I need this story to get the previous post out of my head.
In Mark Harris’s novel “Bang The Drum Slowly,” best known as the inspiration for the film that introduced Robert DeNiro to the movie-going public, a major league baseball team exhibits uncharacteristic kindness toward a third-string catcher who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease. The book, like the film and the stage adaptation, is about kindness and the Golden Rule, an ethical value that seldom inspires literature or art. Kindness is not particularly exciting, but it may be the most ethical of all ethical virtues. The serious illness and impending death of someone in our life often brings the importance of kindness into sharp focus. “Everybody’d be nice to you if they knew you were dying,” says the doomed catcher, Bruce Pearson, to his room mate and champion, star pitcher Henry Wiggen. “Everybody knows everybody is dying,” Wiggen replies. “That’s why people are as good as they are.”
Pasco High School student Vanessa Garcia learned that she had an inoperable brain tumor when she was in elementary school. Until two years ago, treatment had kept the tumor in remission, but the mass began growing again when she was 15. Undaunted, Garcia continued to go to school, work diligently, and keep a positive and uncomplaining outlook, earning the admiration of her classmates, teachers and school officials.
The 17-year old began her senior year attending classes and doing well, but her condition ultimately deteriorated to the point where she was often unable to attend class. She was determined to graduate, and when it became evident Vanessa would not finish her courses and might not survive long enough to participate in the commencement ceremony at the end of this month, the district arranged for a special, early ceremony at the high school just for her. But the cancer wouldn’t cooperate: her family informed the school that Garcia had been moved to a hospice, and was too ill to leave her bed.
So Pasco High’s administrators brought the ceremony to the hospice. Students, teachers, district officials and others filled a large room down the hall from Garcia’s hospice room. There were banners, balloons, flowers, and speeches from dignitaries and classmates, saluting Vanessa’s character and courage. Nurses wheeled Garcia’s bed into the room, and she was dressed in her cap and gown. She could only communicate with a thumbs up sign, but it she made it clear that she understood and appreciated the ceremony. Finally, to applause and cheers, Principal Kari Kadlub handed the girl her diploma, pronouncing Garcia an inspiration for all who know her.
Let us hope that this is true, and the inspiration sticks. Too often, it does not.
At the end of “Bang the Drum Slowly,” the narrator, pitcher Wiggen, recalls how quickly everyone on the team went back to their old habits and selfish ways after Bruce went home to die, even neglecting to attend the player’s funeral. Even Wiggen, who was the leader of the effort to make the catcher feel loved and appreciated in his last days, ruefully recalls his own failing. Bruce had asked him to send him a World Series program (the team won the pennant after Bruce became too ill to play), and Henry forgot to mail it until it was too late. How hard would it have been, he rebukes himself, to just put it in an envelope and mail it?
Well, sadly, the answer for most of us is: hard. We are overwhelmed with our own lives and problems, and focusing on the problems and needs of others is a constant challenge. We can manage it for a while, most of us, but eventually, the human tendency of “out of sight, out of mind” takes over. As in Henry’s case, recognizing this human design flaw is a major step on the road to overcoming it. At the end of his story, Henry Wiggen resolves to remember what he learned from Bruce by resolving to be kinder to everyone, all the time. “From here on in, I rag nobody,” he pledges.
It’s a start.
Facts and Graphic: The Tampa Tribune