Dave Brubeck (1920-2012): The Gift of Kindness

This is a remembrance of profound kindness.

During my friendship with Barbara Baxley, she frequently told me that--since the death of playwright William Inge--the only people for whom she maintained any sense of affection or dependence were the Brubecks: the musician Dave, and his wife, Iola, or Oli, whom Barbara had known since their days as "wild Stockton girls."

Barbara had met Dave when he was the prospective boyfriend of her "spiritual sister," and she had approved.

"I want to tell you now," Barbara told me, "that you must hold on to those you loved early, and those who loved you back. The bond is tight, and the love is very deep."  Barbara loved no one more deeply than Oli Brubeck, and she had the highest praise for her husband: "Dave is unafraid to be kind, willing to be affectionate. With anyone at any time. That is his highest gift--his gift of kindness."

There were various plans for me to travel to Connecticut with Barbara to meet the Brubecks, but it never happened. Instead, on June 7, 1990, I had to call Barbara's friends at home and let them know that she had died.

I sat in Barbara's apartment for the several hours it took for the medical examiner and the Brubecks to arrive, and once they did, they took a sweet, sad control of the entire matter. I felt that they might wish to be alone in their friend's apartment, but I kept feeling that I was being gently pushed back toward Oli, and we sat on a deacon's bench in the apartment foyer and spoke of Barbara.

We avoided Barbara's body on the bathroom floor, but we fully examined, discussed, and laughed over the life she had lived and shared with us.

Eventually, we began to clean up Barbara's apartment, removing perishables from the refrigerator, closing windows, packing up library books for return. Occasionally, Oli would drift away.

"Please," Dave said to me, "go sit with my wife. Please."

And I would. She would cry gently and we would talk. Dave would join us, and we would try to imagine better terms for dying: passing on; moving on; drifting away; stopping; ceasing.

We would return to tasks at hand, and Dave would come to me again. 

"Please, go sit with my wife."

The Brubecks planned a memorial service for Barbara, as well as a private service for close friends, and they included me in everything, despite the chasm of difference in the friendships we had shared with that divine, demonic actress.

"You were her book friend," Oli told me. "And that was important, because Barbara loved books: You were writing one, and you brought many of them to her. She needed you."

"I don't think that I could ever comfort them, or take care of them," Barbara told me, "and yet they always take care of me, love me. Their kindness and goodness is a mountain I can't even dream of climbing, or even seeing to the very top."

Barbara showed me a photograph once, of a rehearsal period for Tenn's Period of Adjustment, and said "This was a happy time. I made the comedy work because Dave taught me about music, placement of words and notes. It was a jazz performance."

She paused.

"One more gift he gave me," she marveled. "My tab to him is out of bounds."

Dear Dave and Oli Brubeck: Thank you for the lesson.

James Daly, Barbara Baxley, and Tenn in rehearsal for Period of Adjustment (1960).


Popular Posts