From backstage, my wife and I could both hear the excited buzz of conversation coming from the audience. All that separated us from them were two curtains, with a tiny vertical opening in the middle of the stage where they almost met. Admission was free and I think that all the seats were occupied.
Using crutches, I stood up. And immediately winced.
Noticing it, my wife asked yet again, “Harvey, are you quite sure you don't want to take a painkiller before giving your speech?”
I winced again and nodded. I tried to keep my breathing relaxed. “Just this once I don't want to hide my pain from view, Dee. I want them to see what it's really like. The painkillers can wait until afterward.” I hoped.
“Can I at least accompany you?” she asked. “Just in case?”
I nodded. “There are two chairs, one on either side of the rostrum. We can move one until it's next to the other one.”
“I'll move it,” she said. “You concentrate on your knees and your speech.” She gave me a kiss. “Good luck, darling.”
I smiled. “Thanks. Don't worry so much about me. I'm going to be just fine.”
“I sure hope so,” Dee said softly. “Come on. Time to step into the spotlight.”
We walked between the two curtains. The audience greeted us by standing up and applauding. I waved my thanks to them and, as I did so, I noticed that someone had already gone to the trouble of arranging the chairs to the right of the rostrum. The audience sat down and waited.
Dee glanced at me, then sat down in her chair.
I walked over to the rostrum and placed my crutches against the left side of the rostrum. The pain was still there, but a little less than it had been a minute ago. I was going to wince every so often, but at least those nearest me could see when it happened. I placed the copy of my speech in front of me. Then I adjusted the microphone until it was an inch or two from my mouth.
“This reminds me,” I said, “of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he suffered from polio. He didn't want most people to know what was happening. He hid his legs under blankets and stood only when he absolutely had to. Coming from an affluent family, he knew that there were plenty of Americans who were still suffering from the Great Depression. He didn't think that they'd want to see that their president was also suffering. They'd want to see a strong, upright leader and he tried to be that for as long as he could, until he finally passed away in April 1945. I can't imagine how much pain he felt, especially in his final days. It must've been excruciating.”
The pain briefly spiked. I closed my eyes as I winced. Dee half-stood, but I shook my head at her. She sat back down. I opened my eyes and continued my speech.
“I also hid the arthritis in my knees from most people. But tonight I decided that I wanted to show what it was like. It does hurt quite a lot. If it weren't for the painkillers I probably would spend most of my time sitting down, never standing up, even with the aid of crutches and/or my wife.
“While I'm at it: Thank you to the kind soul who rearranged the chairs on this stage just the way we wanted them.”
Another brief pain spike. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe calmly. I opened my eyes again less than a minute later.
“I'm not sure how long I can stay standing up here. It might be less painful for me to continue my speech from a sitting position.”
I grabbed my crutches and, this time with Dee's help, I made it to my chair and sat down. It definitely hurt less now, but I knew the pain would return. I rarely went through an hour or two with little or no pain.
A stagehand came on-stage and headed for the rostrum. He moved the microphone stand to in front of my chair, sliding the microphone arm down until it was at the right height. He also handed the copy of my speech to me.
“Thank you,” I told him. “I'm sorry for being so much trouble.”
“No trouble at all, sir. Always glad to help.” With that he went off-stage again.
“Please give a round of applause to him and the others assisting us today,” I told the audience.
They obediently applauded, then quieted again.
“Some jobs are thankless,” I went on. “Like the Good Samaritan. They help because they want to, not because of how much their paid or even if their efforts are noticed and thanked.” I put my arms around my wife. “And this is one person who has done the most for me.” I kissed her. “I love you, Dee.”
She smiled and tried not to cry. “I love you, too, Harvey.”
More applause. This time voluntary and I was glad that Dee got the recognition for all her hard work. She definitely deserved it.
“Rest assured, I won't suffer any longer than necessary. I'll be taking a painkiller once I finish my speech.”
I seriously winced this time. A stronger pain spike. I wished that the pain could've waited until the speech ended, but like a hungry cat or dog, pain is impatient.
“Instead of reading the full speech, it appears that I might have to give you a condensed version. I hope that no one minds. Especially those who probably sleep through sermons at church.”
Soft laughter and a smattered of applause.
I smiled. “I am sorry to have to announce that I am retiring from being the head of the Drama Department at this high school. I couldn't even act right now as if I weren't in pain if I tried. What you're seeing and hearing is the real thing. What I'm like when I don't take painkillers.”
There were sad sounds.
“I've been the head of the Drama Department here for many happy, fulfilling years. Many wonderful plays and musicals. Some surprises, too. I'm probably not the only one who still remembers when the actor playing Hamlet suddenly forgot his lines during the famous soliloquy. I tried to give him cues, but eventually I had to give the lines instead of him. The audience didn't seem to mind. In fact, they applauded both of us. They probably thought the switch in speakers was preplanned, but it wasn't. That wasn't the only mishap. There were others.
