Monday, December 29, 2014

Chapter 64 – Red Toreador – Part One




In the fall of 2011, I noticed a 9 by 12 inch painting of a red toreador in the foyer I hadn't really paid attention to for some time. I can remember it hanging on the living room wall in Jericho fifty years ago, and can can still vaguely recall my parents telling me how they had met LeRoy Neiman at a party in Manhattan in the early sixties. I was eight, nine maybe. It could have been even earlier than that because it seemed like it had always been there. My mom said she never really liked that painting in the least. Even though it looked like someone had eaten a whole set of Crayola crayons and then threw them up onto a poster-board, I still liked it.
So times being what they were, rotten, financially anyway, my wife started researching the painting on the internet. Couldn't do that thirty years ago. She found LeRoy Neiman's official website and emailed a very sweet and concise letter. I was surprised that they had emailed back so quickly. They said they would like to see a picture of it, so we took two photos without a flash and tried to fix the brightness on the Kodak program. I did the best I could, and sent it off to Lynn, who is some kind of go-between to the man himself who was 90 years old at that time, if he was a day.
So then the waiting game began. A week went by without a response and I decided to check in with an inquiry email. I had heard back within a few hours. The email read:
Dear Donna,
Yes we have been studying it. There was a Toreador that Mr. Neiman painted that was reproduced in Playboy Magazine in "Man At His Leisure", Mr. Neiman feature in Playboy for over 15 years. Your painting is almost identical to this image but not as realized. Within the past few years we received an inquiry regarding a painting that was presented to us for verification. It looked very much like yours. Mr. Neiman at that time said he did not believe it was his. If you are confident it is an original LeRoy Neiman painting, we recommend you contact an appraiser to verify that this is an original work by the hand of LeRoy Neiman. We can direct you to a respected individual who is a certified appraiser and has worked with Mr. Neiman's original art for over 20 years. If you care to ship it to us Fed-Ex we will be more than happy to authenticate the painting. You can contact Jane St. Lifer at bla-bla-bla for all the details.
Sincerely,
Lynn Quayle, Asst. to Mr. Neiman
You know how when you stick your neck out into the cosmic consciousness it always sends you little affirmations. I was just thinking about the whole painting biz, when I pressed the info button on the movie on HBO. It was called Picture Perfect. I thought, “Now that is perfect.” There was no way in the world I was going to ship that painting. What if it got lost? Even with insurance, the painting hadn't been appraised or authenticated and there was no way to tell what its true value was. I decided right then and there that I was going to NYC, and if they wanted to see the painting, they were going to have to see me, too. I sent another email explaining how I wanted to have their local people appraise the painting, and part of the deal would be, if they would be so kind, to give me a chance to meet the man himself—LeRoy Neiman! Later that week I received a follow-up email:
Dear Mr. Haymer,
We have many pressing obligations between now and the New Year. Would you be able to travel here in January or at some time convenient for you in early 2012? I understand how you feel about shipping your painting. Even though it will be in your hands, make certain that it is wrapped carefully. Let us know when you can arrange to bring the painting to the studio in New York. Once a date and time is set, we will give you the address which is very near Lincoln Center. If you don't mind using email to communicate, we prefer not using the telephone as LeRoy Neiman is 90 and his wife Janet is 87 years old. The studio shares the same telephone line and we try not to inconvenience them in case we happen to be out.

We ought to solve this mystery together.
Warm regards,
Lynn Quayle, Asst. to Mr. Neiman
Upper West Side, Manhattan, January 11, 2012.

Seventy-three, seventy-four, At last! I turned left on seventy-fifth street and was looking for number twenty-four. There's eight. Ten. God, these numbers are so close together. There was a young woman coming out of the door on number twenty-four. It was Amy Sterling, Max's girlfriend. I think we recognized each other at the same time and she gave me a hug which I returned quickly because I had to piss like a racehorse. I saw Max standing on the wooden floors in the living room of this small but nice apartment. We hugged for a sufficient amount of time and I asked to use the bathroom. Thank God it was just to the left of the front door as you were walking in. Oh relief is such a good thing.
I sat down on the black vinyl love-seat. Max sat next to me with Amy on the chair next to the console Story and Clark piano that he had purchased for four hundred dollars because of a broken leg that was an easy fix. He still had the broken piece taped to the scarred leg. I laid out the photos I had taken with me of my mom and dad. There were two shots of Robbie an Dad in St. Louis back in the early eighties. They did a show together called Tribute about a father and son. Excellent casting. I showed Max and Amy the copies of the Woody Allen skits I had also brought with me. Woody Allen had written some material for my dad, who was a stand-up comedian in the late fifties in Tamament, a Jewish resort up in northern Pennsylvania. There was a body of water called Scroon Lake. It must have been a pleasant enough day, so Woody and his first wife, Harleen, had decided to take my sister and me out on a rowboat. Well, as the story was relayed to me, since I was too young to remember, the boat sprang a leak and was sinking. It was soon spotted by the Coast Guard and we were eventually rescued. I can just imagine Woody ranting and raving and pulling out his ginger hair (which he had a lot more of at the time), and then screaming to his wife about how he was going to drown, or worse, be responsible for the deaths of two kids under the age of five.
Let's see the Neiman,” Max and Amy said in unison. I unpacked my case an unzipped the special compartment and was happy to see the white 12 x 14 inch gift box looking no worse for wear. I placed the box on the glass coffee table carefully removed the Scotch tape on the corners. I opened the box. Off with the bubble wrap, off with the tissue paper and there it was, back in the same city where my parents first laid there hands on it. It looked vibrant in the soft track lighting and I was overcome by a sense of guilt and remorse. Maybe I should keep it after all? It's funny how something you had looked at all your life and mostly taken for granted all of a sudden takes on new beauty. I was connecting more and more to the small work of art and dreaded having to part with it; I knew that, in the end, I probably would.
When I woke up around five the next morning, I tried to be as quiet as possible. Even though the bedroom downstairs had its own bathroom, it didn't have a door. I ground the coffee quickly in their souped up grinder and tried to figure out how the coffee machine worked, but I couldn't, so I decided I would brave the elements a little later and go looking for a Starbucks. I went into the bathroom, took a quick bath to clean up, shave and pass the time. I did a nice number two in the toilet and flushed. Not going down. Uh oh. I flushed again, this time water had overflowed and was spilling out all over the floor. I wiped up most of it with the bland guest towel they had given me to use, and then searched for a toilet plunger. Unfortunately, there wasn't one in this bathroom. I checked the front closet, but nothing but coats and woman's shoes in a plastic rack attached to the inside of the door. I said to myself, “I'll bet its in the downstairs bathroom, but I can't disturb my nephew and his girlfriend. Damn. I'll just have to go out and find one.”

