From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Harry’s Blessings

Help your brother’s boat across, and your own has reached the shore.

Hindu Proverb

On a cold January morning, Harry entered my office where I worked as the volunteer director in a hospital. Unbeknownst to me, in his Yiddish-accented English, he asked the guard for the outpatient department, the name of which is almost identical to mine. The guard had difficulty understanding him. Hence, Harry was ushered into my office. In my outgoing manner, I welcomed him and discussed volunteer possibilities. Harry was elderly. I assumed that he would want an easy job.

“No!” Harry declared in a boisterous voice. “I do not want to do a sissy job. I want a real job.” He had worked in a kitchen and asked to do the same for one or two days a week.

I informed the dietary department that a new volunteer was on his way. I explained how frail he appeared and asked that they treat him with “kid gloves.” Harry was welcomed into the hospital’s dietary department.

With each hour, I anticipated Harry returning to my office or receiving a phone call saying that Harry could not handle the job. The next morning, Harry appeared in my office bright and early. I invited him to sit down and talk, expecting him to complain about his job assignment. Harry stated that there was nothing to talk about. He had a job to perform. They needed him in the kitchen. He returned to my office several hours later. I now expected complaints and a request for a softer job more fitting an elderly person. Was I wrong! Harry took his free volunteer meal pass, and in his unique English said to me, “May God bless you for placing me as a volunteer.” Daily, Harry came to my office and bestowed God’s blessings upon me. Harry’s original two days of volunteering turned into five, six and sometimes seven days a week.

I called the dietary department about Harry’s performance. I expected to hear that they did not want to hurt an old man’s feelings and, therefore, kept him on board. Again, was I wrong! Harry was a real asset to the kitchen crew and a team player. Rather than sit and relax, he found other areas where he could assist: cooking at the grill, serving food or placing trays and silverware in bins. Yes, Harry was one of the best workers in the department!

Weeks later, I received three phone calls concerning him: one from a psychiatrist and two from social workers. The psychiatrist informed me that Harry had recently been an inpatient. My stomach turned. The hospital has a policy prohibiting recent patients to become volunteers. I expected a reprimand. Instead, in the sweetest of tones, this doctor said to me, “I don’t know what you did to Harry, but he is a new man and is no longer a patient.” Two phone calls from social workers produced similar comments. These calls made me reflect upon my original meeting with Harry.

In his heavily accented English, he had asked for the outpatient department. However, in error, he was directed to my office. That was the beginning of his experience as a volunteer rather than being a hospital patient. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Harry could be found daily in the kitchen. Late each morning, Harry would appear in my office to bless me. With each passing day, he appeared younger, more spritely and zestful.

Summer came. One day, I received a call from the dietary department asking me if I knew where Harry was. He had not appeared in two days. We were not too concerned. After all, it was summertime, and he certainly was entitled to a vacation. I called his home. No answer. I tried for several days. Still no answer and still no Harry. I called Harry’s son. His son’s secretary said that her boss was unavailable for the week. I explained the situation. The secretary gasped. She continued that her boss’s father had died several days ago. Her boss, Harry’s son, was at home in mourning for the week. I ran to the dietary department to share this. We hugged. We cried. What a loss we felt. Harry’s bright demeanor and helpful attitude were now only memories.

I wrote to Harry’s son. I expected no further contact. One week later, I received a moving letter from him. “I want to thank you and the wonderful staff who were so kind to my father. Dad often spoke of the nice people with whom he had volunteered. Working in the kitchen helped him feel important and worthwhile. His volunteering became an important part of his life and helped him overcome the loneliness, grief and depression he felt after the death of my mother. He lived a productive, active and busy life until the very day of his death. A special thanks to all the lovely people in the kitchen. God bless all of you.”

One week later, an elderly man with a heavy Yiddish accent appeared at my office stating, “I am here to replace Harry in the kitchen.” I gave a start. Could I be receiving another one of Harry’s blessings? I welcomed this gentleman and sent him directly to the kitchen. One question still remains with me. Who gained more from this experience— Harry or the hospital?

Carole Goldstein

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