TUNBRIDGE, Aug. 16, 2010 – The Howe family name corresponds with the town of Tunbridge like cheddar cheese and apple pie. Think of one and you can’t help but think of the other.
The name fills the administrative rankings of the famed Tunbridge World’s Fair, is on street signs and has been part of the community for nearly 200 years when in 1820, the first Howe moved to Tunbridge to farm. How do we know? There’s even a book about it.
So in 2009 when two Howes died – mother and son in just the course of a couple months – the news was heartbreaking to not only the Howe family but to the greater community.
Shirley Howe was the matriarch of a brood of Howes, who raised Holsteins on a farm on the corner of Route 110 and Town Farm Road just a stone’s throw from the fairgrounds. She was the mother of five – four boys and a girl spread out over two decades – an active farm wife, milking and haying; a renowned cook and a doting grandmother.
“She was a mainstay in the community,” says her daughter-in-law Nancy Howe, who sat down with sister-in-law Carley Howe to talk about Shirley and David’s lives. Carley was David’s wife.
Bucking the tradition of daughter-in-laws who don’t really get along with their mother-in-law, Carley and Nancy describe a gentle, loving woman they greatly admired.
“She was like a second mother to me,” says Carley.
“I considered her a great friend,” adds Nancy.
Shirley sliced apples by the bowlful for her grandkids to dip into cinnamon and sugar, baked the kids’ cookies and took them to the brook. She was quick to lend a hand to someone in need; active in her church and 4-H, leading cooking and sewing groups; and for many years oversaw the junior division in Floral Hall at the fair.
In 1995, she lost her husband of 56 years, John, and then saw her own health decline. For years, Shirley had suffered aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve preventing proper flow, and after a series of vascular strokes suffered dementia and eventually had to use a wheelchair. After living her entire married life in Tunbridge, Shirley moved to the Menig Extended Care Facility, Gifford Medical Center’s nursing home in Randolph.
She spent five years at Menig before her stenosis ended her life, says Nancy.
In her final days, the 89-year-old was moved from the nursing home to a room in adjoining Gifford Medical Center and then to the Garden Room, the hospital’s special garden-side suite for dying patients, for her final day-and-a-half.
She died on July 15.
Less than two months later the same fate would befall her eldest son.
David Howe was a reflection of his mother’s calm and caring demeanor, but spread his wings beyond the tiny town of Tunbridge.
An agricultural engineering graduate of the University of Vermont, David spent three years in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany and went on to work for the Farmer’s Home Administration, a job that took him and his family to Washington, D.C.
Throughout the years, the family still visited their Vermont roots and a couple decades ago, David questioned why he was living so far away. It was following a Fourth of July holiday spent with their Tunbridge family, that Carley recalls David saying on the car ride home, “We don’t really need do this anymore.”
Nothing was keeping them in Virginia, so when they returned to the nation’s capital both gave notice at work (David taking early retirement from his federal job), listed and sold their house within two weeks, and were back in Vermont by Labor Day.
David got back to his farm roots, haying with his cousins, starting a Christmas tree farm, helping neighbors when needed and restoring antique John Deere tractors he affectionately named after their former owners.
Carley describes David as a gentle man, quick to avoid confrontation, but also one who knew his mind, liked to talk politics and offer – in his quiet way – advice on the right way to do things. Most of all, though, he was her confidant of 49 years.
“He was my best friend. We talked about everything,” Carley says.
Their son Brett describes David as “my measuring stick of what a man is supposed to be.”
But David’s life was not without trials. He suffered testicular cancer in 1987, but overcame the disease. The same heart condition – aortic stenosis – that took his mother’s life also plagued him, and in November of 2007, David had open-heart surgery at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. During the surgery, they discovered a cancerous tumor on one of his lungs.
Three months later, in January of 2008, David again had surgery, this time to remove three-quarters of one lung. But David never really got better. He had developed pulmonary fibrosis – the thickening, scarring or stiffing of the lung tissue.
A year later in January of 2009 while in Florida where the couple wintered, David development pneumonia and was in and out of the hospital. He couldn’t make the trip home and was put on oxygen. At the end of winter in April, Brett picked up his parents in Florida and drove them back to Vermont.
Still, Carley thought David had time – a lot of time. But it was not to be.
He continued to decline until Sept. 3, when he woke and couldn’t get out of bed. “He said, ‘It’s time,’” Carley recalls.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s time.’ I just thought he meant it was time to go the hospital. I didn’t think he wouldn’t come back.”
By noon, he was in the Garden Room.
He was perfectly lucid and in charge and he knew what he wanted and what he didn’t want, Carley and Nancy recall, noting he even asked the family minister if he was taking notes as he described his final wishes.
In the Garden Room, David’s favorite music played, he talked to the 20 or more people who filled the suite at any one time, he read the paper and by evening was sipping martinis – his nightly ritual – while watching the Red Sox play with his son and brothers.
“We had a party. We literally had a party,” the women recall.
David fell asleep mid-way through the Red Sox game. He never woke up.
He died the following day on Sept. 4 at 4:30 p.m. with his family at his side.
For the Howes, the losses of both Shirley and David were significant. Carley is unable to hold back tears when she talks of David. But as unexpected and traumatic as their deaths were, they were also – in a way – beautiful.
“They made it a good experience,” says Carley of the doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, chaplain and social worker caring for Shirley and David in the Garden Room.
“They made a horrible experience good,” agrees Nancy.
The medical care was outstanding.
“The people were just fantastic, very caring, very available,” Nancy says. And, “The facilities there are just beautiful. It’s a comfortable room for the patient and it’s a comfortable room for the family.”
Family members stayed in the suite, slept on the pullout couch, drifted out into the adjourning courtyard garden and were fed throughout their stay.
“It’s like little elves would appear and put food on the table. You never had to ask for anything,” says Nancy.
It was the experience they wanted for their loved ones and hope for themselves.
“Everybody was saying, ‘We want to be here when we go,’” Carley says. “It’s such a marvelous place.”
Call the medical center at (802) 728-2380 to learn more about the ride, including how to register.