The text messages of a dying man reveal a lot about who he was. Larry Melzer, 37, was losing his 17-month battle with leukemia. Lying in a bed in an Israeli hospital, suffering from viral pneumonia after a bone marrow transplant, Larry was on a respirator. His four little daughters were at home in Jerusalem. Larry’s devoted wife Jen was at his bedside. Shabbat was approaching. Larry could not eat, drink, nor speak, but his fingers kept maneuvering his iPhone.
Shortly before Shabbat, Larry received a text message from a friend who was also battling cancer, commiserating how dreary it was to spend Shabbat in the hospital. After Shabbat the same friend wrote:
Thinking of u. Hope Shabbos was bearable!
Larry texted back:
It was great, jen was here, don’t worry it will be great
Great? He was hooked up to 15 separate antibiotic infusions, his once-athletic six-foot frame was shriveled, his handsome face aged and wizened. He had endured a Shabbat without reciting Kiddush, eating challah, singing songs, enjoying food, or embracing his beloved children. The only bright spot was that his faithful wife Jen was there. Yet Larry considered that Shabbat, “great.”
In great pain due to sores from radiation, while receiving an emergency blood transfusion, Larry said with a smile, "I’m so happy.”
A few months prior, Larry had been rushed from Jerusalem to a hospital in Haifa. As his friend Daniel Irom relates: “After a long drive, after he hadn’t slept in a few days due to being on large doses of steroids, while in great pain due to mouth and throat sores from radiation, while receiving an emergency blood transfusion, Larry turned to me with a smile that seemed to come from Heaven and said, ‘I’m so happy.’”
What was he happy about?
Larry and Jen, at the peak of their successful Yahoo careers, had a fabulous Manhattan apartment, an SUV, many DINK [Double Income No Kids] friends, and two dogs. Then they started to become interested in their Jewish heritage. In 2004, they went to Jerusalem for a six-month sabbatical to study Judaism.
There Larry fell in love with Judaism. With his personal charisma and passionate personality, he reached out to share his enthusiasm with everyone he met. While continuing to enjoy the pleasures of the physical world, he infused them with a spiritual awareness and appreciation. “More than once,” relates Gabi Leventhal, “I would be enjoying a wine, a whiskey, a delicious meal with Larry, and before we began to fulfill our appetites, Larry would redirect everyone and talk about all the kindnesses that God has done for him and for everyone else present." He transformed the enjoyment of eating to a sublime state of gratitude.
Eric Rayburn, a former single from Manhattan, recounts a conversation he had with Larry during the period of his struggling to adjust to the Spartan standard of Jerusalem while learning at Aish HaTorah. Larry said to him: “Jerusalem! This is the Wall Street of Judaism. Do you know how many people would love to trade places with you?”
“But, Larry,” Eric protested, “I live in a room without a window and it’s smaller than the second bathroom where I used to live!”
"The key is appreciating what you have. Every second is a precious million- dollar gift."
Larry, in a corporate business manager tone, replied: “I understand, and you are so lucky that the Almighty has invested His time in you to teach you how to appreciate more with less.”
“To appreciate more with less” became Larry’s approach to life. A month before he died, he posted this blog on his website:
Fighting Leukemia for me is about becoming unspoiled. I feel like I went from being a spoiled baby to a mature adult during this 16 month process. I have a zest for life I never had before!
This zest for life is indescribable. How can I possibly communicate being able to see the hand of God in everything? I live in a world where everything is perfect.
The key is appreciating what you have…. Every second is a precious million dollar gift.
Sukkot and Happiness
Sukkot is the holiday of “back to basics.” For seven days (eight in the Diaspora), we move out of our comfortable home into a flimsy sukkah. We leave behind the central heating, the furniture, the posturepedic mattress, the recessed lighting, the carpets, the hardwood flooring, the DVD player, the flat-screen TV, and—how spoiled can you get?—the rain-impervious roof. Yet this is the holiday when we have a mitzvah to be especially happy! What exactly are we supposed to be happy about?
In the snuggest juxtaposition in the Jewish calendar, Sukkot comes a mere five days after Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the day when every person’s destiny for the year is sealed, we pray and plead for life. Yes, we also pray for good health, livelihood, marriage, children, a new job, and whatever else we relish, but most of all we pray for life.
Then here we are, five days later, in our cramped, no-frills sukkah. We don’t have our creature comforts or our hi-tech pleasures, but we do have—life. We have no guarantee that we’ll be alive a few months—or even a few days—from now. But right now, sitting on a folding chair in the sukkah, we have life, the fulfillment of our cherished desire. Of course we should rejoice in it.
We also have relationships. No one builds a one-person sukkah. We sit in the sukkah with family — parents/siblings/spouse/
There’s one more ingredient to the joy of Sukkot. On Yom Kippur we are cleansed of all the tainting culpability that has tinged us throughout the year. We emerge from Yom Kippur pure and perfectly prepared for the closeness to God that the sukkah affords.
A simple formula: appreciate life, relationships, and closeness to God. That’s a lot to be happy about.
Larry's Final Words
For both Larry and Jen, the fact that he was dying was no excuse to stop living. At one point, after ten rounds of chemo, Larry was in remission. It seemed like he would make it, after all. Then his doctor in Haifa told Larry that she was 95% sure that he was no longer in remission. Larry phoned Jen to break the news. “Jenny, the doctor said I relapsed.”
Jen, devastated but always encouraging, replied: “It’s going to be okay.”
Sobbing, Larry continued: “The doctor wants to talk to you about when I’m going to restart chemo. She says I have to restart chemo tomorrow.” Larry paused, collected himself, and said cheerily, “But tonight let’s have a date night. Let’s go out to dinner.”
“That’s a good idea,” she enthused. “We need to have fun, not worry about it.”
He left me with a big sack of faith. That’s how a young widow with four children can face the world with a genuine smile.
“Larry had unbounded faith,” Jen recalls. “On the day he got the original diagnosis, when they told him he had a matter of days to live, Larry said to me, ‘All news is good news.’ He meant that everything is from God and therefore everything is for the good. That’s what he left me with, a big sack of faith. And that’s how, as a young widow with four children, I can face the world with a genuine smile.”
At the end, losing the battle against viral pneumonia, Larry's doctors decided to induce a coma. At that point, Jen had been with her husband for five days, around the clock. Larry clasped her hand, looked into her eyes, and with gasping breath, said, “Thank you.”
“It was clear to me, “ Jen recalls, “that Larry was thanking me for everything I had done for him during the last 17 months, for getting his medications and making sure he took them, for feeding him, being his personal nurse, taking care of the kids single-handedly, paying bills, food shopping, and keeping the family afloat. He knew he was coming to his end, so he left nothing unsaid. He thanked me. It meant: I love you; you did everything right.”
Larry knew only one way to say good-bye: Thank you.
This Sukkot, let’s acquire life's most important app — appreciation.
Update 18 months later: I am happy to add the latest news: Jen remarried in September, 2012. Her four daughters are thrilled to have a father presence in their lives again.