There's No Shrapnel In Heaven

Raymond Mankowitz lay dying in his bed. At 95 years old, he had been sequestered in his room for nearly a week as hospice care gently guided his transition. His loved ones gathered, three generations deep – children, grandkids, and great-grandkids all paid their respects in his final days.

Koko, the Bahamian hospice nurse often said that the “spirit wouldn’t leave until it says its goodbyes”. She told stories of patients who waited days or weeks to pass just until they could say goodbye to loved ones, dogs, etc. This beautiful reminder of humanity offered little comfort to Raymond. At 95, his mind was not what it used to be and after five long years with Alzheimer’s, the Raymond that once existed was nothing more than a passing memory.

They say Alzheimer’s is an illness that affects the people around a patient more than the patient themself. Indeed, it is a painful process to watch the mind of a loved one slowly wither only to cruelly leave a shell of what once was. Yet no one who surrounded Raymond Mankowitz’s bedside knew how to explain his stubborn resilience or the piercing moments of clarity in his final days. He defied every prediction from every doctor, nurse, or cleric that entered and after 10 days of around-the-clock morphine, the team was stumped. All but Koko who insisted – “he’s still got someone to say goodbye to.”

Every so often his eyes would slowly open, and he’d clench the hand of whatever family member happened to be near him. His great-grandson Joshua, nearly 13, gasped when his Grandfather spoke to him.

            “Joshua? Is that you?”

            “Yes, Zayde it’s me! I’m here.”

Raymond studied his legacy intensely and beckoned him closer with his finger, his voice dry and cracking.

            “Joshua, you have to promise me something.”

Joshua clenched his great-grandfather’s hand and leaned in. “Anything Zayde. What is it?”

            “Get a haircut before the funeral, you look like a hippie.”

For every moment of eerie sharpness, there were ten others that made little sense to the family. There was one afternoon when he awoke and smiled at his daughter, asking her if his platoon had made it out of Bastogne – a Belgian town where 75 years earlier a young Raymond battled the last gasps of the Third Reich during the Battle of The Bulge. Raymond took a piece of shrapnel to the left buttocks and consequently carried a slight limp for most of his life. When he awoke on a cot inside the makeshift field hospital within a bombed-out church, he looked up to see his frostbitten fingers being tended to by what he believed to be an angel. She had wavy amber hair and large brown eyes that struck him deeper than any shrapnel ever could.

They were the same brown eyes that his daughter, Danielle, now looked at him with and wept through. Raymond smiled warmly, as he held Danielle’s hand.

            “Do you like dancing?” he asked wearily. “I’ll make a deal with you. If I get out of here, I’m going to take you dancing. And if you think I’m a good dancer now, you should’ve seen me before I had a big piece of shrapnel in my ass.”

Danielle laughed the same way her mother had all those years ago, albeit through teary eyes. Meanwhile, Raymond drifted back to sleep with a smirk on his face. The family was jarred by the seemingly random moments of lucidity, but Koko assured them of its commonality. She explained that near the end, the mind taps into its last reserves, a beautiful biological program to experience the whisps of life one last time.

The Rabbi explained it as an act of “Zachar” –  to remember or be mindful of. He described a memory like a plow cutting through a field. Just as it lays a path within the earth, so too do the memories in our mind. Neither storm nor degenerative illness could cover up the most plowed pathways.

While the family rotated in and out, Raymond played the greatest hits in his head as if he were surfing through channels on a Sunday afternoon. Every so often he’d stir awake and look at the faces surrounding him with grave concern.

            “Where’s Barbara?” he’d ask. “I can’t find my wife.”

His eldest son, Eli, always the pragmatist tried to explain it to him.

            “Mom’s been gone a long time, Dad.”

            “Gone? Where did she go? I spent $90 on theater tickets tonight.”

Raymond asked after Barbara every day. Somedays he’d hum her favorite songs or ask if she had called. One by one his family and caretakers heard snapshots of their love story scattered across six decades. From the birth of their children to their trips around the world, even detailed arguments of jealousy or finance or an unexplained dent in the car, Raymond recanted them all.

One morning, Raymond was smiling as he replayed a particular memory and sat up in his bed, startling the team around him.

            “The letters! Please, I must hear the letters.”

He grabbed onto whatever family member was closest and pleaded.

            “Please. We promised!”

            “Dad, what letters?” his children inquired.

            “She said I’d know when to open it. Please!”

Raymond’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren spent hours searching every corner of the apartment space. Drawers, cabinets, safes, etc. Hours went by and no letters could be found. Yet every 30 minutes Raymond would awake more agitated and insistent.

            “Please, the letters. I beg you.”

It wasn’t until little Rachel, Raymond’s 11-year-old great-granddaughter opened up a cookbook that a weathered envelope with Ray written across it fell to the floor. She ran to his bedside holding the envelope proudly.

Raymond sighed with relief.

            “Would you read it to me?”

Rachel carefully removed the handwritten letter and squinted to read the cursive letters.

            “My dearest Ray…” she began. “If you’re reading this, then I know where you are and I know where you’re going. We made a promise to each other all those years ago and you know me well enough to know that I would never let a pesky annoyance like ‘death’ keep me from speaking my mind.”

            “I remember when we came up with this little scheme. It was the night after I was diagnosed and we both cried and held each other until the sun came up. You told me that the scariest part about me not being there was that only one of us would get to say goodbye to the other. I promised you that night that no matter what, I’d get my chance. But I was wrong. This couldn’t be further from a goodbye. In fact, it’s a welcoming. I hope that you read this warm in our bed, with all the kids around you so that one last time they can hear their crazy mother and Bubbe tell them the truth – life and death aren’t all that different. There will be pain and joy in both. I spent too much of my life worrying, a trait I no doubt passed on to many of you. But life isn’t a fairytale or a romantic movie. It’s about making the tough stuff better one day at a time. Your father, grandfather, and (God willing) great-grandfather did just that. We were the luckiest people to have ever existed.”

            “Ray, don’t forget to have your suit pressed and your hair – or what’s left of it – looking spick and span. You owe me a dance and I’ve been assured, that there is no shrapnel in heaven.”

The family wept as little Rachel folded up her Great-Grandmother’s letter. While they held each other and smiled through tears, Raymond laughed and laughed, his wife’s words covering him like a warm blanket. Soon, his breathing slowed and with a content, peaceful smile, Raymond Mankowitz went dancing.

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