By Steve Gordon, Executive Director of The Hand to Heart Project
Cynthia Howe was a client of The Hand to Heart Project before she was a member of the board of directors. And she almost wasn’t a client. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer more than five years ago, her husband, Murray Dewdney, encouraged her to try a Hand to Heart session. I’d known Murray for years, but I had never met Cynthia. It took more than a little encouragement; massage had never been her thing. She did finally relent, though, and she was an enthusiastic client from then on.
More than a year later, and after many conversations in which I had gotten a good sense of who she was, I asked her to join the board. At first, she said she wanted to mull it over. Not much later, though, she told me: “I don’t know why I’m thinking about it.” She joined the board.
Cynthia died on September 18. Her death was not a surprise, but the shock of the loss was intense nonetheless. She had been an important member of the board until she decided in June that she couldn’t manage it anymore. We all felt her absence right away. Her clear, organized, matter-of-fact approach to helping to manage the program was valuable at every meeting. Even when she couldn’t be there in person and had to join via video link because of either her health or COVID or both, she contributed vision and wisdom. She also kept the notes for the meetings, and, well, no one has ever done that in the detail that Cynthia did. Pages and pages of notes.
She was also a friend. I learned a lot about her during our massage sessions (she loved gardening, her family, her dogs, and grisly murder mysteries, for instance), but I always knew that I was seeing her in a limited context. She was a teacher in her profession and her nature, on the staff at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, NH, for about 30 years. Her obituary said of her: “An educator and mentor to her core, Cynthia dispensed unlimited advice, counsel, and comfort to the many students and faculty who had the good fortune to know her. She loved her students in so many ways, for their intellect, for their good behavior, and for their manners — and she made sure her students had those qualities.”
A long-time colleague of hers told me: “Cynthia had a positive, loving influence on every student who came into her sphere of influence. For many, she was a transformational presence, some saying they might not have made it through high school or been as successful as adults had it not been for her influence.”
One of those former students, whom I happen to know, told me that Cynthia was her advisor for four years at KUA. “She was a still point in my rollercoaster teenage years – sitting me down with hot chocolate to take a breath and have a chat, building me up for moments of success. She wasn’t a pushover, though. Cynthia carried the right touch of firm, kind and self-deprecating.” This person reconnected with Cynthia years later when they were both dealing with cancer. “It was such a gift, 17 years after high school, to have time with her.”
Her death came just a few days after my last Hand to Heart visit with her, and less than a day after a party to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the program – an event that I know she would have loved to be at. Her absence from the party was also palpable. During that last home visit, she asked Murray to take a photograph of the two of us – her in her bed, me sitting alongside. She wanted Hand to Heart to use the photo in our efforts to educate people about our work, and spread the word to attract referrals and donations. Cynthia was a very private person, so this offering of a glimpse into an intensely private moment surprised me. It even surprised her husband at first. After he’d thought about it, he understood that doing something out of the ordinary to help The Hand to Heart Project, which she’d come to love, was very much like her.