Who’s Douglas?!: 4 — A Few More Flowers

A Few More Flowers

Doug and Stan (1995)
Doug and Stan (1995)

Intercepting a Punch

A bunch of us are sitting around the community shelter. Douglas is casually insulting George, who had once lived in this area and had then moved away. I watch the scowl on John’s face deepen as he listens to the put-down of his close friend.

Suddenly John snaps. He jumps up, looming over Douglas with his fist cocked.

“I’m gonna hit you!” he shouts.

Taking advantage of the warning, I leap between them.

“You’ll have to hit me first, John.”

John stares at me for a long moment. Then all the rage sags out of him. We step outside to talk, leaving a surprised Douglas behind. He hadn’t intended to push one of John’s buttons. He was simply running his mouth. But he was happy to have hit a nerve if it helped cause motion.

Shortly thereafter, John leaves Copper Hill and moves to Richmond, where he finds a job, gets married and has a son. Douglas approves of the move. He had felt all along that John’s path of growth lay in the mainstream culture.

(There’s yet another little piece of synchronicity here. When Joyce was pregnant, folks formed a baby pool. Everyone put a dollar on the day they thought the baby would be born, winner take all. John had the wit to ask Joyce when she thought the baby’s birthday was going to be. Joyce replied that, given my Good Friday thing, she’d plunk her dollar down on April 20th. John followed her advice, and on Good Friday he walked off with the winnings.)

* * *

[Now we jump forward in time for the last two stories. The setting for these is Salem Rehab, where Douglas lived after his stroke.]

He’s a Good Man

Doug and I are sitting in a small visiting room, reading Seth. A woman in a wheel chair, another resident in the nursing home, sees us from the hallway and maneuvers through the closed doors to join us. She looks first at Douglas, then at me.

“You his friend?”

I nod.

“He’s a good man.”

I nod again.

“What’s your name?”

“Robert. What’s yours?”

“Shirley. He’s a good man. He has a lot of friends here.”

“Yes, he does,” I agree. I’m remembering wheeling Doug down the hallways and watching his pointed-finger greeting to almost everyone we passed. And many of those he pointed to would smile back, or nod, or wave.

“What’s your name?”

“Robert.”

“That’s a good name. He’s a good man. He has a lot of friends here.”

“Would you like to join us? I’m reading to him.”

“No, I’ll be going so you two can read together.”

And then, turning her wheel chair toward the door, she pauses.

“What’s your name?”

“Robert.”

She nods, pushes through the doorway, and resumes making her rounds.

Don’t Screen Him Out

This final story is in the same vein. It’s the Thursday evening of my last visit with Douglas before driving up to Massachusetts for my course. It’s the last time I will see him. I’m sitting on his bed. He’s in his wheel chair, ready for bed. I’ve already asked the nurses to help settle him in, telling them I’ll wait until they’re finished and then continue reading to him. But they haven’t arrived yet.

I’m reading from his copy of The Nature of the Psyche, going to passages notated on a bookmark still in the book. It’s an eerie feeling. These are passages that he had been moved by, had marked, and then had read to me on Thursday afternoons long gone by.

Now I’m reading the same passages back to him, in this poignant setting, and both of us are still moved by them. I marvel at the heart’s constancy, despite the profound change in circumstances.

Soon after I start reading, Doug draws my attention, with a nod and a glance, to his new roommate, in the bed behind me. I look over my shoulder. The man is lying in his bed, eyes closed, mouth open, gaunt face, shallow breathing. He looks like my grandfather looked just before he died.

I turn back to the book, puzzled. I can’t ask Doug why he’s pointing his roommate out to me, because the stroke has paralyzed not only the right side of his body but also his vocal chords, and he wouldn’t be able to reply. So I resume reading. It’s the passage I shared earlier, about death not being some “curt dismissal.”

But Douglas interrupts me again, with a more emphatic jut of his chin. And as I turn once more to study his elderly, failing companion, it hits me. I suddenly know what Douglas is attempting to convey.

He’s saying, “Stay awake, Robert! Broaden your focus. I’m sensing something in this man. Bring him into your circle of awareness. Don’t screen him out! Who knows? Maybe you have something to offer him. Maybe he has something to offer you. Stay awake!”

Doug had done this with me repeatedly over the years, with cashiers, sales people, doctors, nurses. His Geiger counter was almost always out and on. If he started to get a reading off of someone—some hint of that deep longing he was always searching for—he was going to explore it. And if I was with him, he expected my cooperation. Even if he had to nudge me to get it.

“You want me to bring this guy into the circle, don’t you?”

Douglas nods.

So I adjust my position on his bed, raise the volume of my voice a bit, and continue reading. Douglas, with a slight, satisfied smile, settles back to listen.

I leave him, after my goodbyes, sitting in his wheel chair, next to his bed, waiting for someone to make him ready for sleep. A final reminder to the nursing station and then I’m down the hall, out the door, and into the gathering twilight.

“Be patient and wait, my friend,” I murmur. “This won’t go on forever. Be patient and wait.”

So this is the small bouquet from the garden of my memories:

Standing Up to the Drill Sergeant
The Dream of Transdyne
First Meeting
The Essenes on Temple Hill
The Small Circle in the Test Tube
Intercepting a Punch
He’s a Good Man
Don’t Screen Him Out

A special set of memories for a very special friend.

I’m glad he’s not here today [at his memorial service]. Doug hated big gatherings like this. But he always wanted a full report, afterward, on anything that he may have missed.

And now, finally, it’s your turn to share some of your own stories about this complex, lovable, infuriating man. I’m looking forward to hearing them. But be forewarned—I plan to pass on everything I hear to Douglas, the very next time I see him.

Douglas as a naval officer (1954)
Douglas as a naval officer (1954)