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No Man is an Island

January 7, 2020 by

Friends: Tony, Sammy, Tim and family“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” The intense, youthful face of the honor guard member was only inches from mine. His palms sandwiched a tightly folded flag, holding it out to me.

“Thank you,” I stammered. I had seen this ceremony before, but I never thought I’d be the recipient. My mind flew through the events that had brought me to this point – standing in as family at a funeral for a veteran – and raced even more as my wife and parents were asked to speak in that capacity. We were in a shelter at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island for the all-too-brief burial of our friend Tony Moore. Our presence here was the end of a convoluted process, during which I learned a lot about what happens to the almost-forgotten when they die.

Our friendship with Tony started over two years ago, when he approached my wife and me on the street and asked if we were Quaker, referring to Kathleen’s distinctive dress. Although only fifty-six, Tony showed signs of wear from a hard life. He walked with a cane because of diabetic neuropathy, and had been homeless after a long incarceration. Now, thankfully, he had his own apartment in the nearby Drew Hamilton public housing buildings. We quickly developed a trust that led to his coming to our Harlem House for meals and gatherings. I often visited his small apartment in the projects – “one of probably four people I trust in here,” he told me once. At Easter that year I brought him an Easter lily, and he took my suggestion to open his blinds to shed some light on it. (I wrote about that experience at the time, referring to him as Leroy.)

“Let me ask you a question,” Tony started one day, using his characteristic opener. “Would you like to have my dog Sammy?” He gestured to his white Shiba Inu. He felt that his gait had become too unsteady for dog-walking. Not convinced about adopting a pet, we did a trial run, taking Sammy and Tony to a lakeside barbeque on a summer Saturday at one of our rural Bruderhofs. Tony wanted nothing more than to sit and look out over the water and listen to nature and the children. “This is the best day of the last thirty years,” he declared. Sammy came to live at Harlem House.

Tony and Sammy at Fox Hill Bruderhof lake

“The best day of the last thirty years.” Tony and Sammy at the lake at Fox Hill.

Over the next months a teenage artist from our household, Jader, cleared an area on Tony’s wall and painted a mural of that fantastic day. When the job was done, Jader mentioned how he appreciated seeing a side of the City – life in the projects – that it is often too easy to overlook.

Sadly, we could not enjoy Tony’s company for long. When he stopped answering his phone I went to check in on him – and tracked him down in a nursing home in the Bronx. When I entered his room I got a shock at the change in my friend. His speech was slow, and he indicated that he wanted to “go home,” pointing straight up. Staff said he wasn’t eating, but the way he savored the burgers and fries we brought him proved that he still had a will to live. I pushed him outside in his wheelchair. “Tell them you are my brother,” he said as we passed the nurses’ station.

On later visits, his speech became more slurred and he looked more distant. We had the idea to bring Sammy to come and see him. The security guard gave us a firm “No” at the door, but we half arm-twisted and half smuggled the crate into Tony’s room. Once the door was closed, we released Sammy to see him leap onto the bed and give his beloved former master a complete face-wash.

Sammy greets Tony

“Service Dog.” Sammy greets Tony in the hospital.

We followed Tony to the hospital after more strokes came. As a credit to whatever state our country’s healthcare may be in, he received great care, often in a private room. Once more we brought Sammy to visit. “Is he a service dog?” the staff asked pointedly, after telling me that absolutely no dogs were allowed in the hospital. I realized they were giving me a chance, so this time I said, “Of course!” Another bedside reunion followed.

By now Tony’s health was clearly heading downhill, and I could barely understand him. On two separate visits, I asked him if he felt forgiven and at peace with God. He clearly indicated “yes.” When I offered to pray he closed his eyes. Who knows what was going through his mind during those long weeks as staff tried to prolong his life? Tony had listed me as an emergency contact, and one day I got the call that he had passed away. I thought of the last time I saw him and was glad I had treated it as a final farewell.

“What happens now?” I asked the social worker. That’s when my education started. For those that can’t afford a funeral there is “Potter’s Field.” Our local version is Hart Island, which lies not far from Rikers Island in the East River. There is no chance of attending a burial, and visits must be arranged with the Department of Corrections. I went to the Harlem Vet Center and pointed out that Tony was a veteran, but things seemed stalled and after a month he was turned over to the Medical Examiner’s office. Finally, after I sent in a critical document that I had retrieved from his apartment, the pathway to Calverton National Cemetery was laid out.

So here we were as honored “family members,” receiving the flag and speaking for a man that only the four of us present knew. Ten veterans had made the two-hour trip from the City to show their unknown brother respect. They told us they had never had family attend, and certainly not a dog – we had brought Sammy, and helped him lay a paw on the coffin when we said farewell.

Tim and Sammy bid Tony a final farewell

Sammy and Tim say their farewells.

At the end of the service, the funeral director handed me a form. “As family, you can choose what goes on his stone,” he said. I wanted something that reflected Tony’s life, but would also inspire the casual cemetery browser to more love and service – somehow, in only two lines of fifteen characters each. “No man is an island” came to me. Tony must have felt like an island amid the swirling world at times, and a reader might be challenged to look out for more loners and realize, as John Donne did when he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, from which it comes, that “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Tony was born in an era when “Negro” was still written on his birth certificate. He never met his father, and his mother gave him up to foster care at eighteen months. I bet they wouldn’t have recognized the family that gathered in a Brownstone in gentrified Harlem a few days after the funeral for his memorial service. We had invited his few friends we knew and put up posters in the projects with a photo of him and Sammy, inviting others that might have known him.

He taught me – he taught us all – to respond to a “hello” from a stranger and to follow the path it opens up.

As I shared the parts of his life that I had gleaned, I remembered how Tony had told me once that he dreamed of telling youth about his life and warning them not to go down the path he did. He had written a book of poems about his time in prison that seemed to be preparation for this. I was often sad that it seemed like he never got that chance. But as I looked around the room I realized that even though this was not the last stop on a speaking tour to youth, a mission had indeed been accomplished.

He taught me – he taught us all – to respond to a “hello” from a stranger and to follow the path it opens up. Tony thanked us near the end for being his friend, but we thank him for what he brought us: a chance to love and learn. We got it, Tony. Now we promise to act.

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About the author

Tim, a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional Christian community

Tim Maendel

Tim Maendel lives at the Bruderhof house in Harlem, NY where he and his wife are house parents to a number of college...

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