“You better come right away,” Ann urged. “I just got a call from Harry’s daughter. He’s leaving us. I’m on my way to his house right now.”
Harry, my unsung hero, was dying.
“We’ll be there as fast as we can,” I assured her. Harry’s girlfriend of ten years, Ann, was not one to push the panic button, so I knew Harry’s demise must be imminent.
This time I didn’t hesitate about jumping in the car when the call came. I say this time, because of a similar call I received forty years ago when my young sister-in-law was killed by a drunk driver. My weeping father-in-law placed the call, and my reply was “Should we come home?” Dumb. But when you’re young, death is something foreign and far away, something that happens to someone else. I had not yet learned to speak its language. Now I am unfortunately all too fluent.
I fully expected that by the time Amy, my wife, and I arrived at Harry’s house, he’d be gone. This time was different, extraordinary. To my surprise, Harry’s daughter and a couple of other relatives we had never met greeted us with hugs. It certainly didn’t feel like Death was in the house, yet.
Harry’s family had arranged for a hospital bed to be moved into Harry’s room and for hospice people to make regular visits. Ann was sitting quietly by Harry’s side, holding his hand. Harry’s eyes were closed, but he was breathing. What struck me the most was his angelic, almost magical smile. It was otherworldly, like maybe he was simultaneously here and someplace else, his face a celestial window into worlds we only dream about. I will never forget that smile as long as I live.
As Amy and I talked and reminisced, Harry reacted with even bigger smiles, only interrupted by occasional winces of pain. His eyes remained closed through it all. Harry had been blind for years, so it really didn’t matter.
So how did a white man — back then a kid –, become close friends forty-five years ago with a black man, thirty years his senior and from such different backgrounds?
I met Harry when I was a college student working summers in my soon-to-be-wife’s family business, which was owned and run by my father-in-law. All I knew then was that Harry ran the warehouse and I handled the inventory. A couple of years after graduating and a brief stint at law school in Boston, I returned to work full-time in that family business, which I eventually ran. Harry and I, in a way, became co-conspirators, getting things done in new ways that sometimes rankled other family members. His unflagging work ethic and ever upbeat attitude inspired everyone around him. He even graciously agreed to mentor two of my nephews during the summers and vicissitudes of their adolescence. His lessons in hard work and discipline seemed to stick. They never forgot him.
Eventually, the family business was sold and age caught up with Harry. Cancer, glaucoma, then blindness took its toll, but he never lost that smile. It was in his later years as I faced middle age, that Harry became a real inspiration in my life as I watched members of my own family not handle aging well, full of crankiness and constant complaints. What did they have to complain about compared to Harry? He was abandoned by his family as a child, never completed high school, served in the army, swept floors for a living, had a son who was murdered in Germany, lost a granddaughter to lupus, survived three bouts of cancer and lost his sight. Yet, he always had that “Harry” smile. Despite his disabilities, he got up and out every day, went to church and, although blind, took art classes. He created sculptures and collages, sometimes winning awards for his work.
Harry and I kept up by phone and occasional visits. I would pick him up and drive him to family events, the most somber being the funeral of Lewis Sandler, my beloved father-in-law mentioned earlier. Lewis saw something special in Harry. After hiring him for maintenance work, Lewis realized how smart and driven Harry was. Plus, Harry seemed to have an innate sense of how to connect with others in a meaningful way. Despite the subtle racism that was pervasive in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Lewis promoted Harry above his white colleagues to warehouse manager. Every time I saw him in his later years, Harry would tell the stories of how my in-laws saved his life. I never really grew tired of these stories because I knew how much they meant to both of us.
Lucky in Love
As unlucky as Harry was in many aspects of his life, his outlook and perseverance brought him a degree of good fortune. Ten years ago, he fell in love with a woman thirty years his junior. They met in church and she stood by him until his last day. It certainly wasn’t for the money, because he didn’t have much besides his social security. When Ann and Harry met that first time and fell into deep conversation, she revealed to him that she was white. His response, “What difference does it make to me. I’m blind.”
Harry’s daughter gave Harry a place to live and be cared for when he most needed it. She told us, “We could have let him pass in the hospital, but it just didn’t seem right. We wanted him home.”
I feel blessed and lucky to have known Harry and learned so much from him. I learned about aging with dignity and being a role model of energy, perseverance, and outlook that could inspire younger people. I learned there is no place in a life well-lived for self-pity and grumbling. For that, I will always be grateful.
Amy and I left Harry alive and smiling two days ago, wondering how long he would last. The suspense ended today when, as I was halfway through writing this life story about Harry — not intending it to be an obituary. Ann called, choking back tears, “Harry passed away this morning.” I’m sure he did so with grace, dignity, and above all, his trademark smile.
Note: Harry made a two-hour recording of his remarkable journey from being abandoned as a child in the 1920’s South to building a life and a family in the North. I remastered and uploaded his recording to SoundCloud a few years ago which you can listen to here.
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