Debra Ruder Communications

Writing that matters

Stephen’s heart

I always knew that my high school friend Jane was a gem: kind, generous, loving, and passionate about food and Fred Astaire.

So I wasn’t really surprised when I heard that she and her husband, Eric, opened up their home in Cleveland, Ohio, to a friend-of-a-friend in town for medical reasons. And I wasn’t even surprised when she told me that this man, a visitor from England named Stephen, not only stayed for a few dinners but lived on and off with Jane’s family for two years while awaiting a transplant for a congenital heart condition.

I just hadn’t realized the depth of that friendship until I heard that Stephen died this fall in England, without his new heart, and that Jane not only hopped on a plane to be with him at the end, but also contributed one of the eulogies for his funeral.

“It’s really hard to believe that he is gone,” Jane said the other day on the phone. “He really felt like a member of the family.”

Jane and Stephen met through a mutual friend of ours from high school, Shoshana, who lives in Cambridge, England, and knew him through their synagogue. Stephen was, they agree, a character. Tall and lanky with a distinctive gait, he relished lively debates about politics and spent hours preparing gourmet meals in Jane’s kitchen and then criticizing his own results with zest.

His skepticism of all things American eventually turned to appreciation — and even affection — for America, and he won the hearts of many of Jane and Eric’s friends during his stay in Cleveland. Many were impressed by his positive outlook, as he never complained about his discomfort, increasing weakness, or uncertain future as he awaited what he hoped would be good news about an organ donor. He was prepared to pay for the costly surgery himself.

Stephen spent much of this past summer in Ohio with Jane and Eric and his new circle of American friends. When he arrived he was considered “too well” to be eligible for a transplant, but his condition deteriorated over the summer and he became “too ill” to transplant, Jane remembered. He returned to England in early September to address some other medical complications, knowing that they would be covered under the government’s health system. Stephen had fully planned to come back to the U.S., but he wound up going directly from the London airport to the hospital and never left, according to Jane.

“We really thought it would work out,” she said with sadness.

Jane remained in e-mail touch with several of Stephen’s English friends, and when they signaled that he had developed an infection and was going downhill quickly, Jane – a psychology professor – cleared her calendar and headed across the Atlantic. When she got to the hospital just outside Cambridge, Stephen was heavily sedated and on a respirator. “I knew he knew that I was on my way, and that’s my comfort,” she told me.

For the next couple of days, Jane took turns at his bedside with several other close friends and relatives. She held his hand, rubbed his arms and forehead, and even though she wasn’t sure what he could hear, “I told him I was there. I told him what was going on with my kids, and I told him about all the people from Cleveland who sent their love.” When the decision was made to remove some of his life-supporting equipment, Stephen’s father and stepmother invited Jane to be there during his final hours. Stephen was only 47 when he died. As heartbreaking as it was, Jane was so glad she could make the trip: “I would have been devastated if I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye.”

The eulogy that Jane and Eric crafted was clever and touching and conveyed how much their two-year friendship with Stephen meant to them. A rabbi read it aloud at the funeral, and then Shoshana read excerpts during a shiva [formal mourning period] gathering at her house several days later.

“Stephen taught us many things during his time in Cleveland but most of all, how a person could face the most extraordinary challenges with true grace and dignity,” the eulogy read. “We saw him face a situation that would have frightened any of us, endure much more than most of us can imagine, live through profound losses and disappointments, and never offer a hint that he experienced the self-pity that we all knew we’d feel, and probably feel compelled to express, were we in his position.

“His courage inspired us then and now … Dearest Stephen, tootle pip, ta ta for now, and god bless.”

Consider this . . .
Even relatively brief friendships can be deep and meaningful.
If you can be there for a loved one at the end, be there.