard suggested that she slow down, catch her breath, and then focus on just one room at a time. Over the succeeding years, ‘One room at a time‘ became a helpful metaphorical catchphrase for escaping the pinball machine and maintaining attention on one task at a time.
“I’m all right! I’m ALL RIGHT!!!”
There’s a scene in one of Howard’s favorite films, It’s A Wonderful Life, at the tail end of a party celebrating the marriage of George Bailey’s brother Harry, when George’s Uncle Billy, very drunk, says goodnight to George, staggers away out of the frame, there’s a sudden loud crashing sound, and Uncle Billy is heard off-camera shouting out, “I’m all right! I’m ALL RIGHT!!!” Suffice it to say, whenever Howard accidentally caused a loud crashing sound, in the kitchen, the garage, anywhere at all, it was sure to be followed by this classic Uncle Billyism.
“You know, I’m pretty proud of that.”
Over the years, Howard gradually owned the fact that he was not exactly the most productive person, particularly when it came to housework. And so, on the periodic occasion when he’d taken the initiative and completed a somewhat significant task, he rather strategically resisted the urge to proudly brag of the accomplishment, and instead would wait for just the right moment, when she was admiring the completed task, and he’d say very calmly, almost as if he was speaking only to himself, “You know, I’m pretty proud of that.“
“Look at the bones!!!”
Another film reference, this one from Howard’s all-time favorite comedy, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, whole scenes of which he had committed to memory and could recite at the drop of a hat, the hat dropping regularly. This little bit is specifically from Scene 20, just a snippet from Tim the Enchanter’s urgent Scottish brogue entreaty to Arthur and his knights to observe the strewn remains of the victims of the killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, as they did not yet believe that they were in danger from the innocent-looking white-haired rodent. Whether drawing attention to the 3-day old Thanksgiving turkey carcass after stripping it for the annual soup, or in a wide variety of unexpected, spontaneous non-sequitur moments over their many years together, this Howardism always delivered the levity.
“That’s ok, I’ll do it!”
In unspoken acknowledgment that initiative and productivity may have not been amongst his strengths, when:
- their baby boy cried out after they’d only just been asleep for a few hours,
- they were expecting a houseful of partygoers but they both had forgotten to get ice,
- it’s discovered first thing in the morning that they were out of creamer for their coffee,
- they were both exhausted from their day and finally able to collapse and relax and watch a movie, only to discover that they were out of ice cream…
…Howard recognized the opportunity to rise to the occasion and come to the rescue.
(Also, if the rescue involved a drive in the car, he recognized the opportunity to play the Grateful Dead at maximum volume on the ride to and from, sans any protestations.)
August 28, 2021
She woke up, at first, as if it were just about any other ordinary day.
After all, she’d been sleeping alone for nearly a year, once Howard could no longer climb the stairs to their 2nd-story bedroom.
Going through her morning machinations, in that familiar, pre-coffee drowsy haze, she made her way downstairs, followed, as always, by her entourage: Zuki the Dog, Valentino & Neko the Cats. As she let Zuki outside for her usual first stroll in the yard — which included the morning constitutional and the chasing of the day’s first rabbit — she didn’t initially notice the absence of the hospital bed by the big picture window where he’d used his ventilator and slept for longer than she ever thought she could bear.
Coffee finally in-hand, she switched on her phone, and only then did she notice the date: what would have been Howard’s 57th birthday.
Though it was hard for some to understand, and certainly nothing she ever expected, she was actually doing ok. It had been several months since his passing, and she was still mostly relieved that Howard’s suffering had ended, that he was at peace, after a brutal, nearly 3-year battle.
She sat down on the sofa, phone in one hand, placed her coffee on the coffee table with the other, and as usual her eyes wandered first up to the urn on the mantel, then over to the life-size cardboard cutout of Howard, standing beside the armchair where he’d spent SO much of his last year.
The photo of Howard was taken on a beach near Hilo, Hawaii in November 2018, on the last day of what would be their last travel vacation together, Howard in his favorite Hawaiian silk shirt, tropical colors popping from the fresh ink of his first ever tattoo on his left forearm, two empty halves of a coconut he’d found in the sand and moments earlier had been banging together, were now held up over his ears like headphones, his bright blue eyes glancing skyward.
“suchahoward,” she thought.
She looked down at her phone, opened up the voice recorder app, opened the folder of recordings titled Howardisms, scrolled through the contents, and pressed Play on the only one she really wanted to hear that day:
[coconuts going ‘clop-clop’] “I am Arthur, King of the Britons! I have ridden the length and breadth of the land in search of the Holy Grail!” 
“What, ridden on a horse?“
“You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together!“
 This is a paraphrased amalgam of King Arthur’s castle greetings, with which I’ve taken liberty or poetic license or whatever the bloody hell else you want to call it, exercised forthwith for the sake of brevity. Arthur could, after all, be a chatty git.