Last night I held a man’s hand in mine as I guided it and helped him write his will.
I met Harry in 1995 when I came to Greece for three months, a couple of years before I moved here permanently. He had already begun his decline, but was still active and mobile. A few years before that, however, he’d had an accident. He had been sitting on a balcony and he climbed into a fig tree to get some figs for his god-daughter. He was by himself and the branch he was on broke. He fell over 20 feet, hitting several branches on his way down, breaking his neck and shattering one of his shoulders. He lay at the bottom for a few hours till somebody came home and found him.
When I met Harry he was wobbly, due partly to this accident, but due mostly to his diabetes. His circulation was bad in his hands and feet. He could walk around and work in his garden. He was fiercely proud and never accepted help unless he absolutely had to. He’d always say he needed the exercise.
That summer he was 66. I used to sit on his balcony next door and we would talk for hours. He’d tell me stories about his life.
His father had an executive position in the mint in Athens, but when Harry was a young boy — about 12 or 13 — he got him a job working at the Acropol Hotel across the street from the Polytechnic. It was during the Occupation. The Germans and Italian used the Acropol as a resting place for officers who were transferring from North Africa to Russia and vice versa. One day a high ranking Italian officer was outside, getting ready to leave with his wife. She had a dog but couldn’t take it with her, and was upset. Harry was standing nearby, watching. The Italian officer called him over. He asked Harry to keep the dog for him and one day he’d come back for it. Harry told him, with the little Italian he’d picked up, that they didn’t have enough food for themselves, let alone a dog. (Athens suffered a terrible famine during the Occupation. At the hotel, Harry says they would even destroy potato peels so that no one could eat them.) The officer took Harry down to the kitchen and told the Italian chef that he was to give Harry food every day for his dog. And so the next day Harry went down to the kitchen with a small pot and the chef filled it up. Soon Harry started taking bigger and bigger pots and even taking home scraps in a sort of wheelbarrow or wagon. He managed not only to feed his own family, but all of his extended family there in the neighbourhood of Theseio.
“We survived the Occupation because of that dog,” he said.
Harry had two sisters and a brother, and was the wild, unruly one of the family. He never cared about school or books, but some of his siblings’ learning rubbed off on him, and he was surprisingly literate in a cultural sense. He knew a great deal more than he let on, especially about history.
One of our favourite topics of conversation was Athens. He would tell me what it was like when he was young. (“In the spring the whole city was fragrant. Everywhere you went, the gardens were full of flowers.”) On the corner of such-and-such a street was a shop or restaurant he liked, now long gone and hardly a memory. I would tell him what was there now. What we liked best was when he couldn’t remember where something was, couldn’t remember the name of a street, and we’d have to figure out what or where it was.
“All right,” I’d say, “you know where the square is? On the east side there’s a little church. Do you remember the narrow street that begins across from there? Well, you go down that street for two blocks…”
Harry’s legs were too bad for him to walk around Athens any more, and this was the closest thing he had to those walks. We visited lots of old places by reconstructing them like this.
Harry had an apartment not far from where I lived, but he only went once a month, to visit his doctor. The rest of the time he and his wife Kathie stayed out here, in the Peloponnese. I visited them in Athens whenever they came down. Last year they sold it, so I only see them in the summer, or the few times I come down here for a long weekend.
In 1953 Harry left Greece. His father, who had married two or three times in his life, was an old man and was dying. Harry was eager to go and wasn’t going to wait. He went to say goodbye to him in his deathbed.
“Are you going away?” the old man asked.
“No,” Harry said. “I’m just going out to get a paper.”
And that was that. He joined the merchant navy and was gone. He spent a few years in South America, obtained citizenship in at least three countries there, and then went up to the US, where he had an uncle. The uncle had a hotel and Harry went to work in the kitchen with a French chef. A few years later the chef left to open up a resort, and impressed by Harry’s skills and memory, he took him with him. Over the years Harry became a chef himself and later opened a restaurant.
He lived a rich life. He loved playing the horses, and always had a lot of money with which to do so. He liked driving too, and once drove through the Mojave desert. For a spell he was even a loan shark. When he had the restaurant with his first wife, they were approached by a bookie who asked them if they would simply collect payments for him from people who would come to the restaurant, and they agreed. This was in the late 60s or early 70s and Harry was making $500 a week from that alone.
Then one night Harry and his wife were in an accident. Harry was fine, but his wife was left crippled. When she came home from the hospital Harry told her, “Look, you know me. I’ll never be able to look after you.” And he left her their entire insurance policy, enough money for her and her daughter from a previous marriage to live comfortably on for the rest of her life.
Then he got word that his mother back in Greece was dying. He felt guilty for having left his father the way he had, and returned to see her. He had to close the restaurant while he was here, and when he returned, it went out of business.
