Pneumonian – and Some Help From Friends

Pneumonia is a funny thing. It’s a pretty voracious illness, it can rob a body of its strength, and layers its victims in a wracking cough, saps a person of their will to do anything, except get through the day, and is just genuinely a pretty miserable experience in many ways.

In the early days of December 2003, the pneumonia monster descended on me and had its way with me, for a week or ten days or so. Antibiotics and rest were the weapons of choice normally employed against this vile sickness, you pretty much gotta tough it out and try to live to fight another day.

But this story is not about pneumonia. Luckily, my bout with this dreaded p-word is just a contributing layer to a much better story. On the first of October, 2003, I stepped out of a comfort zone and auditioned for a part in a community theatre production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It’s one of the moments that I think about when I reflect upon good decisions, things that went right, about choices that could’ve gone either way, but went the good way. In a religious sense, I like to think of it as God cracking open heaven for us, giving us a little sneak preview.

I like to tell people that I often get typecast for roles. This would be no exception, as I was cast in the role of the good-hearted angel, Clarence Odbody, who would earn his wings convincing George Bailey that life would not have been the same without his presence in it. I knew a handful of the people that were cast in the play, but most of them I had little more than passing knowledge of them before this adventure.

A prominent figure in our community had been responsible for the formation of our theatre group, and his goal for any production was not any size audience, gate receipts or glowing reviews – he wanted people to build community while they told stories from the stage. This cast accomplished his goal – for whatever reason, the chemistry, maybe it was this story settling in the hearts of the cast and crew… Who knows what causes lightning to be captured in a bottle? For whatever reasons, this play was blessed with very little turmoil, offstage drama or competing egos – these people proceeded to fall in love with each other.

So the cast bonded to each other, and we had such a wonderful time weaving this story together. Actors are loud and rowdy, and we held to form in this regard as well. Our director, a veteran of many, many productions, remembers this show as her favorite – though she did confess to having to vent frustration at times because of the constant outbursts of laughter, of silliness, of tear-inducing hysteria that the rehearsals seemed to produce effortlessly.

Early in production week of the play, a few of us went out after rehearsal to blow off some steam and share a little more time together. The next day I felt like death and quickly realized that this wasn’t a hangover, it was a serious illness. Good acting is about great timing, and the timing for pneumonia to show up could not have been worse. I tried to do what I could to stem the nasty illness, but when I showed up for makeup on opening night, I had a deathly chest cough and a voice that barely registered over a whisper. Our crack technical crew wired me with a microphone so that whatever rasps I could muster, would at least be projected out to the audience.

The rest of the cast was very accommodating to me and gave me places to lie down when I wasn’t on stage. Someone gave me a blanket to cover up to ward off the chills. The show went on, and it was a success, and the cast bonded in ways that I have seldom seen in group dynamics in all the times that I have been a part of plays, or organizations, or teams or anything.

Within a year we had had four reunions – who does that, has cast reunions? We did. The major casualty of my illness is that I remember very little of the week of production. But what I do remember is treasuring all of it, and being very thankful for the friendships that grew out of this experience.

The beacon of memory that has stayed with me is the final scene of the play. Nearly everyone in the cast, save for me, all of Bedford Falls, gathered around George Bailey’s Christmas tree to salute George and to celebrate the fact that he was a good man and his life made a huge difference.

I pulled up a chair offstage and had a decent vantage point of the set and the Bailey family Christmas tree. I would sit and watch and marvel at the family that we had become. Here were some beautiful people, people that I had come to love, on a set that was built with love, telling a story that I loved to a community that we all loved. The Christmas lights took on that bright, warm shimmer that enhances the colors and the brightness, like when you squint… or from free-flowing tears.


Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

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  1. “It’s a Wonderful Life” continues to be a favorite of mine, Tom. I love what you’ve captured here about the power of quality human connection, the richness of a story about knowing the ways you’ve touched other people’s lives, and how the show (life) still goes on even during illness. Having attended the celebration of my dad’s life this past Sunday, I’m reminded how one man, living true to his gentle nature, his heart/passions/mind can touch the lives of many different people from all walks of life. Thank you so much for enriching our lives with your stories of life, friends, and love-of doing what you need to even when you’re ill. May pneumonia stay far away from you for a very long time-or permanently!

  2. Your story is lovely, Tom. It speaks to the true meaning of many things. “It’s A Wonderful Life” is one of my favorite Christmas movies. I always cry at the end. Your story is like magic this afternoon, Tom. Thanks for sharing it and for reminding me about the spirit of not only Christmas, but family, friends, and love.

    • When things go well, and hard work pays off, it’s always a rewarding feeling. But when there are bonuses, and we get much more than we asked for or could ever imagine… that becomes a “this” moment. Thank you for reading and I am so glad that you enjoyed it.

  3. I adore your stories about your Wisconsin community. In this one Tom, how you were truly taken care of and loved in your time of sickness by those around you and how you stuck in to be part of the festivities too. A touching story in so many regards.

    • Maureen, one of the things that so tightly bonds me to this area, despite unwonderfully long winters, is the people. It’s in their DNA to go above and beyond, to have lifetime friendships pop up from a single meeting, and to love on each other like no one’s business. The story that we got to tell was about a town that I think might be comparable to Kimberly, WI and there was just so much sweetness in all of it. I can smile and laugh and remember this short chapter in my life with great affection, even though I was seriously ill during its entire run for the audiences – it was community theater, so it was only a four day run.

    • This was an instance of catching lightning in a bottle. I have rarely been around a bunch of people who so fell in love with each other, made each other laugh and truly, truly loved being around each other. It is a rare occurrence for a person (me) to look back so fondly at an instance in my life where I was so profoundly sick. But I’d go back there in a minute. I’m glad that you enjoyed it, John, I appreciate you reading it.