Harry’s wife was gravely ill. Harry put his work aside and devoted all his time and energy to helping her get better. She 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 the odds, Harry’s wife 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, Bill, who lived upstate, and said, “We can’t seem to catch a break.” Bill 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 we were dancing.”
Harry was given just weeks to live. He chose to die in his own home. Bill moved from upstate 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 and he slipped in and out of consciousness. When he was conscious he could only speak in an inaudible whisper. He couldn’t eat. He was deathly thin and couldn’t raise his arms.
On a Friday evening, Bill stood by his brother’s bedside. Harry was trying to say something, but Bill couldn’t hear the words, The younger brother 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. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Harry was still trying to say something but the words would not come out. All he could do was nod his head.
Their eyes locked on each other. And then Harry tightened his grip around his younger brother’s hand. He held it so firmly that Bill was taken aback. Harry summoned up a last ounce of strength and held Bill’s hand in that strong grip for three or four seconds. Three or four seconds is a long time when you have nothing left.
Bill went back to his apartment and was still asleep early next morning when the phone rang. It was Harry’s wife. She said Harry had died an hour ago. Bill said he would come over to her house to be with other members of the family as they congregated there throughout the day. He then phoned a friend, Bob Baxter, a poet and author who lives in Niagara Falls, New York, 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 handshake.”
That was the best thing anyone could have said about Harry and his death and the younger brother’s sense of loss.