June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Man With the Burberry Coat

He was alone. He was 87 years old. All alone.

It’s hard to believe that there are people like this, but for the past 10 years, David was alone. He had no family. No friends. He had retired from his well-paying job of many years; all of his friends had died; he never affiliated with a synagogue and never developed new friendships with others. He occupied his time by watching a lot of television, reading, frequent trips to the supermarket and taking walks in the local park. The only mention I heard of other people existing in his life was that of an estranged sister from many years ago, as well as Susan, a neighbor 30 years younger. David described Susan as a sweet woman whom he would occasionally see outside his home.

One might think David would be bitter or angry. But in fact, David was a kind, gentle soul, always polite and appreciative to anyone who entered his hospital room. I visited with David frequently, with some of the visits being shorter and some being longer. He would often express his frustration and sadness about his medical state and deterioration. I listened to him with much compassion and empathy. I was an advocate for him in order to get various needs addressed. I helped him understand what was going on medically, as I was often present in the room when the doctors would try to explain this to him. David loved reflecting on his life and would often share stories of his healthier and happier years.

It worried me that David was alone, especially at this time. His medical state was worsening by the day and there was no time to waste in terms of David telling me or any other staff what he would want, and not want, toward the end of his life.

Once I began the conversation, David actually felt relieved. He told me that he had a burial plot in a particular Jewish cemetery nearby and that all the information as to its whereabouts were written in a manila envelope in his bedroom. He said that Susan, his neighbor, could be his health care proxy, but he did not even know her last name or telephone number! In fact, he never even asked Susan about being his proxy beforehand! I jotted down all pertinent information that David related and conveyed it to the other medical staff. We were all concerned for David and his overall situation.

Dr. R, a most caring and special doctor, also befriended David and took a strong affinity to helping this man who had no one else. Dr. R used her investigative and savvy computer skills, spending a considerable amount of time to somehow locate Susan. When Susan was called, she was somewhat puzzled that she was chosen as David’s proxy, being that she barely knew him. However, she was touched and agreed to assume the role.

The next morning, I arrived at my office earlier than usual. I had some “busy work” to do and I figured I would get a jump-start to my day. No less than 10 minutes went by when I received a call from Dr. R. “Debby, are you in? David is dying. Please come now.” As I ran to the room, I realized how crazy it was that this was happening, being that I normally would not have been in the hospital at that time!

I arrived at David’s room. He was surrounded by several medical staff, all trying to address his needs. David acknowledged and felt comforted by my presence. I stood by his side. But it was clear that David was fading away.

After some medical intervention by the doctors and nurses who were present, I asked: “David, is there anything you want to tell me? Anything you want me to know?” With bated breath, David said “Burberry coat in the closet.” I was not exactly sure if I heard correctly or what he was referring to, but I wrote it down. I asked him if I could call Susan to have her come to the hospital. He weakly nodded his head yes. “Don’t leave,” he said several times. He was so scared. I promised him that I would call Susan and return as quickly as I could.

During the 20 minutes that I was gone, David unfortunately went from bad to worse. When I returned to the room, David’s breathing was very shallow. He was no longer able to communicate.

Susan arrived at the hospital within the hour. I felt honored to meet Susan, a woman who barely knew David, but yet agreed to be his proxy and who would eventually arrange for the funeral. More importantly, I was humbled to meet this woman who stopped her day and raced to the hospital to be with a neighbor whom she barely knew.

After we chatted for several minutes, I told Susan about the manila envelope in the bedroom containing the plot information. I also told her about the strange mention of a Burberry coat in a closet.

Several hours later, David died. Susan was immediately notified. Though no one was present in the room with David at the time of his death, both Susan and I knew that David had felt our love and caring for him.

Two days later, I received a call from Susan that brought shivers down my spine.

“Debby, after David died I got his keys and went into his apartment. It was a complete mess. There were dirty dishes in the sink and clothing all over the floor. I knew that I had agreed to help David, but I started to feel overwhelmed. Where would I find a manila envelope in that mess? Finally, after searching for over an hour in his bedroom, I located the manila envelope, buried underneath other papers. It had the cemetery location and plot information.

After calling the funeral home, I found out that I needed $6,000 to cover all the costs! I just sat on the floor and cried. How on earth was I going to pay for David’s funeral? I was starting to regret that I agreed to do all of this, for someone I barely know. I said a prayer to God to help me.

“I was about to leave the apartment when I remembered that you had told me about a Burberry coat. I found the coat closet and searched amidst a mess of coats for a Burberry coat. I was happy to locate it, but really didn’t know why David mentioned it to you or what I should do with it. But something made me think to look in the pockets. And there, in a white envelope, was $6,000 in cash.”

This is a story of a lonely man. A story of a selfless neighbor. A story of a most caring doctor. But to me, this is a story of God placing us all where we need to be in order to get a job done.

Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, NJ. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected].

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