In the summer of 2001, I was guiding her wheelchair down the long corridor of Nashville International Airport. Donna, Jonathan, Daniel and two year old Morgan by our side. Mom was frail and, although she could walk, it seemed easier for her to be in that chair. We kissed goodbye at the gate (yes, you could still go all the way up to the gate then). The attendant wheeled her away. She turned around and tearfully smiled and waved goodbye.
Living at Susan’s house in Nichols Canyon, Mom was trying to keep a brave face. But behind that slightly shaky voice, a voice she tried to emit well being and good spirits, I knew she was not doing well. I tried to look beyond it—so did she. I was involved with writing my screenplay, reading “how to” books and taking classes. Too busy, or too much in denial to notice Mom slipping away. I got the call from Susan in mid-April to come home to L.A. Susan still thought of Los Angeles as my home although I had been in Tennessee for almost seven years. She said that our mother was dying.
Susan had pleaded with Mom to tell her when it was time. Mom said she would let her know. The night of April 12 was a bad one and Susan didn’t want to call 911 thinking it would take too long for the paramedics to arrive in the hills of Hollywood, so she decided to drive Mom to the hospital in the BMW. She gently helped her into the back of the car and drove like a maniac to Cedars Sinai Hospital in West Hollywood.
“Is it time, mom?” she asked?
“It’s time,” the last words she ever said. After she arrived at the hospital they stuck a tube down her throat and she could not speak. Her eyes told the story. Susan was beside herself with panic and anxiety. They always had a great relationship, honest and open. She was not only Susan’s mother but her best friend, spiritual advisor and confidant. Mom was like that with me, too. I could tell her anything and she would listen without judgment or attitude.
I booked the first flight out of Nashville on the morning of the 13th scheduled to arrive around ten am. Somewhere over Colorado I got an electric ping in my heart. I didn’t want to believe what my brain, my psyche was telling me. Robbie was supposed to meet me at the baggage area but when I saw Carol, my sister-in-law, at the bottom of the escalator I knew that Mom was gone. She died while I was over the Rocky Mountains.
I might have gone to the hospital. But I was in such a state of shock that I don’t really remember. Now that I think about it I must have. Susan who was waiting for me in the lobby told me Mom’s body, removed from intensive care, was now in the morgue waiting for interment at Mt. Sinai next to my father’s site. I hugged my sister and we both cried. I drove her BMW back to Nichols Canyon. She made some tea and we talked about Mom for hours. She told me the story of her last day on earth. I was sorry I missed it.
In the Jewish religion, the recently departed’s burials are quick. No beating around the bush. I think it was Monday the 15th or Tuesday the 16th. Probably the latter since we needed a little time to make arrangements and get the word out to her friends and the rest of the family. Robbie, Susan and Shauna, my sister’s best friend and roommate handled all the details. I called Stephen, Blair, Paul Downing and a few of the people who would help support me in my hour of despair and need. Mom had always been kind to my friends and had given them shelter, food and good advice. They loved her. Stephen said she was more of a mother to him than his real mom.
The rabbi was a Grateful Dead-head right out of rabbinical school by the name of Michael Ozar. He gave a stirring and hippy-dippy tribute to my mom (something I think she would have appreciated). He said that she was blessing out on the other side now. Robbie and Carol rolled their eyes wishing that Susan would have chosen a more traditional rabbi to conduct the service. It was all right with me. The Hebrew reading or parashah for her ceremony was Chayei Sara which customarily is in November, but Chayei Sara was my mom’s Hebrew name so it was fitting. The parashah tells the stories of Abraham’s negotiations to secure a burial place for his wife Sarah and his servant’s mission to secure a wife for Abraham's son Isaac. There was standing room only. Everyone whose life my mom had touched and vice-versa was there. It was truly beautiful.
My mom. How do I explain how wonderful a person she was? All my spiritual qualities, my quest for knowledge, my love of art, music and literature I got from her. I got my work ethic and acting ability from my dad…music too. But mom showed me how it was possible to do the thing you loved most in the world and be happy in a relationship too.
Standing at a monumental 4’ 11 and 1/2’’, she was the original Peter Pan with her short red hair in a pixie cut. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1927, she was the younger of two children. Her older brother, Norman, was her protector and if anyone ever said a cross word or looked at Helyn Sylvia Graff a little too long they would know about it in a hurry. When she was two or three her father, George, had to leave New York in the middle of the night and head for Detroit. To this day I am not sure why but I think it had something to do with the mob. George was a colorful flim-flam man, a Damon Runyon character who, besides my mom was my favorite person in the whole wide world and Helyn was the apple of his eye. As far as he was concerned, she could do no wrong. She was an ingénue, cover girl and total knockout, the queen of Central High School class of 1945.
Just before Christmas of 1948, she went on a date with a dilettante to a night club in downtown Detroit to see an up-and-coming comedy act called Sears and Haymer. She fell in love with the young Haymer at first sight and said he reminded her of an energetic Dean Martin. They were married three weeks later. As a wedding gift Mom got a beautiful Cocker Spaniel with long golden hair. They named her Rapunzel—Punzie for short.
Helyn and Johnny Haymer bought a starter house in Roslyn, New York, out on the Island; it was where they were living when my sister, Susan, and I were born. Since my father spent a lot of time on the road and Roslyn was too far from Queens where George and Ida Graff lived, they sold the house and moved to Kew Gardens in the same apartment complex as her parents when I was three. When my dad was in town, he wasn’t so crazy about the idea of being so close to his in-laws, but it made him feel secure that in an emergency, they could be there to help.
