“Bang The Drum Slowly,” My Old Friend, and Me

The American Century Theater's "Bang the Drum Slowly"

The American Century Theater’s “Bang the Drum Slowly”

I haven’t mentioned it here, but we are ending the 20 year adventure of my intentionally out-of-fashion theater company, The American Century Theater, after next season. One of the things I will miss most about it is that working so closely with the great works of stage literature we produce causes their wisdom and life observations to stick with us. Since I tend to choose works that involve ethical dilemmas, this has had professional as well as personal benefits.

I was thinking about the Mark Harris play (and novel, and movie) “Bang The Drum Slowly” in May, when I wrote about the kindness shown to Pasco High School student Vanessa Garcia, who was dying of cancer, because we were performing it at the time.  The story involves a baseball team and how it responds to a third-string catcher who is dying of Hodgkin’s Disease. It is about kindness and the Golden Rule, and the ways the impending death of someone in our life often brings into sharper focus the importance of kindness and our shared obligations on this perplexing journey to oblivion we all must travel together. But I really wasn’t thinking about “Bang The Drum Slowly” yesterday. Yesterday, I was just having a wonderful time talking about baseball, politics and family with my old friend from law school, who happened to be in a hospice.

He had been there since October, after doctors had told him that his congestive heart disease and multiple lung blood clots were beyond their ability to treat. They gave him just a few weeks to live, but he had fooled them. Yesterday he was funny, energetic and upbeat. It could have been his law school avatar in front of me, except for the white beard, the oxygen tank, and the wheel chair.

I think it was the fourth time I had a long visit with him since last fall, not nearly enough. He gave me crap about it too, but my friend understood me and knew that I knew him as well—like me, he would have been less than diligent visiting a sick friend as often as he should. He was always too busy living, until, that is, he had to start dying.

Yesterday’s visit almost didn’t happen. I hadn’t seen him in several weeks, only following his exploits—a birthday, his son’s college graduation, a Nationals game—on Facebook. In response to a pointed e-mail from my friend last week, I finally made an appointment to come by. He cancelled our date Saturday night, saying he was sick, but then contacted me Sunday to announce that he felt better. Could I still come by? Indeed I could.

It was a glorious day in Northern Virginia, sunny, cool and breezy, and we sat together on the hospice building’s long porch. Periodically my friend had to move out of the way as one of his ancient housemates, using a walker, had to pass through the narrow corridor, so he would push his wheelchair backwards with his feet, and joke with them about his spryness and how he was the whippersnapper of the group, which at just short of 65, he certainly was. The time sped by, as he made me jot down various essays from Ethics Alarms that he admired and wanted to send to his politically involved friends. Earlier that day I had finally e-mailed him a non-political post from this year that he had asked for more than once—this one, about the death of my childhood friend, Greg.

The living, lively friend in front of me complained about his beloved Cincinnati Reds (it was he who gave me his family’s prime tickets to Game Six of the 1975 World Series, where I saw Carlton Fisk hit his immortal homer off what is now called Fisk’s Pole, winning among the greatest games in baseball history and making me one of the 33,000 luckiest Boston baseball fans alive), Eric Holder and ISIS, spicing his rants with bawdy jokes and stories about his late twin brother, my law school room mate, who had been the real world embodiment of “Cheers'” Sam Malone, a hilariously insatiable but charming ladies man. We both laughed til we cried.

Finally, I had to go. We made arrangements for me to come back in three days, and he reminded me of my “assignments.” As I looked back to wave goodbye to my friend, sitting on the porch there, it seemed to me I had never seen him happier, or, since his illness, healthier. I also resolved to stop being a self-absorbed ass and visit at least once a week. I had made that pledge to myself before, but this time, I was going to keep it.

That night, I got a couple of e-mails from my friend, commenting on various news reports. He also called me, but chatting with my wife before she handed the phone to me, he suddenly said that he had to go, and we never talked. An hour later, I received the news that he was dead.

And I realized that “Bang The Drum Slowly”  had nearly run me down, missing me by a breath.

