The man struggling for life in the hospital's intensive-care unit made but one request. He wanted his friend, David Novak, to tell him a story.
So Novak obliged, recounting the courage of a tiny spider who, against all odds, scaled a water spout after nearly drowning in a rainstorm.
"Early one morning in Spider Town, before the sun came up, all was quiet and still," Novak began. "The cool dew was clinging to the sleepy spider webs, and not a web was stirring. . . . "
For his ailing friend, the tale of the spider "was like a warm cup of tea on a cold night," said Novak, a professional storyteller. "It was an opportunity to hold his hand and let him know someone cared for him."
His friend recovered, and, although Novak is reluctant to give himself credit, the episode "taught me the greatest respect for the story."
Because his friend clung to life, the nursery rhyme "took on a great resonance and meaning. It became a real heroic journey," said Novak, his voice becoming hushed at the memory.
Novak shares this and other tales with students throughout San Diego County. Through grants from the California Arts Council and the San Diego Institute for Arts Education, he teaches both teachers and students the joys of storytelling.
Today and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Novak will present his "Telling Experience" at the Big Kitchen Cafe. And he will perform with other members of the San Diego Storytellers on Jan. 10 at Drowsy Maggie's. Later this month, he will perform in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and in February will do 3 dozen performances in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut for the Lincoln Center Institute, the educational arm of the arts center.
For audiences, his tales are "like a waking dream, a guided fantasy," said Novak, a tall man with blue eyes and a resonant voice.
"Listening to myths and legends teaches us to think in metaphors and images and to apprehend things not only in a strictly verbal way. It helps us understand life on a larger scale. We can receive life and the lessons it has to offer."
Anne Chase, program director for the San Diego Institute, called Novak's storytelling "exquisite. He's enormously popular with the children," she said, indicating that it's unusual to hire an artist three years in a row.
Storytelling can also improve language skills.
"Before you read and write you have to speak," said Stephanie Ruin, a fourth-grade teacher at Rose Elementary School in Escondido. "You can see the beauty of it. It's not vocabulary and dry work sheets. It's an expression of oneself."
During a recent performance at Rose, Novak demonstrated that theater's loss is storytelling's gain. He transformed himself into an array of characters as he related the story of Little Red Riding Hood--from the cackling grandmother to the growling wolf to Little Red herself. The transformations were accomplished with the simple, clever use of a red bandanna tied around his head in various ways: under his chin for the grandmother, around his ears for Little Red and over his mouth for the wolf. At one dizzying point, he feverishly switched from wolf to Red as he chased her in a circle.
Novak also created a cozy atmosphere by enlisting the students' help in building a "storyteller's fire." First, he invited listeners to throw him imaginary pieces of kindling, branches and logs. His arms sagged under the weight of the wood as he "caught" the pieces. He "lit" the wood and he and his audience began to snap their fingers as the fire sparked. Then Novak slapped his fist and clapped loudly, and the sounds of a happy crackling campfire filled the school auditorium.
Holmes Elementary School Principal Jeannie Steeg has noticed that students become enthusiastic about reading once they hear Novak's tales.
"If he tells a story that is part of a book, kids all of a sudden want to go out and get that book," she said. Said Rose Elementary fourth-grader Dan Claytor: "If I tell the stories to my mom, she can tell them to another kid who can tell his mom. It will spread around and keep going forever."
Novak's storytelling skills were honed during his childhood in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. One of four children, he began performing in a children's theater group in second grade.
The play was "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp." "I was a spear carrier, quite literally," said Novak, relaxing with a cup of tea in his comfortably cluttered home.
"My mother likes to tell the story of how we would visit friends and I wouldn't want to play with the kids. I would sit with the grown-ups and play Mr. Smith. It was just an alter ego."
Novak was also an avid reader of books by Kenneth Grahame, who writes about "mythical childhood reminiscences."
In high school, Novak started a mime troupe that performed at other schools.
"We performed in a nudist colony once in nothing but white face," he said with a laugh.