I had been given a set of three keys, one for the front door of the building and two for the apartment's front door. I locked the door of their apartment and ventured out into the crisp Manhattan morning. The sun was starting to peek through the buildings on the upper east side with rays of light illuminating the tower of the Chrysler building, one of my favorite edifices. Walking at quick pace, I saw a Starbucks on Broadway and 72nd. It was starting to rain pretty heavily now so it was a good place to seek shelter. I took my coffee to go and went looking for a place that might sell a cheap toilet plunger. I new Max and Amy weren't going to be up for awhile, so I had time to peruse the area.
I found a pharmacy of some kind that had all sorts of do-dads and whatnot’s, but there weren't any toilet plungers. I asked the African/American gentleman at the counter where I might find one so he suggested someplace on Broadway past 73rd where I might be lucky enough to find one. It was pouring now and I got caught at the center island in the middle of Broadway trying to cross the street. Cars speeding by and a classic thing happened. It was like the scene in The Mask, where Jim Carrey's character is waiting to get into the Cocoa Bongo to meet up with Cameron Diaz, but gets splashed by a speeding car near the curb. That's exactly what happened to me, except for the Cameron Diaz part. I went off on a mission to find a trusty toilet plunger.
The store I was heading to looked closed, so I traveled north on Columbus to the Upper West side. Great, another Starbucks! Waiting outside the locked door of the single occupancy restroom, a big African Queen exited and I rushed in. During my pee I noticed, yes, it was a toilet plunger behind my left foot. What else could I do but hide the grungy thing under my gray overcoat and walk out. It must have looked like a rifle or something to anyone passing by. Thank God it was early in the morning and raining so the streets were relatively empty. This would be something that would happen to Larry David in the show Curb Your Enthusiasm, except he would probably get busted trying to return it. It was a good fifteen blocks to the apartment and I began walking at a furious pace. Upon entering the building and into their flat, it was still as quiet as when I had left, so I knew they were still asleep. I plunged and plunged again. Success! I later told Max and Amy the story and the toilet was snaked the very next day by the landlord. In two days time I would have my meeting with the master.


To be continued.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Chapter 63 – Out To Pasture

          


While Donna was going through her bi-weekly bouts with chemotherapy and radiation treatments we had lost another member of the family—one of our three dogs, Bailey. We weren’t exactly sure how old he was, but he must have been at least fifteen since we had found him (on Bailey Road) a year or two after we had moved to Middle Tennessee. Bailey was a great dog, very independent and one of the smartest dogs I had ever had the privilege of living with. We never had him “fixed”, therefore, he used to wander from time to time. Sometimes he would be gone a week or ten days before we would hear his claws scratching on the side door to come inside. Bailey was a reddish-brown miniature Golden Retriever mix weighing in at about twenty-five pounds. He must have been part collie too, having strands of black hair running down the sides of his long floppy ears.
After having lost Bridget and Ginger a few years back, Bailey was the first of the Tennessee dogs we had to say goodbye to. It was the morning of July 26th 2010. Now there is some discrepancy of the date because Donna remembers it differently. I was getting ready to take the boys somewhere that morning. Donna thought it was school, but it was the middle of summer so it must have been the Kids on Stage camp. I have always been pretty good with dates and I remember it was Mick Jagger’s birthday. Nevertheless, Bailey was struggling and we knew he wouldn’t last long. The night before he was moaning and whimpering so badly I had to give him a Tylenol with codeine to pacify him. It seemed to help, but we were up most of the night trying to comfort the dog and planned on taking him to Dr. Woody’s in the morning as soon as I got back from taking the boys to camp. Donna said it happened while I was starting up the car. By the time I had gotten back he was gone. Now the surviving animals were Bruno, the black lab, Mowgli, the black cat, Josie, the tortoise shell and calico mixed cat, and Piper, the Cairn terrier I had found the year before.

