By all accounts, Herman Liss was a great guy. Devout, kind, intelligent, a successful salesperson, he also knew how to have a good time, was a great dancer and a snappy dresser, as well as a loving and committed husband to his wife of 26 years, Betty.
This warm but familiar story veers off course, though, into territory often hard to put into words, and even harder to explain. At the age of 92, within a week’s time, Betty passed away and Liss suffered a stroke that left him unable to continue to live on his own.
After a series of hospital stays and rehab visits, Liss moved into the Jewish Rehabilitation Center (JRC), on Paradise Road in Swampscott.
This combination of events would dampen the spirits of anyone and, optimistic and cheerful as he was, Liss struggled.
What followed was a remarkable transformation. Liss took on a new level of engagement with others, forging strong and meaningful relationships with those he encountered and managed to become, in the words of his step-daughter, Michele Tamaren and his friend, Michael Wittner, “a life that shines light into the hearts of others” and “a nursing home and hospice patient who helped heal those who cared for him.”
For while Liss struggled, he never gave up. Reading deeply into the spiritual teachings of Judaism and Buddhism, he opened up his heart and soul to those around him by listening intently to others, treating each person with respect and gratitude, and always asking how he could help — all the time — no matter how cranky or sad or pain ridden he himself felt.
Tamaren and Wittner have chronicled this journey in their just released book, ExtraOrdinary: An End of Life Story Without End. Positively reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly, the esteemed journal called it “a true-life tale of transformation;” the book was also recently chosen by the on-line bookseller Amazon as one of the top 5 books on death and grieving.
ExtraOrdinary includes how Liss and Wittner, 12 years old when they met as a result of a community service requirement at Wittner’s school and 80 years his junior, formed a bond that leaped years, and forever changed Wittner’s life.
Wittner says of Liss, he “made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.” The book tells of the spiritual leaders, nurses, fellow patients, custodians, and aides who confided in him, visited him on their off hours, brought their children to visit, and came to love him, all during the last 2 years of his life.
Tamaren, who spent 30 years as a special education teacher and now is a life coach and spiritual mentor, notes that many of us care for ailing and elderly family members. Her hope is that her father’s life will be a beacon to others, as they either struggle themselves with aging or care for those who do.
Wittner, who lives in Salem, graduated from Marblehead High School and received his bachelor’s degree from Bard this spring. This coming September, he will join Americare’s City Year Program in New York to teach in the Bronx. He will carry his good friend Liss’s wisdom with him with a handy acronym. He smiles, and says, “Whenever I have a problem, I just ask myself, what would Herman do?”
ExtraOrdinary: An End of Life Story Without End by Michele Tamaren and Michael Wittner is available from the Spirit of ’76 Bookstores in Vinnin Square and Marblehead, as well as on-line.