This is the text of what I said at the funeral of my partner, Howard Leslie, who was buried yesterday. The world is less, and heaven is so much the better for his departure.
It is my honor to speak a little humor into this very sad day. Considering the situation, it’s a tough crowd! You are all broken-hearted. You are all so hurt by our loss. Howard would want you to do one thing for him right now:
He would want you to lighten up, and turn and thump the head of someone sitting next to you! This is a Christian funeral, people! This is not a goodbye, but a bon voyage! This is not an end, but a ‘see ya later!’
What would that big goofball want me to say? First, he’d want to know if there was coffee here. Not the kind that has been brewing in the same pot for three hours like something out of a Russian coffee shop. He’d want it to be fresh. And if there wasn’t coffee, he’d thump a nurse or secretary on the head to remind them of how important his coffee was. You should have seen them when he was coming into a night shift, realizing he would arrive in 15 minutes, scurrying to start the coffee-maker.
He’d want me to say that you will miss seeing his boxers. Yes, we all saw his boxers. Over and over. But they were usually funny. Like him. And uncontainable, like him as they spilled out the back of his scrub pants. .
I suppose he’d also ask if anyone was going to play something by Tom Jones for his funeral. He went through that phase when Tom Jones was his ring-tone. I’ll never hear Tom Jones again without associating him with Howard.
I think Howard would want me to say ‘thanks!’ for all of the camaraderie. For all of the long nights that we all worked together taking care of the sick and the dying, and arguing with the drunk and the stupid. All the times we laughed about death threats…I’m serious, there were death threats. Howard would say, ‘keep up the fight, and don’t give those slackers any pain pills!’ Nobody could make a drug seeker or drunk walk out faster than that man.
I’ll tell you a story about the old ER, the ER that was here when we first started our practice. The ER where the floor and walls had a kind of ‘civil war hospital’ look at times. Both because they were worn, and because they seemed to see more knife fights back then… Anyway, in the waiting room was a slot where the name of the doctor on duty was featured. It was a charming, old school practice. A kind of Charlie Brown and Lucy, ‘The Doctor is In’ sign.
For most patients, the name on the sign didn’t matter. But Howard quickly established a reputation. That reputation said, ‘I will not give you Percocet for ankle sprains, and I will not refill your Lortab prescription for chronic anything and I will not give you any drug unless I absolutely believe you need it, whether or not you think that your pain is a10/10.’
Like Jack Warren, our group founder who preceded Howard to Glory 11 years ago, Howard knew how to handle the world’s manipulators.
Patients would walk in, look at the sign, and say, ‘not that (expletive deleted)’ and turn and walk out. From the way my nights went, they apparently thought I was the Keebler Elf or Willie Wonka.
After a while, the mere presence of Howard’s vehicle was sufficient deterrent. His nights were almost always quiet. I wish that he would leave me that gift, that expletive deleted.
Howard would want me to encourage you all to do your jobs; the jobs you were trained to do. I remember that when I came to Oconee, I had been taught in residency to do my own catheter specimens. (Something the nurses routinely did here). He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you do that again!’ I stopped. And it was so much easier letting someone else do it! Howard believed we all have roles. Nurses, doctors and all the rest.
But because he believed it, he did his well. He was serious about his work as a physician. In fact, if you were sick or injured, oppressed or in danger, no one was more passionate than he was. I saw concern and compassion in his face so many times. He expected nurses and secretaries and all the rest to do what was expected of them; but he expected the most of himself. When seconds counted, Howard moved with an amazing kind of grace and displayed remarkable skill in all that he did.
Of course, because he was so serious about his work, so knowledgeable, he was intimidating.
If you are a nurse and were frightened by Howard at some point, please raise your hand. If he later apologized for yelling, and brought snacks or flowers, please also raise your hand. That was Howard.
However, if someone was threatening to a staff member, he rose up like the giant of a man that he was, and his anger was a sight to behold. Even if another staff member were unkind to one of our own, he would take them to task. He would want us all to be like that. Like family.
Howard would want me, would want us, to carry on his tradition of prank phone calls to co-workers, of fake inquiries on the online dating profiles of friends; of placing the photos of co-workers faces on embarrassing images from magazines, then copying them and pasting them around the ER. He would want us to continue to defy the privacy of our co-workers when they are ill, in order to write on them with indelible markers while they are sedated and recovering from surgery. He would want us to remind everyone of their painful birthdays; 30, 40, 50, etc. And to give them black balloons, and put up old pictures of them, like the picture put up of him with his old-school Afro. All along the roads to the hospital.