One morning before the cancer took hold while Donna was at work and the kids were in school, I saw something out in the yard crawling through the high grass. I squinted up my eyes to see what in the world it was. At first I thought it was an injured rabbit or cat but as I ventured closer I saw it was a small dog with thick white hair that looked like Toto from the Wizard of Oz. I puckered my lips and called her over and watched the dog inch its way toward me. I could see the dog had been out in the wilderness of Thompson Station for quite some time by the tangled and matted hair, but she didn’t look starved, in fact she was a bit plump. I coaxed her into the house and gave her a drink of water and some dry food which she went after ravenously. I called Donna to tell her I had found what I thought was a purebred and her first reaction was, “Oh no, not another one.” I told her she was probably lost and would go around to the neighbor’s houses and inquire if they had lost a wee doggie. After exhausting my search without any luck, I decided to put up a few signs.
When Donna and the boys came home, they saw the wee dog which I had named Piper and were enchanted, even loved the name. I noticed that Piper had a wide gap between her nostrils and thought she might have a cleft palate. On further inspection I saw there was a pinpoint hole there like a third nostril. Very unique. I also had the sneaking suspicion, because of her bulging tummy and swollen nipples, she was pregnant. After taking her in to Dr. Woody’s, my suspicions were confirmed—she was pregnant. He said it was too late for an abortion and would be having the puppies shortly. I constructed a birthing box from an old TV carton and put blankets and pillows inside of it.
One morning I came down to check on her and she was in the process of giving birth. The puppy was half-way out of her and didn’t seem to be coming out. When she finally released the poor puppy, it was still born. I didn’t know what to do, but thought she might have more to come. It was obvious that the still born puppy and been much too big and I figured Piper had mated with a much larger dog than she was. I called Dr. Woody and left a message. When he called me back, I told him what was going on and he said to bring her in immediately. Of course it was a Sunday. They did an emergency C-section to remove the remaining puppy and sadly that one was also dead. The bill came to over $900. We rationalized it by saying it would have cost that much to buy a purebred Cairn terrier. Poor Piper was now the newest addition to the Haymer household since nobody else had claimed her. One of the saddest and most pathetic sights I had ever witnessed in my life, was when Piper had befriended a toy doggie about the same size as one of her lost babies. She would snuggle up to that little white toy dog with the brown spots and pretend to nurse it. It never left her sight. I guess it helped her through the mourning and grieving process.
Now it was time to bury Bailey. There wasn’t room in the backyard pet cemetery behind the patio fence anymore so we had to start a new one. There was a small area next to my putting green more than a hundred yards from the side door of the house that seemed right. I dug a hole in the clearing between two trees and covered him up with some sand and peat moss. I made a sign from some scrap wood and painted an inscription. After surrounding the grave with fieldstones I place the sign close to where his head was and we all said goodbye to Bailey. As I am writing this, sadly to say, four other animals have joined Bailey in that pet cemetery.
On a lighter note, before Bailey’s illness, I had seen a sign posted that two softball leagues were starting up. One was a men’ team and the other a co-ed. I wondered, at the age of fifty-eight, if I could still manage to play the game I had loved so much as a kid, a young adult and a thirty-something. The last time I had played the game, I had broken my ankle sliding into home plate on Labor Day in 1987. Yes, I was safe but was out of commission for months. But now I was the oldest player on the team, or the next oldest as most of the players on the men’s team were in their late twenties or early thirties, but I surprised myself at how easily I was able to move around the bases. Although I couldn’t bend down as low for those hot ground balls to second, I made only one or two errors the whole season. The format was slow pitch where the ball had to sail an arc between six and twelve feet high. I alternated between playing second base and pitcher, the same two positions I used to play in Little League when I was a kid. One of my best pitches back then was a knuckleball and I thought I could dust off the cobwebs on that pitch and see if it would translate to underhand. I remembered the time when I used to employ that pitch back in the old days I had a tell. When I used to dig my fingernails into the seams of that ball I would inadvertently bite my lower lip. The batters, after a while, had seen that tell too, and would know what pitch was coming and wait on it like it was a giftwrapped birthday present. My catcher approached the mound and told me what I was doing. After that I would purposely bite my lip and then throw the fastball. It worked like a charm. Now, to my surprise as a gripped the seams and let go a floater, I saw that I still had it. I was amazed that, even in slow pitch, I was able to strike out a few of the weaker players.
The next year, at fifty-nine, I was going to give it another go. My goal that year was to get through the season without an injury. I ended up on the blue team where I was at least twenty, maybe even thirty years older than most of the team except for Coach Tom, who was the pastor at the Thompson Station Baptist Church. Over the years, I had watched the church transform from a quaint one story building into a “megachurch” with three or four outbuildings as big as a WalMart. I was mildly upset that I didn’t get to pitch that year since Pastor Tom did most of the pitching. That really didn’t bother me as much as what happened after every game. All the players would line up on the pitcher’s mound, take off their hats and say a prayer to Jesus. I guess I could think of worse things to do after a game, but still I felt uncomfortable. Who was I kidding? I was living in rural Middle Tennessee where there are more churches per square mile than gas stations, markets, golf courses, swimming pools and restaurants combined. The closest Jewish synagogue was thirty miles away.
 One evening, one of the players requested a special prayer for the brother of one of the players that was struggling with alcoholism. The team all held hands, closed their eyes and prayed that this individual would see the light and Jesus would take away his desire to drink. I remembered how, when I and some of my friends had problems with the drink, we would go to an AA meeting and work the twelve-step program. I thought I would suggest this to the players so I spoke up saying, “Excuse me but, in addition to praying, has the guys ever thought of going to an AA meeting? It seems to work for a lot of people.” Twenty pairs of eyes looked at me like I was the anti-Christ. I felt the top of my head wondering if I had grown horns. The guy next to me poked me with an elbow and said, “Don’t be rude.”
“Rude? I was only saying that AA is not such a bad idea.” I knew I was speaking to deaf ears, so I bit the bullet and waited for the prayer to conclude. What planet was I on? I, as everyone who knows me well knows, have nothing against Jesus, but to assume that all people on earth have the same beliefs as you is a misnomer. They acted as if AA was a cult and was diametrically opposed to Christianity; after all most of the steps in the 12 step program talk about a higher power. The small-mindedness of these folks astounded me. Well, our team ended up winning the division, but that night after that prayer meeting, I had decided to hang up my cleats. At least I had made it through the season without an injury, which was my goal. I was getting into golf again anyway, and thought about getting a job at Forrest Crossing as an ambassador where by working one day a week you could get free golf. I was already playing two or three times a week with my newest and best golfing buddy, Sunset Slim. But it was costing too much. If I got that ambassador job, think of all the money I would save! I went down there that fall but they said they were full up and would probably be hiring again in the spring. I didn’t get the job in the spring, but I would get eventually be hired the following year. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Chapter 62 – Timing is Everything




