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Harry: It’s no Good to be Old, Sick and Alone.

Inna Guelfand shares the moving (true) story of a man she accidentally befriended outside the hospital.

By: Inna Guelfand
Published: April 12th, 2013 in Culture » Society » News
Inna Guelfand

It’s no good to be old, sick and alone.

That’s what Harry said. He said it a few times in the almost-two weeks that we’ve gotten to know him. He liked to repeat it. But then again, Harry liked to repeat many things. He simply didn’t remember. Because Harry has Alzheimer's.

Harry Kryst. That was his full name. He announced it while sitting up straight in the passenger’s seat beside me, sharply dressed in a grey tweed overcoat with brown, suede elbow patches, his neck adorned by a navy tie. White gym socks peeked out from black, worn-out, but immaculately buffed loafers that covered his tiny feet…Loafers that, I later noticed, had improvised cardboard insoles. Harry forgot much and often, but he clearly remembered his name.

Our name is our label, it is how others know us and how they address us. We all have one. My mom used to stitch it on the inside of my jackets when I was little so that no one in daycare would get confused about which articles of clothing I belonged to. Even when we leave, our name lives on. It’s spoken in eulogies, in stories told, it’s inscribed on our tombstones, sometimes even written in history books. Sometimes it is even passed on to those who come after us as a way to honour our memory. If you stripped a man naked of all his possessions, if you took away everything tangible and even imperceptible, he would still have his name…you’d have to call him something.

Harry’s name was taken away in 1942 Auschwitz when he was told he was no longer human, but a disposable number. We saw it, engraved into his left forearm…blue faded ink, smudged and stretched and distorted on his sagging, wrinkled flesh. I wanted to take a closer look, to write it down, but was afraid of upsetting him so I diverted my gaze. I didn’t want to stare.

Harry was born on September 14, 1926, in Białobrzegi, Poland. “Near Radum…Do you know where that is?” he’d ask over and over. His parents, along with his brothers Italin and Maury and their respective families didn’t make it out of WWII, and like so many others in those harsh days, Harry came home to nothing and no one straight from Glywitz where he was forced to fix Nazi trains. He told us other details about his life: smuggling leather between Poland and Russia to make ends meet, moving to Israel and then to Canada, marrying a nice girl, owning convenient stores, raising a son.

It was Friday afternoon in April, 2 years ago. We were pulling up to North York General Hospital to pay Tommy’s ill grandfather a daily visit. I pause, to let an elderly man looking weak but determined, cross our path. But as he passes, he waves his arms in the air to get our attention and causes me to step on the brakes once again. I roll down my window:

“Do you need help?”

“Could you give me a lift please? Could you drive me? My knee is acting up" he says in a raspy voice with a thick accent, the origin of which I can't quite figure out.

Tommy and I give each other a look. It’s cold, he looks frail, plus, his car can’t be too far.

“Of course, get in”, I reply. We signal to Tommy's uncle who is busy maneuvering into a vacated spot behind us that we'll be right back. Tommy moves to the back seat and the man climbs in beside me.

“Where are we going?” I ask as I put my car in reverse. Instead of pointing to one of the parking options, the man names an intersection 20 minutes away.

“I’ll just take a street car from there…my friend will pick me up…my son will take me home”.

Thinking ‘Well, which one is it? And there are no street cars that far north…’ I steer towards the highway ramp, making a face at Tommy in the rearview mirror. It’s beginning to dawn on me that the only one more confused in this vehicle is our passenger. I notice a tube still taped to his left hand, same veined purple hand in which he is now clutching a five dollar bill. He is trying to pay me for the ride.

Related articles: Harry, Holocaust, Old, Sick, Alone, Alzheimer's, Hospital, Memoir, Personal Story, Inna Guelfand, Auschwitz
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