A Most Unusual Venue

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.

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27 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wayne Casasanta on December 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Van, thank you for sharing this reminder that God provides many unexpected opportunities for us to touch the lives of others, while at the same time, having our own lives touched and humbled. Your talent touches so many lives, but on that day, the audience returned the favor in ways that have provided lasting memories for you.

    Reply

  2. Posted by cheri lasher on December 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Very enjoyable Van. I think one of my favorites so far. Maybe because in recent months I have been reminded of the exact same things many times. So much we take for granted, until we open our eyes and see things from another person’s perspective.

    Reply

  3. Posted by banjos on December 7, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Wow! Another good’un Van

    Reply

  4. Posted by Bonnie on December 7, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Thank you for sharing, and sharing in such a wonderful open way. Love you.

    Reply

  5. This is wonderful, Van. I am proud to be your friend.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Nadine Coates Brown on December 7, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Van, thank you for sharing this with us. I love it.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Nadeen on December 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    You bloomed where you were planted that day; and you learned to always turn your face to the sun (even if it is behind a cloud). Thank you for sharing…

    Reply

  8. Posted by VGreen on December 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    My favorite part is the girl laughing. You gave her emotion back in her life. What a gift!!! It was a great read, thanks.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Jimmy on December 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Great story Van. More importantly-those folks reciprocated-just think of the lasting memories.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Yolanda on December 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Sometimes are paths are redirected so that we can touch that one person. You made an impact on someone that day that, including yourself.

    That’s why I love you. You made an impact way back then as well. Thanks.

    Reply

  11. I’ve known this story for a long time. Glad that you wrote it down to share with others. I wish more folks could know what a wonderful & talented person you are. I’m a lucky woman to be married to such a good man.

    Reply

  12. Posted by Jane Leonard on December 7, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    I had to cry too! You are the best Van!

    Reply

  13. That was wonderful, Van.

    Reply

  14. Posted by Lt. D. Company on December 8, 2011 at 12:17 am

    I have a friend who teaches middle school. He lives this story everyday.

    Reply

  15. Posted by Steve Howard on December 8, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Van…what an inspiring story. When my mom suffered a stroke and wound up in a long term care facility for the last 4 years of her life, I saw for my own eyes the power of storytelling and music to people who outwardly appeared to be emotionally unreachable. A good friend of mine is a professional musician and for Christmas one year, he played at my mom’s nursing home for the residents. Patients I had watched sit and stare into space for so long actually smiled, clappd their hands or sang along with Danny. The staff said it was the first time some of the patients had exhibited any positive behavior in their time at the facility. Your story should remind every reader that inside nearly every human being exists a trigger point to which they may respond.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

    • Posted by Nadeen on December 8, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      Steve, my mother-in-law was in an assisted living/dementia facility for 9 1/2 years. We went to see her almost daily and although she has been gone almost a year, we still go back to visit other residents and staff that we grew fond of during that time. You are so right about the music; it was amazing to see how my MIL and so many others, severly impaired, would react when someone was playing or singing. At one point when my MIL could no longer form words to speak, she could still sing the words to certain songs. I wish I could play an instrument or sing since such little effort is needed in this area to touch these elders. Which makes me think about Van and his guitar…hmmmmmmm.

      Reply

  16. That’s a great example of why you always give it your best shot. Nice going!

    Reply

  17. Posted by betty moss on December 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    very good, indeed!

    Reply

  18. What an honest and touching story, Van. My MIL is also in a long-term care residence, and while we visit daily, I see that artists and musicians bring something that reaches the patients in a way that the most loving family members cannot.

    And as you wrote, you as an artist gained something from the experience. Every creative person needs to reach out in that way, for their own benefit as well as their communities.

    Reply

  19. Posted by su watson on December 9, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    My dear Van:

    What a touching and meaningful story. I love you even more for sharing it.

    Warmly,
    Su Watson

    Reply

  20. Posted by Mickey Foster on December 11, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    none of us should ever be ashamed to cry……

    Reply

  21. Thanks Van, good food for thought. At our recent 45th. highschool reunion I had a similar experience. A classmate came up while I was playing music & wanted to sit in. As you know it is a little uncomcortable to have someone jam with you that has never rehearsed with you or anything. I gave my old classmate my Martin acoustic trying not to think of not so good experiences I had in the past & we played on. He stayed up almost the whole night…I never plugged him in.
    …long story short at the end of the night he thanked me & said it really helped him, that music was about the only thing that made him forget how much he missed his wife (obviously the love of his life) of 37 years who died the year before
    . Ya never know do ya? Thanks Friend, Bill Pound

    Reply

  22. Posted by Marlene Humberd on January 6, 2012 at 1:59 am

    A beautiful story ….I think, my favorite, Van . Thank you for sharing with us such a personal and life- changing moment. I have now seen a different side of Van Brown… and I like it . ; )

    Reply

  23. van, this is beautiful… can i post this on my blog with a link back to your blog and webpage.. do let me know

    Reply

    • Posted by Nadeen on January 25, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Van, seeing the above comment I also want to ask if I may provide a link to this article for a gal who has a website for family members of those who have loved ones in assisted living/ memory care environments. Let me know…

      Reply

  24. It was better being told by you in person. Great story, as we go through life, these are the moments that help us grow. Thank you for sharing yours and look forward to many more.

    Steve

    Reply

  25. Wonderful story , Thank you Van.

    Reply

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