By February of 2010, twelve songs were chosen out of the fifteen to make the cut on my newest record, Timing is Everything. This was the first album I had made where I used outside musicians and an outside recording studio. Fortunately, I still had my Protools setup at home, so after the basic tracks were finished, I would take the files home and overdub my guitar, pedal steel and any other strange instruments I fancied. The vocals I would record at the studio. Seven of the tracks were recorded at Switchyard, and the other eight at a new place in Hermitage, Shadow Lane Studios owned and operated by Phillip Wolfe, a pretty decent utility player in his own right (or as John Lennon had coined –In His Own Write). Phil would actually paly some Hammond organ on a few of the tracks and he always had a plethora of guitars I could use to overdub. One I especially liked was a Gibson 12-string from the sixties. Nice!
The record was in the mixing stages now and, although they sounded good, they weren’t great. Something was wrong and I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I had my friend Chas Sandford attempt to mix the songs, but even though he is a great producer, it was sounding too brittle and booming, especially the drums. I wanted a warmer, live sound and it was not translating correctly, for my ears anyway. Chas had invited me to a party by Old Hickory Lake one night where a lot of singer’ songwriters would gather around the campfire and pass the guitar around and sing some of their compositions. I sang a few and this Australian guy approached me. He said he really liked my tunes and asked if I had a record out. I told him yes, I had a few and was in the process of mixing my fourth. When I asked him what he did, he said he was a musician, producer and recording engineer. Luke Garfield (a nice presidential name) and I were getting along famously and, instinctively I thought, he might be the right guy to give my record a try.
Luke had a great little setup in his living room of a small house next to a church in the Berry Hill section of Nashville. I would stop by in the mornings, bring over some coffee, and we’d get to work. It was sounding great, especially when he ran the mixes through some of his vintage plug-ins. By the end of February we had twelve songs mixed and mastered. The last song on the record was one I had recorded live in my home studio, and I think it is the best one on the album. It’s called Song for my Sons, in which I postulate my life’s lessons to my boys. Here’s a snippet:
The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree;
It dropped straight down and hit you on the knee,
So if you want to grow up and be like me,
You’ve got to learn to play your song.

I’m your dad so take my advice
Go lead yourself an honest life.
And don’t burn the candle at both ends
 Be good to yourself and all of your friends.

You don’t need fortune, you don’t need fame—
All you got to do is play the game.
Find a good partner to be your mate—
Give a little more back, son, than you take.

Oh I love you so, and I take you with me, wherever I go.


In March, I had booked a photo session with Holly, the same photographer that took the photos at Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah. It was a cold day and the snow was partially covering the railroad tracks by the Thompson Station town hall. There is an old fashioned railroad car positioned on a small bit of track adjacent to the rail line. Across the street was Thompson Station Grille which, at one time, had been the original country market where the railroad workers would get off and buy their breakfast—a real whistle stop. We decided this would make a great location to shoot the album cover. I had brought my youngest son, Morgan, with me and had planned to use him as one of the band members. He had an old WWII bombers jacket and a tweed flat brimmed cap, like Ben Hogan used to wear. He looked great. We were waiting for the rest of my band to show up but they were beyond late and I was getting worried. When I finally reached Tom, the bass player, he informed me that his mother-in-law was experiencing chest pains and he and his wife had to rush her to the emergency room. I think that Rudy, the drummer was with him at the time was the one driving them. I knew then that the two of them were not going to make the photo shoot, which I understood perfectly.
Meanwhile, with Holly already there and my pockets full of cash to pay her with, I saw Ronnie, the local homeless man hanging out by the train car. When I first met him, he was sitting on a director’s chair in front of the old bank building on the corner across the street from the railroad car. It was an tiny, old brick building built over a hundred or more years ago, and I was told it used to be the local bank. Now it was a hair salon owned and operated by a woman, Suzanne. She let Ronnie sweep the hair off the floors for a few dollars. When I went in to get my haircut, Suzanne introduced me to him. When he went outside, she told me that Ronnie was illiterate and a young girl by the name of April was teaching him how to read and write. She didn’t want anything in return; just the satisfaction of knowing that she was helping a “good Christian” was payment enough for her.
  Now in preparation for the photo shoot, I had brought a change of vintage clothing, a few guitars and a snare drum, some harmonicas and some clocks (one was a Hofner bass with a clock face in the center) and plenty of hats. I asked Ronnie if he would like to pose for the photo as one of the guitar players. I said I would give him twenty bucks and he was over the moon with excitement. He hadn’t seen that much money in one place since he had a job at the convenience store a few years back. Ronnie was a paper thin man in his late fifties with long, stringy gray hair and a ruddy face. We were still one man short to complete the band ensemble. I went over to the Thompson Station Grille and convinced the cook to pose as the drummer. I gave him a three cornered hat and positioned him behind the snare drum. Morgan threw on the accordion and I had a ukulele while Ronnie slung on my old, black Harmony Stratotone guitar. We were an eclectic, but interesting looking band that ranged in age from eleven to almost sixty.

About a year later, I was saddened to hear that Ronnie had gotten an incurable case of liver cancer and was dying. He was living in a shed behind the car repair place down the street from the train. There was no heat in his eight by ten wooden shack but there was an extension cord which powered and old TV and a VCR. I went over to visit him from time to time and remembered that I had a bunch of old video cassettes I was going to sell on Ebay. I gathered them up and drove down to his shed with over thirty good movies and a C harmonica. He was very thin and could hardly talk but his eyes were still okay. I knew he was glad to have those tapes and I was told, after he died that January in the home of a local resident who had taken him in and took care of his needs, he would watch them all the time. I don’t think, however, he ever played the harmonica. I also gave him an autographed copy of my CD and when he saw his picture on the back cover he smiled. He knew now that his image would go on, even if his body wouldn’t. At least he spent the last few weeks of his life in the warmth of a guestroom and was eating, to the best of his ability, good, healthy food and drinking hot tea and coffee.
The funeral was at the Baptist church in Spring Hill, the neighboring town. I was amazed how many people were there, probably over a hundred. Ronnie had touched the lives of more people than I had thought possible. I heard so many inspirational stories of Ronnie’s life from the people who knew and loved him. Thompson Station had lost its one and only homeless person but it would be a long time before he was forgotten. Someone had erected an old lawn chair with a sign reading Ronnie’s Place outside the BP gas station where, from time to time, he would sweep the blacktop parking lot for cigarette money and food. As I drove past his shrine, I had thought about the day we took those photos. I miss that guy and I think of the lyrics to an old Bob Dylan song: Only a hobo but one more is gone/ leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song/ leavin' nobody to carry him home/ Only a hobo, but one more is gone. The only difference, there is somebody to sing his sad song. Me. His name was Ronnie Johnson and for one brief moment in time he was a part of the James Wesley Haymer band that cold March afternoon in Thompson Station, a small town where he lived his fifty-nine years and the same town where he slipped away silently in the night.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Chapter 61 – Mixed Celebration



