April 22, 2024
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April 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Letter Without a Stamp

It has been been almost a year since a special patient of mine, Harry, passed away. I think of him often. My relationship with Harry took place over several months. Though Harry was my patient he was actually my teacher in many ways.

Harry was an 88-year-old, Protestant gentleman, a former engineer and war veteran, who was on my referral list. He greeted me that bleak, Monday morning with a smile and a warm welcome, despite all of the pain that I would soon come to hear about. Harry’s pain was not only physical stemming from his cancer, but very much emotional and spiritual as well.

Through his tears, Harry described the guilt he had about placing his beautiful wife Kathy of over 60 years, who had dementia, in a nursing facility (adjacent to the hospital Harry was currently in); the anger he felt toward his son and daughter-in-law, who he felt never came to visit him in the hospital; the confusion of his prognosis and current medical condition; the terrible betrayal he felt from God for getting sick (as having been a “good Christian” all of his life) and the terrible isolation he was living with. With only one friend left, George, a 92-year-old Evangelist Christian, Harry felt very much alone in this world. As I left Harry’s room that day, I will always remember Harry taking my hand and thanking me from the bottom of his heart for listening to his story. He made me promise that I would visit with him the next time I was in the hospital.

Later on that week I was introduced to Harry’s friend of over 70 years, George. George insisted on giving me a Christian religious necklace. I mentioned to him that while I appreciated the sentiment, I was in fact Jewish and had no need for the necklace. I am not sure if George literally could not hear me or it did not make a difference to him. George was just so excited to spread his love of God and was so eager for me to take the necklace, that I did. I think I might just be the only Chaplain to walk around a hospital with a book of Psalms and a Christian religious necklace! P.S.: Each time I would see George in the hospital, he would always give me a necklace. I gave up telling George that I didn’t have a need for it, and I graciously accepted a necklace each time. Each time I would give the necklace to my supervising director, a Lutheran Orthodox Priest. Needless to say, a collection of necklaces began to built up in my supervisor’s office.

Though Harry was not a particularly religious person, seeing and hearing from his long-time Evangelist friend whenever possible would always bring Harry comfort and solace.

Over the next few months, I consistently visited with Harry each time I was in the hospital (which was usually two to three times a week). I often did not know what to expect when entering Harry’s room. I never knew the kind of mood Harry would be in, but I was always greeted with “Hi Debby” and some form of a smile. We spoke of his relationship with God—past and present—and his faith. We spoke of the many feelings that Harry had toward his son and daughter-in-law. Harry would often ask me to find his various doctors so I could be present in the room while they were explaining things to him. Some days Harry would ask me to merely sit by his side and hold his hand because he was so scared. In those moments, there were no words that needed to be said. Sometimes Harry would ask me to call George on the phone to find out when he would be coming next for a visit. We had conversations about what Harry wanted and did not want at the end of his life and had those wishes written down. Harry clearly expressed to me how he did not want to be alone when the time would come for him to die.

However, the one topic that would inevitably be addressed during our visits was the love that Harry had for his wife, Kathy, of so many years. Harry was always so concerned about the care that his wife was given in the nursing facility and who would be caring for her when he would pass on. He gave me permission to express his concerns and fears to his son and daughter-in-law. Harry would often reminisce and share wonderful memories with me of their long-time marriage. All so vividly described. He would frequently shed tears as he would recall past milestones of his life and marriage; sometimes they were tears of joy and happiness, and sometimes tears of sadness and longing. He loved to share and I was there to listen. If there ever was a couple that sounded so intertwined and connected with each other, it was Harry and Kathy. From the way it was depicted, the love they had for each other was truly unique and special. Watching his wife suffer with dementia more recently was absolutely devastating for Harry. The woman he once knew was gone. Not being able to care for her anymore due to his physical decline was difficult for Harry to accept. However, reflecting on the positive memories of their marriage would bring Harry some degree of happiness and comfort amidst his current terribly unhappy state.

Harry’s physical condition deteriorated rapidly. He was no longer able to get out of bed, could not eat and could barely speak. He longed to breathe fresh air.

