Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Heart of a Man

The Heart of a Man

“A good old man is hard to find,” my friend, neighbor and theatre cohort Amy teased.

“And we need two of them,” I lamented.

“No problem,” we both said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. And then we both laughed.

We’d been calling old men all week trying to encourage them to take the part of Old Flick in the upcoming production of Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story. Set in the late thirties, the story is a recollection retold by two old friends--Ralph and Flick--of a Christmas when all little Ralphie needed (not merely wanted but needed) was to own a Red Ryder BB Gun double carbine action--to shoot varmints.

We’d begun the process of casting by drawing up our criteria for men who would be: 1) the right age (over seventy); 2.) willing to do the parts (theatre saavy or at least adventurous enough to learn); 3.) available to do the part ( in other words, in town versus in Arizona or Florida); 4) capable (translation: open-hearted); and finally 5) men who would understand the joy and necessity of owning a "An official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time"--or better yet, men who had actually owned one.

Again, we’d looked at each other: “Right, no problem, Christmas miracle.” Undaunted, we began our “call and email” campaign. In my heart I was not only confident that we’d find two gentlemen who fit the criteria to do it--we’d find that here were two old men who were meant for the part.

My heart was right. That very day, Ed Hill returned my email with a resounding: Yes! Yes! Yes! He was not only willing and available to play the part of Old Ralph, he was equally delighted to make a few calls to some old guys who might be willing to get involved. Within the week, Ed called me back and said: “Tom Bostwick would like to see a copy of the script.”

That same night, I pulled up in front of Tom’s house, hopeful, nervous. I could see Tom seated across from the front window in his easy chair. He was laughing with and nodding to grandson Zach who was sprawled on the couch to his left. They were watching the game.

I rang the bell and Tom’s wife Marge answered and invited me inside. “It’s cold out there; come on in,” she said, and called to her husband. “Tom, Karla’s here.” The house was warm and inviting and smelled like Sunday supper. Tom came around the corner, and I handed him a copy of the script, hoping he’d like it. I waved to Zach.

“Here for dinner are you?” I asked him.

“Yep,” Zach said and smiled. “Meatloaf.”

Meanwhile Tom paged through the script.

“You know,” he said. “I had a Red Ryder BB Gun. Did everything with it that I wasn’t supposed to do--including shoot out my own eye! No kidding!”

That was the thing about Tom, he was nearly always kidding. A dry, ascerbic wit--much like his son Eric’s--and no doubt like Zach’s. He was full of what my Dad referred to as “the Dickens.”

Marge was hesitant about him getting involved, worried that he was taking on too much what with his church board matters and such. He shook his head as if to assure her that it would be fine, turned to me and said the words that made my heart sing:

“You can count on me.”

And that was it. The following week he was there at rehearsal, delivering his lines with great humor and heart. He was joking with his fellow cast members--adult and child alike--a part of the action, a part of the circle as we shared our names and parts. Afterwards he came up to me and shared how much fun he was having, how glad he was to be involved, how he’d never before seen such a great group of kids. I told him how delighted I was to have found not one but two good old men! He laughed and took me by the arm gently and told me what a great job I was doing. I was taken quite aback by his charm.

“Thank you, Tom,” I said. “That means a lot coming from you. You’re too kind..” That was the Saturday before Thanksgiving. “I’ll see you after the holidays.” To which he replied:

“You can count on me!”

Life had other plans. On Thanksgiving Day Thomas “Tom” Bostwick passed away. That great big generous heart of his gave out. I was in Chicago visiting family when Amy called the day after Thanksgiving with the news. I stood in the middle of Best Buy on Black Friday and cried like a child who had just learned that her own grandpa had died. I could not imagine the circle without him in it. Amy continued to share how happy he’d been, how he’d been telling everyone how glad he was to be doing what he loved, nervous but excited, learning his lines. He’d been in a good place, a connected place, doing what he loved.

My head tells me that’s what matters, that the best we can hope for is to leave this world on a note of joy versus lament, connected versus isolated, full versus hungry. My heart tells me how fitting a tribute to this man so many of us counted on--a generous man who shared of himself: an afternoon of Sunday meatloaf and the game; a good joke; a screw gun to help build a set or repair something around the house; a tall tale about a boy named Tom, born 71 years ago, who one Christmas wished for and received "an official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time" --a boy named Tom--whose heart was full of mischief and mirth to the end--a boy who shot his own eye out with that Red Ryder carbine actionBB Gun.

A boy who grew into one fine old man, an old man that we were fortunate enough to find. An old man who never forgot the boy in his heart, an old man who remains in the circle, whose absence is felt. This one’s for you, Tom! Count on it.

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