On the ninth of October (John Lennon’s birthday) Donna’s chemotherapy began. She had timed it perfectly after the doctor said her hair wouldn’t fall out for a couple of weeks. Although the chemo would compromise her energy level greatly, she would still have plenty of hair for the bar Mitzvah. I knew I would have to take the ball and run with it, but I also knew that Donna would be right there keeping things together as usual. She wouldn’t let a thing like cancer stop her from fully experiencing one of the most important days in her (and my) middle son’s life.
 Donna was scheduled for six rounds every two weeks of what they called the ominous “red” drug. After that she would be tapered down to four rounds every three weeks of the “yellow”. As I said before, the treatment would begin on Thursdays. She would have to come back on Friday to get a shot to replenish the good cells after the red had destroyed everything else (hopefully the cancer cells, too).  This shot was expensive (a hundred dollars a pop even after insurance) and one time she had forgone the shot hoping she could get by without it. Unfortunately, her blood count was too low for the next treatment. It goes without saying that she continued with the shot from then on after that.
That first chemo day a week before Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah, I was beside myself with anxiety (I could only imagine what Donna was going through, but I knew she was keeping a brave face). They sat her down in a vinyl recliner and administered the IV with the “red”. Surrounded by sickly people (some so old that it seemed a shame they had to be subjected to such agony), that I began to lose it. I actually had to leave the room and head for the lavatory to cry. I wanted to punch the paper towel dispenser in a fit of rage, but stopped myself at the last second. It would have caused a disturbance and that was the last thing I wanted to do at a time like that. I washed my face in the sink and returned to my wife’s side.
On the following Tuesday her Mum, Dad and her younger sister Heather arrived from Scotland, and I went alone to pick them up at the airport since Donna wasn’t feeling quite up to snuff to tag along. I told them that their amazing daughter was hanging in there and just needed to rest up for Daniel’s big day in four days’ time. With the arrival of all the out of town guests, it turned out to be a blessing (in disguise?). The distraction of engaging in conversation with Donna’s and my family proved to be worth its weight in gold. Now it was Daniel’s turn to shine and we were spending every waking moment to make sure the event went smoothly. Still, I couldn’t help but think and dream of what sinister incubus had inserted its infected hands into the physiognomy of my wife. How did it happen? How long had it been there? Could it be put in check? These were questions that invaded my mind and I couldn’t let on that they were preying on my conscious and subconscious.
Two days before the Bar Mitzvah, I had emptied my office of all its junk and valuables, ripped up the carpet, rented a professional sander from Home Depot, and began the unenviable task of refinishing the hundred year old wooden floors. All the landlines had to be disconnected (something we hadn’t thought of since the mains were in that room). It was lucky we all had our cell phones to keep in touch with the throngs of people that were arriving and scattered around the Franklin and Nashville area. The floors looked incredible, though, and Donna was as pleased as punch.
October 17th came at last and we caravanned our way to Congregation Micah, and by 8:30 we had arrived. All the guests began to file in, all except the photographer. Fortunately, we all had our cameras, cell phones and plenty of decent pictures resulted from these devices. At the last minute, Holly, the photographer arrived and had apologized profusely for her tardiness blaming it on the traffic. We took it all with a grain of salt, and before you can say “cheese” the professional pictures were snapped.

Daniel, I must say, was amazing. He spoke clearly and elegantly, reading his Torah portion with a single flub or mumble. I was the proudest father in existence. I looked over at his mother, who was also beaming. She looked so beautiful then, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for her after the chemotherapy’s effects reared its ugly face. The least of my worries was her losing her hair. Small potatoes. I had the wig anyway, lying in wait on the Styrofoam head in the bedroom.
After the service, we all went back to the house in preparation for the party which was to be held at a restaurant by the name of Stoveworks in the Factory, a converted mattress factory now a mall in Franklin. This time, instead of a live band, I hired a deejay I found on Craigslist, who did an admirable job until he mistakenly played a rap song with the F-bomb in the lyrics. I didn’t really care, but most of the Christians (and Jews) and some of the stodgier old folks objected. I had to go over and give the deejay a good talking to. Fortunately, he recovered nicely with a few Beatles songs. All was soon forgiven, but not forgotten. I myself had forgotten what it was like in Middle Tennessee, not like L.A. where the f-word was part of the everyday vernacular.

