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Steadfast grip of a longtime friendship

"Somebody hold my hand," the dying man pleaded.

Russell Nise, 77, lay in a bed at Abington Memorial Hospital on Sept. 10, three days before his death.

"I'm in such pain," Nise said. "I can't stand it. Somebody hold my hand."

Fred Scott, his only friend in the world, reached out.

"This is Fred," he said. "Fred got your hand."

Nise, disabled from birth, had no wife, no children - nobody to hold his hand as he was dying, except Scott, 68.

The two men had met 15 years earlier. Nise, an accountant who lived with his parents until they died, had alienated his next-door neighbors, even his lawn-service guy, who quit after an argument.

The man who quit asked Scott, a retired truck driver, if he wanted the job.

Scott checked out the lawn in the Roslyn section of Abington. It wasn't big but had a steep backyard.

Scott mowed it with a push mower. He didn't ask for money, figuring the professional would cool off and resume the job.

But two weeks later, Scott drove by and saw the grass was long again. He went home and got his mower. As he finished, Nise came out and said, "Let me pay you."

Every two weeks, Scott mowed Nise's lawn for $20.

Scott soon realized that food shopping was hard for Nise because Nise couldn't push a grocery cart and use his walker at the same time.

"Give me a list. I'll do the shopping," offered Scott.

And he did.

Scott would go by in the spring and put in air conditioners, and he'd take them out in the fall. He'd drive Nise to doctor appointments.

One morning after five years, Nise gave Scott a key.

"What's this?" Scott asked.

"A key to the house," said Nise.

When it snowed, Scott shoveled the driveway, salted the walk, scraped off the car, even warmed it up.

Scott often went over on evenings, weekends. "We'd watch football and The Jerry Springer Show," he said.

Scott, of Upper Dublin, would invite Nise to his house, but Nise never came, and in those 15 years he never met Scott's wife, although they talked on the phone.

"My wife used to call him my son," Scott said, "because I'd be taking care of him all the time."

Nise would tell Scott, "I don't know what I'd do without you. You're the only friend I've got."

Scott would reply, "That's what it's all about. People helping people."

"To me, he was a nice guy," said Scott. "Once in a while, he'd get mad when I try to tell him different things, usually about going to doctors . . . and I'd say, 'Calm down, Russ. This is the way it got to be.' "

A day or two later, Nise would call, saying, " 'Fred, you all right? I thought you were mad at me.' But when he got mad, I overlooked it."

In 2003, after they'd been friends nearly 10 years, Scott got a fat envelope in the mail.

Inside were legal papers giving Scott power of attorney for Nise, and a copy of Nise's will prepared by lawyer William B. Eagan.

The last will and testament of Russell B. Nise, dated March 27, 2003, states that, after money is set aside for funeral arrangements, "all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, I give, devise and bequeath unto Fred Scott."

"It was a shock to me," said Scott. "I never asked for it."

'Fred, help me'

Last August, Scott was in Wildwood with his wife, Phyllis, and daughter when his cell phone rang. It was Nise.

"Fred, help me. I can't breathe."

"I can't get to you," Scott replied. "Now listen to me. Hang up and call 911."

Nise spent more than three weeks in the Abington hospital, worse by the day.

On Sept. 10, a doctor and social worker with the hospital's palliative care team sat down with Scott, and told him exactly what was happening. Nise had congestive heart failure and other dire problems, all getting worse. Since Nise couldn't speak for himself, they wanted to know from Scott how to proceed.

"He don't want to suffer," Scott said. "He told me that."

The doctor asked if Scott would want them to try reviving Nise if his heart stopped.

"Had you thought about that?" the doctor asked.

"No, I haven't," Scott said.

If Nise couldn't breathe on his own, would Scott want him put on a machine?

Scott had started out mowing a man's grass. He was now making end-of-life decisions.

He said doctors should try to do everything they could, at least temporarily. "I would like to see what happens," Scott said.

Minutes later, back in the room, Scott was holding Nise's hand.

"I'm going to die," Nise said.

"No, not yet," Scott said. "Hang in there."

"What are they doing to help me?" he moaned.

"They're going to give you new medicine," Scott said.

"I want to die," Nise said.

"No, you don't want to die yet. Hang in there. Things are going to get better."

Nise drifted in and out of consciousness.

At the kitchen table

Three days later, Nise's heart stopped. Doctors tried to revive him but could not.

By the time Scott got to the hospital that morning, his friend was dead. He said a prayer over his friend's body, and sat with him awhile.

Scott left to tell Nise's next-door neighbors, Richard and Joan Heffner, the news. Scott had gotten to know the Heffners over the years, and cut their lawn, too.

"I've lived next door to Russell and his parents for 57 years," Richard Heffner, 80, said the next day. "They were nasty people. My kids were afraid of him."

"No friends ever came," said Joan Heffner, 77. "Except for Fred."

For Nise's eternal rest, Scott bought him a pair of new khakis, a windowpane shirt, and socks from Kmart.

There was no funeral, only a burial at the local Hillside Cemetery. The Heffners decided to go so Scott wouldn't be alone at the cemetery.

Richard Heffner read the 23d Psalm. After he finished, his wife reached up, put her arms around Scott, kissed him on a cheek, and told him, "Thank God for you."

After the burial, Scott went back to Nise's house and sat at his kitchen table, just as he always had. He opened his friend's wallet. Inside was a pink slip of paper.

Scrawled on it were these words: "In case of emergency, notify Fred Scott."

An honorable friend

Nise's estate was valued at $90,000, primarily the house, said Eagan, Nise's lawyer. It goes to Scott, who thinks his grown daughter will move in, once it's in his name.

"Fred is a very honorable guy, and I believe all he did was strictly because he wanted to be a friend," Eagan said.

Through the fall, Scott continued to cut Nise's lawn. Every now and then he'd sit at the kitchen table - force of habit, really.

For years, Scott went over on Christmas Day. He's not sure what he'll do this year.