Forgive me if the levity is a bit low this week. Two deaths in a day is nothing to laugh about, the more so when Covid stalks again. The first death was my extraordinary niece, the relative closest to me in age. She had been in hospital for a month before anyone was allowed to know. A person of deep humility, she would not have liked me to mention her name so I won’t, but she was renowned across North London as the first responder to any human need, day or night, a veritable powerhouse of good deeds.
On a cancer ward, Covid blocked visits and Charedi rules excluded Zoom. She stayed in touch by phone and message; in her last hours, she dictated texts of love to all who had been in touch.
We listened to her funeral eulogies on a yeshiva phone line, looped via Israel and America. We paid a shiva visit in the front garden, sharing memories. One of her sons said she would vanish every morning at breakfast. “Just popping out for a tick,” she’d say. It was years before anyone was aware there was a woman with postnatal depression down the road, whose kids she dressed and fed.
I once told my niece that my daughter had midweek tickets for Spurs vs Manchester United at White Hart Lane. “That’s up the road,” she cried, “you must come to me for tea,” making us the first football fans on a Charedi street. In her final days she said, “you know, I don’t have an enemy in the world”. Why am I sharing this grief? Because my magnificent niece, a clever woman who read what I wrote and dealt truly and kindly with Jews and gentiles alike, achieved a form of purity that has all but gone from the secular world. I don’t believe she ever thought of putting her own needs before another’s. We may mock the Charedi world for its arcane habits, political chicanery and benefit dependency, but that enclosed world also nurtures saintly persons like my late niece, and for this benefaction I give eternal thanks.
Hours after her funeral I got a call telling me Mike was missing. He had failed to turn up to his 70th birthday treat and his college had notified the police. I went round to his house with another friend and found his door forced open by two policewomen. The neighbours had seen him leave a few days earlier with a hold-all. The police said they’d put a trace on his phone. After a day or so we heard he had been found dead.
Mike was Dr Michael Schachter, senior lecturer in clinical pharmacology at Imperial College and the academic responsible for the welfare of final-year medical students. I met him first as a patient at St Mary’s Hospital, where he had me switched from another doctor’s list so we could discuss baroque opera on the NHS. Mike was passionate about Handel and racked up air-miles in search of unheard arias. He upgraded me from patient to friend and we’d meet every other month for dinner, chewing over musical minutiae.
Although outwardly gregarious, Mike lived alone in his parents’ former home. No friend was ever allowed past the front door. His parents, 1956 Hungarian refugees, had run an old-fashioned family medical practice. Mike had a pre-war half-sister in Budapest; that was all we knew of his background. He communicated with me by email, seldom by phone.
To students, on the other hand, he was available 24/7 for all problems, trivial to existential. The storm of tweets that erupted at his death testifies to the countless careers he rescued, suicides he averted, kindnesses he dispensed. He knew how to work the health system for those who would give their lives to its service. As son and grandson of physicians he also knew which of them would make good doctors and which should, with great care and discretion, be gently redirected. Behind every one of Mike’s student consultations lay a hinterland of humanity and honesty.
To see his door rammed open by the police was a violation of his intimacy, too late as it turned out. His name will not appear among the Covid victims, but the months of isolation surely contributed to his untimely death. “He still had much to contribute to the world of medicine, and so much music and life still left to enjoy,” lamented one young friend.
Yet, even as we walk in the valley of the Covid shadow, his lonely life was an unquestioned triumph. Mike, up to the end, dispensed goodness and kindness, a psalmic prescription only an agnostic Hungarian-Jewish scientist and melomane could truly appreciate. He lived, and died, for others.