On February, 3 1959, the same day the music died, Johnny and Helyn bought a house in Jericho, Long Island. Dad was working theater in the round and industrial shows and was gone at least half the year. Mom didn’t really mind. She had her three kids to raise and entertain. It was a labor of love for her. We would put on shows together, make up stories and when it rained we got the book, Things to do on a Rainy Day down from the shelf. It was our bible.
Mom was famous in Jericho for driving her white Cadillac convertible into the left post of the garage not once but twice. She made the local papers. When I was in the fourth grade Punzie was getting old. She was blind as a bat. Mom was in a hurry one day, backed the Caddy out of the garage, and inadvertently ran over her beloved Punzie. She was beside herself with sorrow and guilt. I’ll never forget that day. She came to my school, took me out of class and told me that Punzie was dead. We sat in the hallway of that school and cried. She knew how much I loved animals and how I was the only one that could understand what she was going through.
Mom was the consummate hippy, without the drugs, beads and sandals. She did adopt the philosophy of make love and not war. When I was a senior in high school she said there was no way her older son was going to fight in an unjust war in Viet Nam. She talked my dad into hiring a draft lawyer and paid $600 to make sure I never went in the armed forces. It was a moot point since I got a high lottery number, had flat feet and was colorblind.
Mom loved the music of the sixties too—especially The Beatles. She supported my endeavors and let my band rehearse in the living room at all hours bringing us sandwiches and Cokes. I can’t tell you how many of my friends lived in the back room when they needed a place to stay. Mom and dad were like surrogate parents to them all. I remember the all-night talks about everything and anything with her. She was the most unbiased and understanding person I have ever met. I could come to her with any problem and she would listen, really listen without judgment or preconception. Whenever I would bring home a stray dog or cat, Mom would be more than willing to share in the responsibilities and love of those creatures—and there were many. I always knew there would be a safe haven for my pets when I had to go on the road. If mom had a fault it was that she was too generous with the almighty dollar and a little overprotective. She was my patron of the arts and even though I did have many delivery jobs in my teens and early twenties, if I needed some extra cash to buy a guitar or strings, whatever, she would be right there with her open checkbook. She spoiled me, it’s true, and added to my sense of entitlement I still have trouble with. I guess there could be worse things.
My mom and dad had the best marriage I could imagine. I only hoped my marriage to Donna would be as fruitful and inspiring. So far so good. I knew when my dad died a big part of my mom was lost too. She was never the same. Her health slowly deteriorated. She had taken a terrible fall in Crown Books after tripping over a stack of books haphazardly placed in an aisle. She tried unsuccessfully to sue Crown Books. Sure it would have been nice to have been financially compensated, but it wouldn’t have helped her back. She lived in constant pain after that. She was a breast cancer survivor, had heart problems and a failing pacemaker, back pain, anemia, you name it—she had it. I knew when Donna and the boys and I went to L.A. in January for Emily’s Bat Mitzvah it was bad. Mom tried to get out of bed and get dressed but couldn’t. She just wanted to stay in bed. That was it. She had given up and, even though she had three grown kids, five grandchildren, all who loved her so much, she was ready to go and be with her loving husband Johnny somewhere in the cosmos. After the Bat Mitzvah we went back to Susan’s to say good bye to Mom. I had a feeling it would be the last time I ever saw her alive.
The Shiva, which is like a wake, was immediately after the service at Susan’s house. Susan’s friend Julie Endelman had done a wonderful job preparing the food and drink. Stephen, Blair and Paul had followed me over and we parked the car on Nichols Canyon. While walking up the road we saw an old friend and band mate from Silverspoon, Miguel Ferrer. He asked why we were all dressed up in suits and ties. Stephen told Miguel that my mother had just died and we were having a wake. Miguel said he lived right up the street and would be right back after he changed into a more fitting attire.
Even though I was sober I was tempted to have a drink. I, of course, resisted that temptation. Miguel, who was now a well known actor, showed up a half hour later and was sorry he missed the funeral. We started talking about golf, of all things. I told that that I had recently completed a screenplay about golf and he said he wanted to read it. I felt a bit funny about promoting my screenplay at my mom’s Shiva but knew that she was watching over me and would like nothing more than to see me become a success in my endeavor. She always thought, as did I, that it would be in music, but if the screenplay took off, it would leave a door open for my songs. I think I had written over a thousand by then.
A week later, back in Tennessee I got a call from Miguel. He said he loved the screenplay and not only did he want to help produce it, he wanted to play the part of Mark Mulligan, the lead role. Mom was watching over me all right. Miguel said he had a writer friend who he thought would help get the screenplay in a more suitable form. I was okay with that as long as it didn’t get “Hollywoodized”. A month later I flew back to L.A. with Jonathan to meet with the writer. It was a two-fold journey. Susan was working on a new show called Wild and Crazy Kids and she got Jonathan a part as a contestant. I would take him to San Dimas where they would do all these crazy stunts in a lake. He would have a blast doing the show, and would get to visit my mom and dad’s final resting place at Mt. Sinai and I would get my screenplay in order. Two out of three ain’t bad.
I am happy that Jonathan and Daniel got to meet her, but Morgan was too young to remember her well. She spent six months out of the year here in Tennessee and most of that time she spent with me, Donna and the kids. She painted watercolors and read spiritual books. We had many discussions about some of the more esoteric subjects especially the afterlife. It was upsetting to me that my mom didn’t believe in the afterlife. She thought that life went on through our offspring. It was all in the genes and chromosomes, although sometimes I think she leaned toward reincarnation. I hope she was wrong about the afterlife because when my time comes and I enter through the pearly gates or wherever it is, I hope Mom will be the first person I see welcoming me to the other side with open arms, and maybe a bagel and lox with cream cheese and onion. God, I miss her.