Battling the ache of loneliness
Can I introduce you to Harry? You would love him. He has bright blue twinkling eyes and a mischievous smile.
He will proudly tell you about his time on the beaches during the Normandy landings, and how he took off his heavy boots and tied the laces together so he could wear them around his neck. He wasn’t going to be weighed down in water-logged boots in the rough seas as shells rained down — especially with his tefillin strapped under his helmet.
Harry can still hear the explosions and still feel the fear, even though it was nearly 70 years ago. If you tell him he is brave, he will shake his head sadly, because World War Two is not the greatest battle he has faced.
Today, his biggest foe is loneliness.
I first met Harry Melvin when I was dropping my son at his pre-nursery class at our local synagogue. He would daven every day with the morning minyan — and every day I would smile and say good morning.
He cut quite a figure in his suit and tie with an array of military medals pinned proudly on his chest. One day, as the rain belted down, I offered him a lift to the bus stop. He eagerly accepted and on the way told me a bit about himself.
I am proud to say that since that rainy day we have become firm friends. We see each other twice a week, we’ve shared Yomim Tovim and family simchas, and we speak on the phone regularly.
That first day he told me his father had made a big mistake in life. He had high hopes of being a millionaire but, instead became a milliner making Yom Tov and Shabbat hats for the women of the East End. Harry likes a joke.
His father died when Harry was young and he was left, as the man of the house, to look after his young sister and mother. Harry explained that his mother was ill for a long time and he was her primary carer, dressing, bathing and nursing her for many years.
Harry never really had the time to “date”. “Don’t be silly,” he laughed when I asked him. “What was I going to do with my mother? Someone had to look after her.”
His mother died in his arms 40 years ago. Her clothes hung in the wardrobe until I gently persuaded him that perhaps it was time to let them go.
Harry looked after his mother, and in turn his sister looked after him. She married a man of considerable means. They were a charitable couple, enjoying holidays in the Riviera and buying a spectacular apartment in the heart of Jerusalem. His sister and brother-in-law made Harry a trustee of their charitable trust and a director of their company.
Harry lives in the same house in Willesden that he has always lived in. It cost him £50. Ask him and he will delight in telling you how he bought this detached house, with a nice garden in a smart street, for less than it costs a family to go to the cinema these days.
Harry loves to talk — to anyone. His face lights up when he is in full flow. He is just happy that there are some people to listen to him.
He still davens three times a day. He used to go to different minyans around London, enjoying getting the bus as he was able to chat to people and make friends. Now infirmity means he can’t get around so easily.
Until two years ago, every Friday he would regularly make his way to the bakery to buy his challahs, which he would then eat alone, every Shabbat.
Sometimes, someone from the shul would invite him for dinner or lunch. He was friendly with the chazan and other people from the shul. And he would go to Jerusalem to visit the graves of his family. He had been left a beautiful apartment overlooking the Western Wall, that had belonged to his late sister and brother-in-law and that he was allowed to use as part of the terms of the family trust.
Unfortunately word of his generous nature reached a conman, or a schnorrer as Harry calls him. This man had cried and begged for money to help his terminally sick son.
Harry gave him a considerable amount of money — and the man disappeared. He had no son.
Although he never lost his faith, Harry had lost his spirit. The day that his apartment in Jerusalem was taken from him was a bitter blow. The terms of the trust stated, unknown to him, that if Harry were not married to a Jewish woman after his sister and brother-in-law died, the apartment would be taken away and given to the government.
Harry was confused, as he believed that his late sister had provided for him no matter what, and this thought — together with losing his vital link to Jerusalem — was devastating.
He suddenly realised how alone he actually was, and depression set in. He became oblivious to the mess that was starting to build up round him in his house in Willesden. And as a proud man, he never sought help. Despite being a regular “face” in the community, no one knew of his plight or sought to help him.
Harry didn’t notice the post that lay littered around his dining room, the cheque-books lying on the floor. He never saw the rotting food in the fridge and on the floor, the mugs lined with mould, the stained sheets, the ripped towels, the draughty windows, the filthy bathroom. He never noticed the dreadful smell.
But I did, and so would you. I got contract cleaners in to deep-clean the property and bought new mugs, towels and sheets. I took over my late grandmother’s sofa and reclining armchair and I arranged a meeting with Harry’s accountant, his rabbi and a professional social worker from Jewish Care.
Together we listened to what Harry wanted and talked about his future. He was keen to stay in his own home but realised that he would be unable to live alone. His accountant arranged a mortgage on his home so that he would be able to employ a full-time live-in carer. The social worker ensured that he received living aids to make his day-to-day life easier: the bath became less challenging, a stairlift was fitted. And the rabbi re-engaged the community.
Almost immediately Harry came to life again.
Sonia, his carer, does more than care for his everyday needs. She understands every Jewish festival and cooks incredible kosher food. She has fun with Harry and says a day doesn’t go by without them both having a good laugh.
She is a friend, a companion, a shoulder to lean on, a hand to hold. She helps him with all his daily needs patiently, with humour and chesed (lovingkindness) as I imagine he helped his late mother.
Harry is now beautifully groomed and is clean and fresh. His medals are proudly pinned on his lapel. Sonia takes him to the Sobell Centre in Golders Green on two days each week and he has met people who come from a similar background. He has made some great friends. He can reminisce about the old days, or they listen to music together.
Harry is now a star at his shul: everyone wants to talk to him, he is invited for Shabbatot and simchas, his community has given him kavod and respect. Harry is always invited to the kiddush club and parents take their children to meet him and listen to his stories on a Shabbat afternoon.
The rabbi has planted him firmly in the heart of a young thriving community.
Meeting Harry has taught me that we all need companionship. A recent study found that loneliness is more damaging to one’s health than obesity — and is particularly damaging to older people. In a world awash with social media we can’t forget what it means to be truly social. We need to look out for our neighbours and engage with people around us.
The fact that throughout the world, millions of Jews have been sharing in a Seder, encouraging others, friends and family alike, to join us, shows us the importance of community values.
No one should have to Seder alone and no one in our community should ever be left lonely or frightened. No one should be forgotten about — we are all connected by common values and we all have the ability to be a shoulder to cry on, someone to listen, and a person who cares.
Last month, in the packed restaurant at the Sobell Centre in Golders Green, a beautiful birthday cake was wheeled out, as a volunteer with a microphone announced that it was Harry’s 87th birthday.
As the room sang a heartfelt happy birthday, he reached out and squeezed my hand and tears streamed down my face.
New guests are always welcome at the Sobell Centre. It should help, even for just a short time, to put your own life into perspective.