I was booked to perform as Mark Twain at a country club back in the early ’90s. The agent’s contract included a cancellation clause, which is customary. The club facility was undergoing renovations. Closer to the time for their event, it became obvious that the only space they would have had for the banquet was not going to be finished in time. Left with no option, the client asked to cancel, but waited to inform my agent until well inside the “no cancel” period. At first, I offered to extend the agreement if the client wished to reschedule within a reasonable time period.
As it turned out, they were not asking to reschedule, but to cancel altogether. I offered that if the agency could book me elsewhere I would be agreeable to release the original client from their agreement. But the agent wasn’t able to do that as they had nothing else available on such short notice. Since the client would have to pay anyway, they asked if it would be allowed that they should donate my performance as a gift to another group on the same date and in the same geographic region. I agreed.
I thought it most unusual that the “other group” turned out to be the brain trauma center of a major hospital. This would be a difficult set of circumstances for any actor. I wondered then, and have since many times questioned why I would be asked to do a tribute to Samuel Clemens in front of an audience with head injuries. Perhaps the client had a friend or family member there, or maybe someone close to them worked in that part of the hospital. Perhaps it was a punishment to me for making them abide with the terms of the contract, I don’t know.
I did makeup in an available room, and was asked to go in costume to see a particular patient who was being reluctant to join the others in the commons area. They thought him seeing me would make him want to come. When he saw me with my white hair and suit, I’m sure he thought I was an apparition of a spirit come to take him on to the next life. He was polite enough, but wanted to keep his distance. To my face, he agreed to come, but as soon as my back was turned, he recanted, and told the nurse he would not.
Coming to the commons area near the main nurses station, I realized there would quite a few other distractions. This was not going to be anything like any other audience I’ve ever had up to then, or since. Some of the congregation was in wheelchairs; some on gurneys with IVs, and some were literally comatose. One man was in what appeared to be an iron lung. Most of them were not even looking at me, but I was certainly looking at them.
Somehow, I managed to stay in character for the performance. It was both the most humbling experience of my career, and at the same time one of the most inspiring. Most of my audience was in no position to understand anything I said, but I was able to connect with some. Two gentlemen seated near the front row would hit each other on the arm each time I came to a punchline, and a young lady who was paralyzed on one half of her body would pound the table since she could use only one hand, and couldn’t applaud.
A nurse told me later about one particular lady that laughed, and laughed a lot. They told me it was the first attempt to speak, and the first time they’d gotten any response from her that showed emotion since her accident. On my way out, a man in a wheelchair (one side of his body paralyzed) stopped to tell me “thank you”, and he said I was talented. I offered to shake his hand. He held firmly with his good hand for quite a while and looked me in the eye. He smiled, but I knew he was struggling with it.
When I got back to my car, I sat there a long time and thought about all that had happened. I thought about my silly pride and stubbornness that may have put me in such a position. I thought about the many circumstances the individual members of my audience were dealing with, and that while a few may have gotten a chuckle or two, most of the members of that house would never remember that I was even there that day.
I was told that some patients had trouble recognizing members of their own family. I had stood before them on my own two feet, and spoke without struggling to overcome physical or mental impairments. Many of them would not ever be able to again stand up and address a group of people, which was something I’d heretofore taken for granted. It is sad to say, but I knew perhaps a few might not live long enough to ever leave that place, and a few more would never be able to return to their normal routine, or live at home without constant care.
On any given day, we can be happy, and seem grateful. But even in such a good frame of mind, we are often unaware of so much around us. How often do we thoughtlessly ignore the wonder for the simple pleasures in life, with no regard that some of those gifts of life are completely unavailable to others. Mostly, it is out of sight, therefore out of mind. But not that day. Conceivably, some fate worked to give me a momentary reprieve from some of the restraints self centeredness holds us to. Maybe it took the blinders off to let me take in a view of a different reality that is always there, but not always in focus.
In my adult life, I’ve worked at controlling emotions to some degree. It is a part of our culture for men to want to do this. But sitting in my car that afternoon dealing with a flood of thoughts, I felt the tears on my cheek, and let them go without interference. I wasn’t ashamed to cry a little bit, and quite frankly, would have been ashamed had I not. All this did happen, but remembering it now is almost like trying to remember a dream. Most dreams are soon forgotten, but this one will never go away.