Howard would want us to continue to do our jobs with both gravity and levity, kept in constant balance to ensure our sanity.
I remember one day when he was examining, of all things, a severed hand from an accident. He was cleaning it, and trying to decide if it could be reattached. As one of our nurses looked nervously, closely bent over the tragic specimen, held in Howard’s own hand, Howard made the fingers move suddenly, so that our nurse screamed and called him an expletive deleted. That’s what it was like with Howard. A rare, precious combination of good science, comedy and kindness.
I have intentionally been vague; I could never begin to complete a list of the names of those dear to him. I know the names of the persons these stories concern. But those names are intentionally withheld. For instance, I would never say the name of Officer Neal Brown, who Howard constantly harassed and who endlessly tortured Howard. The man who Howard promised a catheter if ever he showed up as an ER patient, and who said he would rather die than be Howard’s patient. It would be wrong to use his name, like so many others.
Howard would want me to remind you that we are caregivers for the community, for our friends, for our church. I don’t remember how many times he brought friends or neighborhood children to the hospital to put stitches in them; all on his days off. He never stopped being a physician when he left work; and he never stopped being concerned when he took off his scrubs.
What else would Howard want me to say? He would not want me to tell of our deer hunting expedition to Walterboro, with our former partner Dr. Clint Hamrick. When Howard took his two deer to the processing center, a man standing by looked at both of them, then said something to this effect: ‘Is it German Shepherd season? Them’s pretty small for deer.’
He would want us to know that he loved to watch Alabama football. He would want us all to support Alabama. He would want us to make fun of Carolina. He would want us to play a game of golf in his memory. (Except me, because he would know that I can’t…it’s a condition I have called agolphia).
Howard would want us to love one another, in his honor. Howard would want us to care for one another in our trials. Howard would want us to make a few patients and a few other doctors angry from time to time, because that’s what the truth requires. I suspect that Howard could relate to Jesus, when he made a whip and cleared the temple of money-changers. Anger has its place alongside love and righteousness, after all.
Howard would want us all to love and care for his family here, whom he left behind; and that means all of them , for as long as we live. Just as we hope that he gives our love to our extended family in Heaven, people like Jack Warren and Joanne Asselin. Joanne who, even now, is probably telling Jack and Howard to remove their feet from the counters and go do something useful.
Howard hated to leave. He loved passionately. His children were, are, so important to him. If he fought his battle for anyone (and it was a long, painful battle), I suspect it was for them. He once told Jan and I that he loved the movie Lion King, but hated that the father died. That didn’t stop him from singing Hakuna Matata! ‘It means no worry, for the rest of your days.’
Of course, in the Lion King, Mufasa the father speaks to Simba the son after his death. He speaks from the stars. Howard, by contrast, is not in the stars, but with the maker of the stars. And he would want us all to say, ‘Hakuna Matata,’ and laugh and remember him for the great ball of love and laughter that he was. C.S. Lewis once said, ‘you don’t have a soul; you are a soul, you have a body.’
Howard’s soul, great and kind, large and loving, troubled and sometimes confused as we all are, is redeemed, and is now beyond all the cares we will continue to face, in the presence of Jesus the historical man and the Risen Lord.
Howard, welcomed home to that glory land, will never need to argue with a drug seeker again. He will never need to struggle to save a life again, or feel the anxiety that he has made a mistake. He will never need to worry if he has done enough for anyone, for he is in the place where there is no2 more sorrow or sighing, and where all tears are wiped away. And when we see him again that resurrection day, it will not be the frail man, but the whole man, more strong, more vigorous and more happy than ever we knew him here.
And Howard would so love for each of us to follow his example and join him there when the lights dim and we pass from this world.
So that when we arrive, he can have already posted embarrassing pictures of us all over the walls of the New Jerusalem, and can make prank calls to us while we explain our mistakes to the Father.
And now, I will close with something Howard would want you to remember, and never forget:
What’s new pussycat, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa
What’s new pussycat, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
That’s about all of Tom Jones that’s appropriate for church. But I think it’s enough.