Harry’s wife Grace was gravely ill. Harry put his work aside and devoted all his time and energy to helping her get better. Grace was in and out of New York City hospitals for two years. One operation after another. Twice she nearly died.
When she was finally released from hospital and allowed to come home, still quite ill and facing a dire prognosis, Harry looked after her around the clock, changing the dressing on her surgical wounds, bathing her, feeding her, nursing her back to health, pushing himself to a punishing degree. He was not a young man.
Gradually, against all odds, Grace began to get better. Almost immediately, Harry got sick and was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctors found cancer in his lungs.
Harry phoned his younger brother, Will, who lived in upstate New York, and said, “We can’t seem to catch a break.”
Will said their situation reminded him of something the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote more than 1,800 years ago: Living is more like wrestling than dancing.
To which Harry replied, “Most of the time Grace and I were dancing.”
Harry was given just weeks to live. He chose to die in his own home. Will moved from his upstate condo to the New York area and rented an apartment near his brother’s house.
In those final days the cancer raced through Harry’s body and mind like a raging fire. He slipped in and out of consciousness. When he was conscious he could only speak in an inaudible whisper. He couldn’t eat. Once a robust man, he was deathly thin and couldn’t raise his arms.
On a Friday evening, Will stood by his brother’s bedside. Harry was trying to say something, but Will couldn’t hear the words. Will was getting ready to leave. He took Harry’s hand in his in an attempt to shake it and said to him, “I’m leaving now, Harry. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Harry was still trying to say something but the words would not come out.
Their eyes locked on each other. And then Harry tightened his grip around his younger brother’s hand. He held it so firmly that Will was taken aback.
Harry summoned up a last ounce of strength and held Will’s hand in that strong grip for three or four seconds. Three or four seconds is a long time when you have nothing left.
Will went back to his apartment. He was still asleep when the phone rang at six o’clock next morning. It was Grace. She said Harry died an hour ago. Will said he would be right over.
He then phoned a friend, a poet who lived in Niagara Falls, and told him that his brother had died.
And then he told him about the extraordinarily strong handshake his brother had given him the night before, even though he had been so thin and weak he couldn’t raise his arms, and the poet said, “Your brother put everything he wanted to say to you into that one handshake.”
That was the best thing anyone could have said to Will about Harry’s death and Will’s sense of loss.