At the end of the story, the narrator, the best friend of the catcher (but not really that close a friend) recalls how quickly everyone on the baseball team went back to their selfish ways after their teammate went home to die Even the narrator, who was the leader of the effort to make the catcher feel loved and appreciated in his last days, ruefully recalls his own failing. The catcher had asked him a favor, just to send him a World Series program (the team won the pennant after he had become too ill to play), and he had forgotten to mail it until it was too late. How hard would it have been, the narrator rebukes himself, to just put it in an envelope and mail it? Why are we like that, he wonders, as he makes the audience wonder too.

It was purest luck that I happened to spend that final day with my neglected friend, giving me a privilege and a pardon that I did not really deserve. I was a good and caring friend yesterday, but where had I been all of the others? What was so important, so pressing, that it could be put aside to be with a good friend and a wonderful man who had played such a large part in my life, and who was slowly dying? What is the matter with us? What is the matter with me?

So, today, in shock, guilt and mourning, I find myself in the shoes of pitcher Henry Wiggen, the narrator of “Bang The Drum Slowly,” resolving to learn, to be kinder and more caring, and a better friend the next time.

God, I hope I remember.


13 thoughts on ““Bang The Drum Slowly,” My Old Friend, and Me

  1. The best gift any friend can give when someone becomes limited, whether slowly or fast, is their company. A friend reminds them of better times and life outside the plastic cheer and sometimes surly professionals. That kind of visit is the kind of way I want to go, so I’m glad you had that day.

  2. I am sorry for your loss. You are blessed to have had such a great friend and to have so many happy memories of him and your times together. You may be already even closer than you know to being as kind, caring, and friend-ly as you can ever become; don’t beat yourself up unnecessarily. I felt and observed the benefit of your kindness and caring recently, in the exchange we had after I’d not commented for a month and you initiated contact. That encouraged and inspired me more than you know. Know that you are a tough act to follow, for all the goodness you do and proliferate. That is as lofty a measure of a man as can be reasonably expected, I think.

  3. First of all, please accept my condolences. It takes great courage to celebrate a life reaching its end, as you and your friend did, but grief is also a noble feeling that I have no intention of dismissing.

    In the spirit of attempting to answer your questions regarding the difficulty of seeing dying friends, I offer food for thought. I offer it in earnest, as I believe you ask in earnest. This is my own meager tribute, and though it may seem inappropriately clinical at this juncture, I am far from dry eyes as I write this. If it troubles anyone, please ignore it as the ponderous musings of a tone-deaf mollusk.

    The procrastination you describe is likely caused by the same feeling that would deter me from commenting here but for an unexpected feeling of belonging, and would deter this analysis but for the duty to address a serious question. There is a social principle that applies to personal tragedy called “comfort in, dump out” which establishes a hierarchy of people based on how closely related they are to the person experiencing the hardship; one must comfort those more closely related to the person at the center and can complain to more distantly related people.

    The entire situation is emotionally straining for all involved, but it is even more straining to be comforting when one wants to vent one’s own grief. Furthermore, if one is talking to a dying friend, does one attempt to be upbeat to improve their mood, or be somber to show respect? One must know the person to know which approach is better, but people can be unpredictable when faced with their own mortality. Not only is it difficult to be genuine if one is trying to predict and avoid missteps, but it can also be hard to think of conversation topics when one’s mind is drawn to the situation at hand. It is hard to decide if broaching the subject is for the best or a mistake, and either way the ensuing discussion is guaranteed to be even more emotionally draining.

    Interacting with people who are experiencing any form of hardship is often awkward and emotionally tiring, which is why homeless people are frequently overlooked. People have an instinct to avoid awkwardness, even when a tragedy happens to a close friend. It takes a strong bond to be there for someone when they are in pain and you are in pain by proxy.

    Based on these thoughts, I would guess that the best ways to not forget to mail the metaphorical World Series program are to build strong friendships in the present, learn to be at peace with your emotions without being detached from them, practice genuine listening and other comforting behaviors, and practice having enjoyable visits even when a shadow looms over them. Each of these goals is an ongoing endeavor but should be well worth the effort. It is easier to make time for someone when you know for a fact neither of you will be sorry you did. It sounds like you succeeded in these goals admirably with your friend.

    On a final note, the instinct to avoid mental pain also applies to visiting a person in memories. By no means allow guilt or regret to deter you from your friend’s memory any more than you allowed pain or awkwardness to stay you from his living presence that day. I hope reading this helps you even half as much as you helped me by inspiring me to write it.

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