Last night, I went to visit a friend in the hospital. I didn’t know what to expect, not just about my friend’s condition, but also about visiting a friend in the hospital, because I’d never done that before. Never before have I had a friend in the hospital.
Realizing this on the way over also made me realize how right my wife was when she said recently that I’ve been sheltered from death. Absolutely right, is how right she’s been. As a medical professional, she’s been working alongside it for 30 years. Me? No. My father died, but that was 23 years ago. And a couple of friends have died recently, but I had lost touch with them years earlier. I’ve known a few suicides, but here’s how those have worked: you find out later that they’ve killed themselves. Sometimes, yes, only just shortly after you’ve seen them, but you’re not there for it. At least, I haven’t been. So in the overall tally of death and disease, I and my immediate circle have been extraordinarily lucky.
This is all by way of saying that, honestly, I was dreading the visit. I didn’t want to go. Oh, I was going, there was no doubt about it; when your good friend of almost 25 years is in the hospital, of course you’re going to go. No, you don’t want to — but you also don’t want to live with regret if you don’t. We had had dinner plans set for Sunday, but he texted me on Friday morning, asking me to call him. When I did, he told me he’d been hospitalized the night before. He was doing much better, he said, and fully expected to be discharged on Sunday night, but dinner was off.
I told him I’d visit.
Hours later when I meekly stuck my head around his hospital room door, I wasn’t surprised by how he looked. He’d been to my house just a few weeks before. So I’d seen the weight loss, and the hair loss, and the other signs of his epic struggle this past year. I sat in the visitor’s chair, a leatherette chair oddly immobilized despite castors that should have enabled it to be rolled into line of site, where my friend wouldn’t have to crane his neck to see me. No matter how I pushed or tugged or swung it, it wouldn’t arc into viewing position, so finally I just shoved it across the floor, scraping the tile. I didn’t care about the floor; I just didn’t want my hospitalized but valiant friend to have to crane his neck. In this way, at 6:30, we started our visit, the visit I needed to make, but didn’t know how to conduct.
No, the big surprise was not his illness, or the depredations it visited upon him, or any of the accoutrements of a hospital room. The big surprise, the thing I was utterly unprepared for, was what a great time we had. Ninety minutes sailed by, and before I saw it coming, visiting time was over.
What did we talk about? We talked a lot about theatre. We’ve built two theaters together, and I hope to do a third some day with him. We talked about our theatre experiences, and what incredible and practical training for life that a life in the theatre can provide. Because the basic tenet is that the show will go on, and go on at the time scheduled, theatre people are prepared for anything. We know that something will go wrong — it always does, whether it’s a missed cue or a missing prop or a missing actor — and so, we’re always prepared to adapt. That mindset of preparation and adaptability makes one powerful. We also talked about our childhoods, with each of us always the smartest one in class and all the difficulties that come with that. He said he was always trying to pull them up this level; I laughed hard at that. He also, from his sickbed, re-enacted his response hunching back to his room after one of the more painful admission treatments he’d received: “Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow.” That was uproariously funny. Shortly after I arrived, so did his dinner, but he left it there on his tray, untouched. But as he shared one hilarious story after another, and I kept laughing, bit by bit his color returned, his voice grew stronger, and then he started eating.
Like every true performer, he came alive for the audience.
I was sorry to see 8 o’clock arrive. But ninety minutes is typical for a one-man show, so it seemed a good time to leave. I didn’t want to wear him out.
“About Sunday, you’ll let me know if things change?” I asked.
He didn’t understand. He thought I was wondering if maybe we could still do dinner that day, which I knew was off.
“No,” I said. I wanted a return engagement. “If they wind up keeping you, I’ll come back. I’d like to come back.”