In the 1980s he started returning to Greece more often. He married Kathie and brought her with him. I don’t know what his first wife was like, but he probably met his match with Kathie. She’s told me that early in their relationship they were arguing about something and he told her, “I’m going to have to hit you now.” Kathie told him plainly that she would give him as good as she got. They both took a swing at the same time and gave each other a black eye.
When I moved to Greece in 1997, Harry was still moving around, but was starting to fall down a lot. He wasn’t eating properly. He’d go through entire an watermelon or a few kilos of grapes in one sitting. He thought that as long as he took his insulin it was all right.
Then, about five or six years ago, he went out after taking his insulin and forgot to eat. He went in his car, and on the way home, he blacked out and crashed. He ran off the road and nearly fell into the sea. He smashed his face against the steering wheel and broke his jaw. Without the metal rod in his neck from the the fall from the fig tree, he might have broken his neck as well.
When he regained consciousness he found neither the horn nor the lights would work. He was only 100 meters from home, and if the lights had been working, Kathie would have been able to see him. At 1.00 am she fell asleep on the couch. At 6.00 some construction workers found him. He had been in the car for nine hours. At the hospital, they had to cut the clothes off him because they had stuck to his body from all the blood that had dried on him.
The doctor told him that his liver was too bad and they couldn’t operate even to reset his jaw. After the accident Harry stopped going for walks. He couldn’t even manage to hold on to the railing and move back and forth on the balcony any more. He was always able to joke about death, though. Once when we were sitting on the balcony, a couple of flies were on his legs, all cut and scraped from his falls. “They smell cemetery,” he said, and smirked. It was macabre, but I knew him well enough to laugh.
He started falling more and more often, not out in the garden now, but just in the house, often on the marble stairs leading upstairs. He refused to sleep in the living room, and would lean on Kathie as they went upstairs to his bedroom.
Then about three years ago he took some insulin that had gone off and nearly died. Since then his deterioration has been rapid. Last summer he had two heart failures and a minor stroke. When Kathie called me late one night to tell me he was in the hospital, I thought, that’s it, this time he’s not going to make it. I went back to bed and told N. Then I lay there quietly as the tears ran down my face.
But as he had so many times before, Harry rallied back. But as with every time before, he came back a bit weaker than he was before. This summer he’s had a couple of bad falls, and can no longer stand up. He has to sleep in the living room because Kathie can’t support him going up the stairs. He is frustrated and angry, and often takes it out on Kathie, who is barely able to help him in and out of chairs any more.
The only force left in Harry now is rage, but it is either bottled up or misdirected when it is let out. Dylan Thomas was still relatively young when he urged old men to rage against the dying of the light, and also died with relative suddenness. The romantic heroism of his poem does not sit well with the reality of things as I see it in Harry. He can rage, but only impotently, because the dying of the light is so slow, and Harry is so broken and defeated by the very life he lived, that he has no choice but to go gentle into that good night.
When I met Harry ten years ago, his hands were so bad, and his grip so weak, that he could no longer do up the buttons on his shirt. I don’t know when the last time he held a pen and signed his name was. But this summer we persuaded him to write a will, and my parents, who are here visiting, went to town and found him a notary. She said it would be best and simplest if he wrote it out himself. Otherwise the procedure was more complicated and took more time. She wrote out what he’d need to write, and I copied it out in block capitals for him. He said he’d try to if I came to help him.
When I went to see him he was sitting at the kitchen table. He had tried it himself, but he could barely grip the pen and it was nothing but illegible scribbles.
“It’s OK,” I told him, “we’ll do it together.” I stood behind his chair, put the pen in his gnarled swollen hand, and put my hand over his. With my other hand I held his elbow and wrote it out for him. It was only one sentence, establishing Kathie as his sole beneficiary, but it took quite a while. Quietly he would thank me from time to time or even give me a little encouragement. When we got to the words “and after my death”, slowly writing it out letter by letter, it was finally there before us, and I wondered if he was looking at it and thinking about it the way I was. I read out each word as we wrote it, and I tried to say this one nonchalantly, as if it meant no more than “beneficiary” or “bequeath” or “property”.
Whatever he was thinking, he said nothing. Most of the time he would let his whole arm go, so that in fact I was writing the will out for him, using his hand to do so, but a couple of times I felt a slight push, as if he were saying, “Look, I remember what this was like, what writing or walking was like, let’s pretend I can still manage it a bit, a couple of words on the paper, a couple of steps out on the balcony.”
And it seemed as if, there before me, we were slowly, letter by letter, spelling out the word so much more important than Dylan Thomas’s “rage” — the word that expressed everything Harry had been fighting for, and losing more and more as the years wore on.