“There were also memorable moments when things went very well. And a few unexpected appearances.
“Such as one of the days when we were rehearsing 'The Paper Chase' and there had been some problems here and there. I was playing the professor's part. And who should happen to walk on-stage but John Houseman himself? He proceeded to reprise his role while the rest of us tried not to stare. We tried to act as if this sort of thing happened all the time. I could only hope we did our parts justice. Once the rehearsal ended, we all applauded him and he humbly bowed. I think he even came to the performance, but sat in the back so that the rest of the audience wouldn't get distracted. He wanted them to enjoy the performance, not focus on him. After the performance, though, he kindly signed programs for half an hour, but then confessed he had to leave. He needed to be elsewhere. He thanked us for an excellent performance and quietly departed.”
I winced. The pain wasn't temporarily going away anymore. It was staying and getting worse.
“I'll get your painkillers and a glass of water,” Dee whispered in my ear.
I nodded. “Thanks.”
She smiled, stood up, and went backstage. I was still speaking when she returned a minute later.
“I want to thank all of you for making the last thirty years some of the happiest years of my life.” I swallowed the painkillers with some water. They would take effect soon. Maybe not in a few minutes, but soon enough. “And I don't want to forget to mention the cast parties. They were all wonderful and so much fun. Especially the pool party when a horse accidentally fell into the pool. Despite its weight, we managed to help lead it to the steps and out of the pool. My wife couldn't be there and asked me later how it was. I told her what happened and I'm still not sure she believes the part about the horse in the pool.”
I looked at Dee. “I wasn't kidding about it. It really happened.”
“I believed you and I still do,” she said. “I just wish I could've been there. It must've been an amazing experience.”
“It sure was,” I said and turned back to the audience. I was about to continue speaking when someone walked up the steps at Stage Right, came over to us, and handed me a mostly flat package. They waited until I opened it. It was a framed photo of the Drama Department, with my in the middle of the second row. Taken the night of the performance of “The Paper Chase”. For a moment, I didn't know what to say.
“Say something,” Dee whispered.
I tried to and failed.
So she spoke instead. “I think Harvey is overwhelmed. It's rare that it happens. I think your gift means a great deal to him.”
I nodded agreement.
She went on. “Thank you all for all you've done not just for him but also for the department as a whole. I hope my husband's successor knows how big the shoes are that he or she will be filling. And I hope you do as great a job for them as you did for Harvey. God bless you all.”
The audience stood up and gave us both a standing ovation that lasted twenty minutes. Some of their hands must've been hurting after twenty minutes of clapping, but they acted like it didn't hurt at all.
Dee helped me get to my feet and handed me my crutches.
“This doesn't mean I don't want to see any of you again,” I said. “I do. You're welcome to visit -- just not in the middle of the night, please -- any day of any week or any month of any year. I look forward to hearing what you accomplish when my successor takes my place. Make us both proud.”
More applause. When it faded, some left, but most stayed. A line formed and I realized that they wanted one more official time with me. They also apparently wanted me to sign their programs, like John Houseman had done that one night. I sat back down and signed all the programs I could. I think it went on for at least two hours and I think I managed to sign for all of them.
One middle-aged mother said to me, “You were the Drama head not just for me but also for my daughter. Thank you so much for all you did for us. It was a fantastic time for both of us.”
“You're both more than welcome,” I said.
Mother and daughter both hugged me.
I was glad that I had sat back down, because I was still in a little pain and getting a bit tired after all the signing. What I really wanted to do just then was to go home with Dee and lie down on the living room couch or in bed. I think she knew because she didn't say anything as she drove me home or even when she helped me from the car to the front door.
After I laid down on the living room couch, she put one pillow under my head and another under my knees. Then she pulled a chair over and sat down facing me.
“Dee, your most unworthy husband is most grateful for all you've done and continue to do for me,” I said. “I wish that there was some way I could repay you. 'Thank you' just doesn't seem adequate enough.”
“It'll do, Harvey,” she said. “It'll do just fine. Just get some rest. Yell if you need anything.”
I nodded and thought she was going to go upstairs and go to sleep in bed. Instead, she went to the hall closet and pulled out a sleeping bag. She placed it on the living room floor near the couch, unzipped it, and lay inside it, a pillow under her own head.
“You don't have to sleep there,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I want to. I want to be as near you as I can possibly be. Not out of any obligation. But because I love you.”
“And I love you so much in return,” I said.
We both smiled.
Dee reached over, held one of my hands in hers, and kissed it. “Sleep well, darling. Happy dreams.”
“You too,” I said. “You mean the world to me, Dee. You really do.”
“The feeling's mutual,” she said.
With that, we both closed our eyes and went to sleep.
I did have happy dreams that night, the happiest I'd had in a very long time. I hope that she had happy dreams, too.