On one particular Tuesday, I entered Harry’s room and met his daughter-in-law, for the first time.

She mentioned to me that there was a sudden turn and at this point in time the doctors were predicting that Harry would most likely not survive the next 24 hours. As I glared at the bed, I saw a Harry who looked lifeless and weak as can be. Harry gestured to me that he wanted to write a letter. I questioned if this was for his wife. Harry confirmed this with a weak head nod. When asked what he wanted to say, Harry was somehow able to mouth “I love you.” There was more he wanted to communicate, but unfortunately I was unable to understand it. Harry, with an extremely weak grasp, took the pen and signed the letter.

Harry’s daughter-in-law eagerly said that she would be glad to deliver this letter. It was at that point that Harry intentionally turned his head to me and fixated his eyes upon mine. I knew exactly what Harry was trying to say without his words needed. He wanted me to deliver the letter. I told Harry that I knew his daughter-in-law will deliver this letter. However, I could see and read the look in Harry’s eyes. That was not what he wanted. Though I know through our conversations that Harry appreciated his daughter-in-law, Harry and I had developed a certain bond and trust level. I was there with him for months on a consistent basis; accompanying him through his journey. I knew his true feelings toward his family members and God. I was there to literally hold his hand when he was alone. I knew that Harry trusted me and would have wanted me to give that letter to his wife. The best I could do was to reassure him that his daughter-in-law would deliver the letter, as I believed at the time that it was not my place to take that job away from her.

As I said good-bye to Harry that afternoon I was unsure whether that was my final goodbye.

Harry survived the night.

As I arrived at the hospital early the next morning and told my supervising director the story of the letter, he advised me to go to Harry’s wife (at the nursing facility adjacent to the hospital) and relay the message to her in person.

I decided to heed the advice and go to the nursing facility. Kathy looked happy as can be as she was sitting in the dining area looking through a magazine. Her family had decided not to inform her of Harry’s current condition. I introduced myself to Kathy as Harry’s friend and told her that Harry loves her very much. She said she knew. I repeated it again. She said she loves him too. That was all I needed to say and all I needed to hear. I quickly left the building and headed toward Harry’s room in the hospital.

As I approached Harry’s room, I saw George. George, who was always so happy, lively and invigorated from his love of God, was standing by the doorway in tears. He did not offer me a necklace this time. Harry’s death appeared to be imminent and George was about to lose one of his nearest and dearest friends. I asked George if he wanted to pray with Harry. He nodded his head. Though family had been present until then, they happened not to be there at that time. I was secretly grateful because it would give us the privacy we wanted. We entered the very dimly lit room together. George stood on one side of Harry’s bed and I on the other. George prayed. He prayed that God watches over Harry in his final journey and thanked him for the gift of their long-time friendship. He thanked God for me, who was there to support Harry. He prayed to God to please watch over Kathy and the rest of Harry’s family. This was one of the most beautiful, genuine and heart-felt spontaneous prayers I have ever heard.

I then told Harry what I had done moments before—that I had just visited with Kathy and I relayed his “I love you” message to her. I told him that Kathy said she loved him too. I know Harry heard me.

Both George and I said our final goodbye to Harry.

At that exact moment, Harry’s son and daughter-in-law returned to the room. They both thanked me profusely for being there as Harry would speak of me often. They thanked George for being such a dedicated friend for so many years.
As I knew that Harry did not want to be alone when he died, I confirmed that they would be in the room for the next few hours. They affirmed.

Harry died less than two hours later with his family in the room.

It is known that people time their deaths, that people often have “unfinished business” that needs to be completed before their soul is ready to depart from this world. I would like to think that this is what happened. Harry was waiting for his closest friend to pray and say his last goodbye. He was also waiting to get the confirmation that he needed to hear that his final “I love you” letter to his wife was delivered—even without the stamp…

May Harry’s soul rest in peace.

By Debby Pfeiffer

Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and five children and can be reached at [email protected] // ]]>

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