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Death takes a life— but not a friend

The 2019 holiday season was inspiring, festive and full of good cheer.

2020? Not so much.

Starting at Thanksgiving and ending on New Year's Day, there are several holiday movies on DVD we watch, and "It's A Wonderful Life" is always at the top of the stack.

Last year, the iconic Frank Capra classic that showcases the value of friendship, helped us reminisce and celebrate the remembrance of a wonderful New Year's eve that was spent with cherished friends Mark (an Auschwitz survivor) and his wife Rhoda on a QE-2 holiday cruise.

This year, the pandemic, along with the necessary isolation and depressing changes to our lives, strangely has me pulling my Jimmy Stewart favorite out in October and set it on the TV stand. My wife asks me why I'm taking this holiday classic out of the closet so early. I said, "I don't really know.”

Later, I knew why.

"I bring you sad news,” was the email's opening line.

It was the kind of first sentence I wasn't expecting from my newly reconnected past Michigander friend Don, now living in California.

Earlier this year, Don and I started exchanging email notes, reminiscing of days gone by in The Great State of Michigan where we both grew up, and also Kettering Medical Center where we both worked. I was excited to share with Don some of my past stories from Michigan experiences, like "The Colored Print Shirt,” "High & Tight,” and "The Super Bowl Of All Super Bowls.” Our emails had been positive, fun and a recollection for us both of a time when we were young and invincible, and when the State of Michigan was a vibrant popular place to be.

In this unanticipated email, however, Don told me of the recent unexpected death of JR (Jerome Rafoth), my beloved food service director when I was the CEO at Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick, Maine.

Jerome Rafoth

JR was the expert chef and supporter of the esprit de corps of my unusually talented team at Parkview. Don told me that JR had passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. JR had been working at an Adventist Hospital in Central California near where Don is living.

JR gone! Oh no! A kaleidoscope of thoughts and memories immediately started on my mind's private Netflix channel.

JR's culinary skills were exceptional and he knew how to make food that was oh so delicious. I can still taste his legendary mashed potatoes and many community people came to our hospital just to have lunch in the cafeteria.

JR's greatest skill, however, was his positive, radiant personality. No matter the problem, JR had a solution that could be worked through in a positive manner.

As I write a sympathy card to his wife Cindy, I find myself wanting to write to JR as well, as if he would be receiving my messages.

I want to thank JR for doing his job so well and for always caring about others he worked with at Parkview. And I want to thank him for preparing fresh holiday meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas and delivering them to the staff on the patient care units.

But most of all I want to thank him for being my friend.

Because of his exceptional performance, and the demand for top food service talent, JR was recruited away to greener pastures in California.

In subsequent years when I would travel from Guam to the Loma Linda School of Medicine on recruiting trips, each time I would stop into the Loma Linda Medical Center Food Service Director's office, JR would always have a warm handshake or hug for me.

JR's passion for excellence combined with his humorous approach to life made him an acquaintance I could never forget.

Mitch Albom, one of my favorite writers, in a recent column, reminisced about his relationship with an old acquaintance Morrie, who was the subject of his bestselling book "Tuesdays With Morrie.”

Morrie succumbed to ALS. Prior to his death, Morrie and Mitch discussed death many times. In his column, Mitch was reflecting on how the current Covid pandemic would have robbed them of their precious final moments and discussions together before Morrie passed.

In one of their last visits together before Morrie’s death, Morrie told Mitch, "Death kills a life, but not a relationship.”

After reading Mitch's column, I'm thinking of JR, and even though he has passed, I can't stop thinking of our friendship.

As I go to flip on the nightly news, I see the "It's A Wonderful Life" DVD sitting on the TV stand. I decide to play this lesson on life even though it's not Thanksgiving yet.

As the timeless story works toward its conclusion and they sing “Auld Lang Syne” (translated it means “Old Long Since”) a moistness of tears take place, as I can only think of

my "Old Long Since" friend, JR, from times gone by.

"Should old acquaintance be forgot

and never brought to mind;

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and days of Auld Lang Syne.

For Auld Lang Syne my dear, for Auld Lang Syne,

we'll take a cup of kindness yet,

for Auld Lang Syne,

We'll take a cup of kindness yet,

For Auld Lang Syne"

As the chorus closes, George picks up the book from Clarence, opens the front cover and reads the hand written note.

"Dear George, Remember, no man's a failure who has friends. Love, Clarence.”

When I see JR again, I’ll thank him for being my friend!

Theodore Lewis is former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a health care consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at

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