Life tried to continue as normal as possible. Soccer games were played, the boys went to school, meals were cooked (mostly by me, some still by Donna). The week after the Bar Mitzvah, Donna’s hair began to fall out. We had cut it shorter in preparation, but how can one really prepare for something like that? It was thin and straggly when she came out of the bathroom. I said it would be better just to go with the Sinead O’Conner look—completely bald. I got out the electric dog clippers and shaved her beautiful cranium. She actually looked great, and after trying on the wig again, it fit a lot better.
The weeks dragged on after that, and, I have to say, most of it was a blur. I do remember taking Jonathan to Chattanooga in mid-November to visit the college on a Saturday, two days after Donna’s chemo. I don’t know how, but she managed to take the other two boys to their respective soccer games while we were gone. Maybe she was getting used to it? I doubt it, but life continued on in spite of her travails.
By January, I began a new album project with musicians I had met in my usual way—Craigslist. My session leader was a wonderful bassist names Tom D’Angelo who charted out the music and helped me find a studio. Tom was very helpful finding other musicians too. Rudy Miller, who shined on drums and Chris Tuttle, a master madman on keyboards. We recorded at an amazing studio in Antioch called Switchyard owned and operated by Michael Saint-Leon. It was a wonderful, but temporary distraction from the nightmare. I knew that I couldn’t devote too much time away from home, so the sessions were long and spaced at times when I knew it was okay to be away. One of the songs I wrote, called Empty Chair, was taking on new meaning. I contemplated not recording the song thinking it might be tempting fate. I had written the song a year earlier before we even knew about the dreaded disease that would attack my wife some months later. It was really about a relationship going through a hard and incommunicative time. The lyrics of the first two verses and chorus are as follows:
Feel like I’m sitting in an empty chair.
I’m at the head of the table but there’s nobody there.
And it it’s true why do I care,
If I’m sitting here in an empty chair.
Feel like I’m sleeping in a lifeless bed.
And I gave up on this skin I shed.
Who is that man lying in my stead,
With you every night in my lifeless bed?
Life can be sweet, an easy street,
You can take it as far as you can.
Heaven help me help myself to your love again.
Donna was staying positive, I know that, but she really couldn’t hide the worry, especially at night when we lie in our bed. She was keeping a brave face for the boys, though, and I was amazed at how she could do it. I definitely married a strong, beautiful woman. The best decision I ever made, leading to the next three best decisions we both made: Jonathan, Daniel and Morgan Haymer. God bless my family and keep them safe!





Monday, November 17, 2014

Chapter 60 – The Big C




Between the songs I posted on Fame Games (doing quite well, I might add), the gigs at Kimbro’s, the buying and selling of rare musical instruments on Ebay, I was keeping busy. The next mountain to climb was Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah slated for October 17, 2009—another year to go. His mother and I traded off taking him to Congregation Micah on Sundays and we knew he would do great when the time came for his torah portion. Morgan was anticipating the second ceremony knowing his would be not only the next Bar Mitzvah, but the last one. It must be hard being the youngest of three boys. Both of his brothers had a one-on-one experience with me on our trips to L.A., and soon it would be his turn. Unfortunately, with the expense of the Bar Mitzvah looming, it was going to be impossible to leave that summer, when he, as his brothers had been, ten years old. Little did I know, the ominous news I would soon receive would put a damper on everything.
In the middle of August 2009, Donna was lying in bed next to me with a worried look on her face. I asked her what was wrong and she said she wanted me to check something on her left breast she had noticed a week ago. She ran my hand over a lump the size of a half dollar and I screamed, “HOLY SHIT! How long has that been there?”
The next morning Donna made an appointment at her GYN, and the next thing we knew she had another appointment at a surgeon at Williamson Medical Center. Ironically she was recovering from chemotherapy from a stint with lymphoma herself and when we met her, she had a bandana covering her head. This damned disease is rampant! The doctor asked Donna if she was busy tomorrow since she wanted to bypass the biopsy and remove the lump. Benign or malignant, it would be best to get rid of the thing. On August 20th, my good friend, Doug Fieger’s birthday (who had been diagnosed with cancer some years earlier but seemed to be on the road to recovery) I was outside the hospital waiting on news from the surgeon. I was so nervous I was smoking a cigarette (a roll-your-own) when the phone rang, the surgeon told me in no uncertain terms that it was a tumor and was malignant. I looked at the cigarette in my hands and felt disgusted that I should be smoking when I heard the news that my wife had breast cancer. I tossed the ciggie down and crushed it under my boot. I wanted to cry but couldn’t—I guess I was in shock. I think I stayed that way for at least a year afterwards. The prognosis was scary since the tumor had gone beyond the margins which means that it was spreading and they had also found a second in the same breast. She had to have surgery to remove the breast—maybe both.
How could this be happening to her? There is no history of cancer in her family. If anyone should have it (knock on wood ten times) it should be me. My mother and father both had breast cancer, and my father had died from a sarcoma of the lungs in 1989, two months shy of his70th birthday. I tried to think of all the reasons why. Maybe it was in the plastic bottles she would drink from everyday? It couldn’t have been her diet, and she didn’t smoke. What the hell!
