Young at heart, with laughter to the end

February 06, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THIS ONE'S for Barry Director, who got away from us last week the way all free spirits get away. He had the happy heart of a child, but blood and bones that openly defied him for the last 18 years. He died on Friday. He was 54 years old, still reaching for boyhood.

He was one of the guys from my old neighborhood. He lived on Elderon Avenue, a couple of doors down from Grove Park Elementary School, off Rogers Avenue near the Arlington Cemetery where we'll bury him today.

Barry's gonna like it there. His gentle spirit can haunt the pickup games on the playground where a whole generation of us played ball, learned the first awkward rudiments of adolescent flirting, smoked cigarettes when the grown-ups weren't looking and imagined such delights would never run out.

Lingering snapshots of Barry: all those ballgames in the streets and the school yard. And the Howard Park Little League, where his father, Charlie, coached one of the teams. Charlie had a big rickety truck for hauling pinball machines around town, and after ballgames he'd pile 15 or 20 kids in their dusty baseball uniforms into the back and take everyone out to Liberty Road to Price's Dairy for ice cream.

If you want a sweeter summer picture of America in the middle of its mid-century love affair with itself, you won't find it anywhere.

Barry was a pretty good ballplayer, too, a lefty pitcher with a natural screwball to match his spirit. But he never forgot the time he'd struck out with a man on third in the last inning of a tight Pony League game. And he was the world's worst tackler in football, falling away from the ball carrier at the last instant the way a bullfighter fades from the bull.

"Exactly," he'd laugh every time he was reminded, "but I was the best in the neighborhood at piling on after the play was already dead."

That was Barry: He knew every weakness he had, and turned it into instant joke. I never knew a human being who made himself into a more open and funny book. Strangers, he'd tell his problems. Insecurities, he announced to the whole world. He clung to childhood because he always remembered not only the games and the laughs, but his last traces of sheer irresponsibility.

"Don't grow up," he kept insisting all through adolescence, as though he'd gotten a sneak preview of adulthood and needed to issue early warning bulletins to the rest of us. "You don't want to do that."

And then, through the long adult years, whenever things got rough, he'd say, "I told you we should have stayed kids."

But he was the first to leave his parents' home. He married young and had three sons. The marriage lasted three decades and then, as these things happen, broke apart. But he had a poignant love for Jean, and tender dreams about her to the end of his life. And she was there with him at the end.

Eighteen years ago, the doctors told Barry he was running out of time. He had a blood disease called polycythemia vera, and then a bone disease called myelofibrosis. He was in awful pain and exhaustion but tried to laugh his way around it.

He went through uncommonly difficult years with enormous grace. In the last few years, when his body began openly rebelling, he couldn't hold a job and couldn't get health coverage. Prospective employers turned him away.

"You know me," he'd say. "I always struck out with men on third."

One day we had lunch at Miller's Deli, at Greenspring Shopping Center, and Barry started talking to a 16-year-old high school kid at the next table. He was telling this kid his problems getting a job, until the kid finally had to leave.

"Why are you telling this to him?" I asked.

"I was hoping he might have a lead for me," Barry laughed.

He tried to spruce himself up, and got rid of the gray in his hair. But it came out blond, like Dennis Rodman during a particularly flouncy period.

"Me and Dennis Rodman," Barry said. "The rich and the indigent."

He said this to a receptionist at Johns Hopkins Hospital the day we took him there for bone marrow tests.

"Your hair looks good," the young lady said, when he told her about the botched dye job.

"Are you single?" Barry asked.

"Married," she said.

"Then what good is it?" Barry said.

He needed to entertain people, even as he was marching into the final year of his life. If he laughed loud enough, maybe he wouldn't notice his nerves coming undone. The doctor explained that the myelofibrosis was a scarring of the bone tissue, and maybe a painful bone marrow transplant could buy him a few extra months.

That evening he came to my house for the first night of a Passover seder. It felt as if the angel of death had entered the room, only he'd brought a sense of humor with him. Barry glanced down at the ritual shank bone on the Passover plate.

"There's the bone marrow I need," he laughed mordantly.

In the last year of his life, he lived with one son, and then another. His brother Joe embraced him. The guys from the old neighborhood would gather here and there, and remember cheerier times. But Barry had so much fun making us laugh that it seemed impossible he was really about to leave.

Finally, there was no disguising it. He'd been a weightlifter all his life, a dark, handsome, muscular guy about 200 pounds. At the end, he weighed about 130. He went through a couple of operations and surprised everybody by surviving them.

One day he said, "I just want to get healthy enough to be brave when it comes time for dying."

Good lord, he was brave. I told him he'd never been braver in his whole life. He thought about that for a moment, and mentioned the time years earlier when he had run across the lawn of a tough guy who chased any kids who walked on his grass.

"That was braver," he said.

To the end, Barry tried so hard to keep everybody laughing.

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