by Betsy Small
My father, Dr. Paul M. Howard, was a psychoanalyst who loved to connect with others through the game of go. He was a very quiet man, and go became a special way for the two of us to bond.
My father discovered go in the 1940s in a book by chess International Master Edward Lasker, Go and Go-Moku: the Oriental Board Games, originally published in 1934. He never got to play an actual game until the 1960s, however, when my older sister Judy married a go enthusiast, who spent many enjoyable hours playing with my father. About six years later my father was delighted when I married Haskell (Hal) Small, another go enthusiast, and happier still when I learned the game a few years later. For us this marked the beginning of our communication through go for many years to come. I distinctly remember our very first game – neither of us understood much about it, but we had fun splitting the board diagonally into two parts, “His Side” and “Her Side.”
In the beginning, our games were limited to several visits every year, since my parents lived in Boston and Hal and I lived in Washington DC. But after the advent of the Internet, my father and I found online go a joyful way to connect across the miles that separated us.
In the fall of 2006, shortly after my father celebrated his 100th birthday, he suffered several small strokes, and we moved him to a senior residence in Washington so I could spend as much time with him as possible. While his go skills had declined, my father’s enthusiasm for the game remained strong and now we could play go most every day. At his peak he had been as strong as 10 kyu but now he was perhaps more like 40 kyu. I had remained a 13 kyu for many years and was now giving him a 3 or 4 stone handicap on a 9 x 9 board. Occasionally my father would express frustration with his waning go skills, but he took comfort in being reminded of how exciting the process of playing go remained for him. Most of the time, even at a weaker level, playing continued to give him great pleasure, because he still loved go, and our games were meaningful occasions for both of us.
As my father’s health declined we moved him to a hospice. Early one morning in January, 2007, we received a call that he had only hours to live, and we rushed to his bedside. My father’s pulse was weak and he was barely able to speak, but his eyes opened and he smiled when he saw us, managing a surprisingly firm handshake for Hal. Even more surprising were the faint words he spoke: “black stones…white stones…” Because he was too weak to sit up, we got out the board and placed it on his belly. From this angle he could not get a clear view of the bowls or the board, so I guided his hand to the bowl. He picked up a stone, and then I guided his hand to the board. Although he couldn’t see where the stone landed, he placed it with great intention. I made my move and we continued back and forth with these familiar and comforting motions for ten or fifteen minutes, until he gestured that the game was over. Not too long after that, a look of contentment, deep tranquility and fulfillment on his face, my father passed from this world.
That last game with my father, more of a symbolic farewell than a thought-out game of logic, will always be my most memorable.