In a letter to her sister on September 1, Donna wrote: Saw the plastic surgeon today who will do the reconstruction. He spent a lot of time with us and explained the whole procedure and explained which option is best for me. It's going to be more lengthy than I thought as immediately after the mastectomy they have to put in an expander which stays in for about 4 months and is gradually inflated by injecting saline every week or two. They have to stretch the remaining skin and muscle to make room for the implant and then when it's the right size they remove the spacer and put in the permanent implant. It looks like the surgery will be Sept 16th or 17th as the 2 surgeons can't coordinate it until then. I see the oncologist on Fri so I won't have any more new information until then. I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact my hair's going to fall out but I've talked with a couple of people who have just gone through it and they said the chemo wasn't as bad as they thought it would be. 
Donna was going to lose her hair from the chemotherapy (scheduled to begin after the surgery in late September), that was a given, so to lessen the shock I bought an auburn Joan Collins bob style wig on Ebay—not some cheap thing, but a nice one from real human hair. The plastic surgeon, Dr. Behar, was a guy from my neck of the woods, New York, and we hit it off right away. There were times when we were talking so much about the east coast, and what it was like being a Jew in the Bible-belt in his office, Donna had to interrupt while pointing to her chest, “Uh guys, I’m the patient here, remember?” We both looked sheepishly at each other with guilt. Want to know what kind of woman Donna is? She was planning on scheduling her chemo on Thursday afternoons so she could miss only one day of work (Friday) and be back at it by Monday. I don’t know how she could do it. I would tell her later, she didn’t have to go back until she felt better or until the chemo was over but she said, “I just want to go back to my normal routine, all of this cancer stuff will only get me down if I have to sit around the house all day dwelling on it. Plus, I hear working can be the best thing you can do to get on with things.” How could I argue with that? I mean, she has got to be the toughest person I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t think I could be that strong. What a hero! The hardest part for her was how she was going to tell the children. Before the surgery we sat the three boys down in the den and I said that there was some very upsetting news, but that everything was going to be okay. I can’t remember the exact words but we told them that their mother had cancer and that the doctor was going to cut out the bad stuff and would have medicine to fight anything that was left in her body so it wouldn’t spread. She has the best doctors we could find and they think your mom will be fine after awhile. “She is going to be very weak boys, so anything you can do to help out around the house will be appreciated. Please try not to worry.”
All three of their reactions were different. Jonathan became tearful since he was the oldest and knew the dangers of the dreaded disease. Daniel asked if all her hair was going to fall out with a concerned look on his face. Morgan, the stoic one, said nothing.
The surgery on the 17th went well and after a day in the hospital she was released. I tried the best I could to wait on her hand and foot while taking care of the boy’s needs. I had no idea she did so much and I was exhausted by bedtime and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
In a second letter to her best friend, Irene, on September 30, Donna wrote:  Hi, here's the latest news on this weeks appt's. I'm feeling well and doing better every day. Beginning to work on getting my shoulder movement back and using it a bit more. It's amazing how much you use your shoulder and chest muscles for driving, especially parking. We went to a "College Night" at Jonathans high school last night and I drove there but had James drive back as I was a bit sore, probably from the doctor appt earlier that day and having drain removed and expanding process started.
Here's the plan:-
Wed 30... nothing except Bar Mitzvah work/planning.
Thurs 1... day surgery to have port placed under the collar bone and into a vein to have IV chemo through.
Fri 2...Daniel birthday, whole body PET scan, 2 soccer practices.
Sat 3... Haircuts for the boys, 2 soccer games (both at same place at 9am luckily).
Sun 4... Hebrew Sunday School.
Mon 5... nuclear medicine Heart scan at the hospital (I'm beginning to glow in the dark!!)
Tues 6th...plastic surgeon appt, school soccer tryouts for Daniel.
Wed 7th... Nothing as yet except Bar Mitzvah stuff.
Thurs 8th...Start chemotherapy.
Haven't anything else planned beyond that at this point except for the the Bar Mitzvah.
    In between all this we (or rather James) is trying to paint, do some tiling, steam clean carpets and I'm trying to organise (she spells it the British way) a Bar Mitzvah and party for 100 people. The house is a wreck and my mum, dad and you arrive on the 13th, Susan on the 15th and Jonathan's friend Sam the 16th. Robbie and Carol are coming on the 14th but they're going straight to Memphis to do a little sightseeing and then back to Nashville. They're staying in a hotel and so are Max and his girlfriend and Emily. We're just trying to take it day by day just now and hoping everything falls into place.
    Today is also Daniel's birthday. It's hard to believe he's 13 already but in some ways he seems very grown up. You wouldn't recognize him. When all 3 of the boys are together they are told that they are like the Jonas Brothers. (do you know them?). Of course they hate that as they say they are a girl band. They'd much rather look like Ozzie Osborne. YUCK.
     Anyway, hope you booked enough time to read all this. Hope you're staying well, staying happy and staying busy. Too much time on your hands is dangerous and bad for you. At least that's what I tell James when I need him to do something! 
     Talk with you soon. Thanks again. Love you.

Donna XXX

To be continued . . .





Monday, November 10, 2014

Chapter 59 - Daniel’s Turn

Dad and Daniel in 2002
Daniel now at 18


My niece, Emily, was graduating from Harvard-Westlake High School, and all the Tennessee Haymers made the excursion. My brother, Robbie and my sister-in-law, Carol were living up in the Encino Hills at the time in a huge gated house with Emily (Max was living down in Orange County, a junior now at UC Irvine). There was a nice kidney-shaped pool in the backyard and a Weber grill on the patio. We made good use of both those accoutrements— believe you me.
It was a beautiful late-spring day in May as we drove our rented Chevy Impala to Harvard-Westlake. I had never seen so many Jaguars, Rolls Royces, Mercedes and Porsches since I graduated Beverly Hills High School in 1970. When I saw Steven Spielberg escorting his son, Theo, and Denzel Washington arm-in-arm with his daughter, Katia to the tune of the Pomp and Circumstances March I flashed back to that day thirty-six years earlier. The only difference, instead of the graduating class wearing black armbands to protest the war in Viet Nam, the class of 2006 were wearing Armani suits, diamond earrings and shoes that cost more than three nights stay at the Chateau Marmont. Maybe some of the students had thoughts of protesting the war In Iraq, but I didn’t see any evidence of it at all. Maybe they had matured enough to know the time and place for such demonstrations, and graduation ceremony wasn’t such a time. When they called Emily’s name and she came to the podium to accept her diploma, I knew it was the passing of the torch, another reminder that time was marching on for all of us. Nonetheless, I was so proud of her and wondered what joys, trials and tribulations she would face in the real world (after college, of course). After going on a tour with her mom of many colleges and universities, she had settled on the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and would be attending that remarkable center of learning the following September.
After the graduation, we decided a trip to Las Vegas would be fun. I had my usual system in mind—to start with blackjack, play a little craps where I would try to find some fat-cat with a pile of chips and emulate his betting. We stayed at the Luxor, the hotel on the south side of the strip built in the shape of a pyramid. I would have had a great time if I hadn’t had lost all my money within the first twenty minutes. After that, I hung out by the pool, drank non-alcoholic beer and cokes and worked on my tan. I couldn’t wait to leave, but tried not to show my impatience with the ultimate city of sin (being one to wear my heart on my sleeve, it wasn’t working.) I think everyone else had a pretty good time but I swore I’d never to go back the Vegas again.
On the drive back to my sister, Susan’s house in Nichols Canyon (where we would be staying at the tail-end of our trip), we stopped at Lake Arrowhead and walked around my old stomping grounds. I remembered going there in 1970 with my first girlfriend, Debbie Taylor, whose father had a cabin called Gypsy’s Hideaway about a ten minute drive from the lake. We would light candles and sit by the roaring cedar wood fire listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash and James Taylor’s, Sweet Baby James. Although it sucks to be getting older, I feel sorry for people who missed those days, especially the sixties; we had The Beatles, The Stones and Bob Dylan (in their hey-day), The Animals, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Buffalo Springfield and we were part of a scene that will probably never repeat itself again. It was an iconic time!
During the trip, Daniel kept asking when his turn would come to do a one-on-one with me to L.A. He was worried that since we were already here, this vacation would supersede our trip. I promised him the second installment of the 10 year-old father/son sojourn to L.A. would become a reality. The trip would coincide with a Senior Recital performance by my nephew, Max, in Winifred Smith Hall at UC Irvine in June 2007, four months before Daniel’s eleventh birthday. We had plenty of time to plan things out—one thing for sure; we weren’t going to Las Vegas.
It was finally Daniel’s turn, since I had made two trips to L.A. with Jonathan—one when he was six to drive my Mom’s Toyota Camry back to Tennessee and the second for his participation in WACK (Wild and Crazy Kids). In June of 2007, Daniel and I flew to LAX and stayed our first night at the Fleg’s (my cousin and his wife, Richard’s house) they shared with their daughter, Amanda (born three days after Jonathan in March of 1992). Daniel really liked the company but his favorite creature was their long-haired dachshund, Milo. He really loved that little guy and I could tell I was going to have to get a dog like him when we got back to Tennessee.
On our second day in town, we rented a couple of bicycles in Venice and rode those puppies all the way to the near edge of Malibu. We both were exhausted by the time we made Sunset Beach and we parked our bikes in the sand and headed for the ocean. We didn’t have out swimming trunks on so we waded in the cool water chasing the breakers back to the shore just in time before we got out clothes soaked. It was the highlight of the trip for both of us. That night we met Robbie, Carol and Susan at a Japanese restaurant and I could tell Daniel was feeling a bit out of sorts. He had his head down on the table after the meal and wasn’t very talkative (not like him at all). That night we stayed at Susan’s house in Nichols Canyon. I could see she still had the blown up poster of Mom on an easel in the living room. Susan, still devastated by the loss of our mother (not that I wasn’t), and seeing that photo up there made me miss her terribly. I asked Daniel if he remembered the days when she used to paint watercolors with him in the guest room in Thompson Station. He said he did and having the pictures of her all over Susan’s house brought the memory home to him. That made me happy. It was a shame he never got to meet my father, none of my kids did—they would have loved him. At least they got to see him on the TV from time to time.
Daniel was looking pale as a ghost that evening. I checked his temperature and he was running a low grade fever. I asked Susan if she had something that might reduce his fever and all she had was some Sudafed or Tylenol. Daniel, being used to that horrible tasting liquid, hated taking medicine. But he had never really taken pills and wasn’t sure how to do it. I demonstrated the process by taking a vitamin and he began to get the idea but still was unsure how to get that large oblong object down his throat without choking. After about fifteen minutes of balking and refusal, he finally was able to take his medicine. He went to bed and was asleep in no time. Susan and I sat in the living room talking and hoping Daniel was going to be able to make the trip down to Irvine the next day for Max’s performance. After awhile, I went into the middle room we were sharing and checked his head. He was still warm, was perspiring his sheets were clammy. I thought it was a good sign—maybe he would sweat it out. One could only hope. I was wishing that Donna had been there, but this was a father/son trip and good old dad was going to have to take the reins. I didn’t even call her that night knowing I would have spilled the beans about his illness—I didn’t want to worry her. I went to bed on the big chair watching him sleep on the daybed next to me and I finally drifted off.
The next morning I awoke at the crack of dawn. I let Daniel sleep and went into the kitchen to make a pot of Trader Joe’s French Roast coffee. Susan must have smelled the aroma of those savory beans and came in to the kitchen as the sun was peeking through the sliding glass doors leading out to the balcony. She asked how Daniel was feeling and I told her he was still asleep and it would be best to let him sleep as long as possible. It was going to be a long day and I hoped he would be able to make it without a trip to the doctor or emergency room if things took a turn for the worse. When he woke up around eight, he was soaked. I ran a hot bath for him and gave him another Tylenol after he picked at his cereal. He did much better with the pill that time. I made him a cup of herbal tea and he drank it while he was bathing. After that he was feeling better and was watching the Power Rangers on the TV. I thought he was going to make it after all. With Susan in the passenger seat and Daniel resting in the back, I drove the rented Mustang down to Irvine and we got to Chakra, the Indian restaurant, in time for appetizers. Daniel didn’t take too kindly to spicy food but did like the Nan bread and Tandoori chicken. Still, it was obvious he wasn’t up to snuff. Carol said she knew he was coming down with something after his behavior in the Japanese restaurant two days earlier. She thought it was probably a virus that would run itself out in a couple of days. I was hoping she was right. Mothers seem to know best about these things. I think eating that spicy food had done the trick since by the time the meal was over, Daniel’s fever had broken and he seemed ready to face the music—Max’s music.

The performance at Winifred Smith Hall was brilliant and the pi├Ęce de resistance was his duet with his professor, Kei Akagi. They performed Senor Mouse, by Chick Corea, and I must say I was overwhelmed by the magic of the moment. Max was brilliant and I knew (even though I was a bit envious) he had a brilliant future ahead of him. Even Daniel was impressed. I was so relieved he was feeling better. The trip was winding down and we spent the last night back at Richard and Sue’s house in Cheviot Hills, the closest to the airport. Daniel said he had a great time and was sorry to leave, especially Milo, but he missed his mom and brothers. That made me a little tearful knowing that he was close to his siblings. Donna and I must have done a few things right. Maybe more than that!