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!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Chapter 58 – Stuck Inside of Motown with the Nashville Blues Again

I was gearing up for another Americana Tonight showcase in August 2006 and the monthly gig at Kimbro’s proved to be a great warm-up gig. I was auditioning a second guitar player so I could concentrate on my vocals. It was back to Craigslist. First there was a guitar player, Ray, that lived out in Ashland City. After meeting up with him at the local Starbuck’s and giving him a CD, I decided to get together with him at his house to go over some of the material. Driving the winding road to his cabin in the hills, I thought I was going to get sick (my vertigo was a concern for me but hadn’t kicked in to its full capacity yet). Upon arrival he pulled out an old Harmony semi-hollow body guitar, much like my old Harmony Rocket, the first guitar I ever had. He played the songs competently enough but nothing that really knocked my socks off, still he was a contender.
On the way back down the hill, the curving road got to me. I didn’t know if I could make it with my nausea and double vision. I pulled over to the side of the road and open the window. It wasn’t getting any better. I had one of three choices. One: I could tough it out and try and make it down the hill and vertigo be damned. Two, I could call my wife and have her pick me up, but she would probably get lost and I didn’t want to worry her. Or three, I could wait it out. Since it was getting dark and after waiting a half an hour or so, I chose option one. I felt like I was drunk, even though I hadn’t had anything to drink and was taking the curvy road with one eye close while taking deep breaths to alleviate the nausea. Somehow I made it to the flats and by the time I got on I-40, I was almost back to normal.
I, being the type of person who looks for signs and meanings in things that most people would just ignore, decided that the vertigo came about by a combination of the winding road and the music created from Ray and myself. I must have meant that Ray was not the person for the gig. Stupid, I know, but it was that kind of thinking that seemed to influence my decisions. I kept looking for another guitar player.
I got a response from a singer/ songwriter named Joe Rathbone. Joe was one of those musicians, like I was, that could play many instruments but his guitar playing was too much in a rhythm style and I felt that it didn’t really make the sound the way I imagined. He told me he could try playing bass, but I wasn’t ready to give up on Greg yet, even though he kept making the same mistakes over and over again. Still Greg was solid when he was on top of his game. It became a moot point since Joe found out he had another gig on August 16th and wouldn’t be able to make the gig at Douglas Corner anyway. I guess things always work out for the best. Joe later had separated from his wife and ended up moving in with Josh, the drummer. They became good friends and Josh even began playing bass (a new instrument he was learning) in Joe Rathbone’s band a few months later. I still needed a guitar player and ended up hiring a guy named CJ that played minimally. Sometimes I had to stop playing completely to hear what he was doing. It was actually quite good. Since time was running out, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
The second installment of Americana Tonight went over well enough but I still wasn’t happy with the band’s configuration. I thought I would keep looking while playing our monthly gigs at Kimbro’s, The Family Wash and a few other local hot spots in Nashville. One day when I was playing golf at Forrest Crossing in Franklin, I paired up with another golfer by the name of Gary Geier (he told me it was like Geiger without the G). He was a half Hawaiian dude with greasy black hair that kind of reminded me of Wayne Newton, and his golf skills were on a par with mine. I think we either tied or I lost by one stroke. I got his phone number and we made plans to play again the following week. On our second round together, he told me he was also a singer that was trying to make it in Music City and was looking to put a band together to do some county hits mixed with songs from the 80s. I told him to stop by my gig at Kimbro’s to check out my guitar playing but he said it wouldn’t be necessary since he knew I could handle his county/80s gig coming up in two weeks time. He emailed a list of songs and I got to work right away to learn the material. It kind of sucked, but it paid fifty bucks—not bad for an hour’s work.
I had a feeling there was something sleazy about Gary. He would use gamesmanship and tried to psyche me out to throw me off my golf game. He would stop me in the backswing of my putt and say, “I’ll bet you two dollars you can’t make that putt.” I had to regroup after taking the bet and go into my routine again while he tried his best to vibe me into missing. It was beginning to piss me off. Gary had a job in some fly-by-night sales company selling time shares or something like that, and one day he invited me to play golf with his boss and another one of his co-workers. These guys were beyond sleazy. His boss even took wide stance, unzipped his pants and relieved himself on the green. I guess after two six packs of beer something had to give (or take as the case may be). This was a sacrilege to me and golf in general. This was bad enough, but what happened next was a personal affront that I could never forget.
While I was learning those banal county and 80s songs I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard from Gary. He had stopped by Kimbro’s a few nights before and saw my band and me playing our little hearts out. He seemed impressed and began chatting away with all the band members, especially CJ—the other guitar player
The night before the gig I was getting concerned. I still hadn’t heard from Gary and he wasn’t returning my phone calls, not even an email to give me the address of the place we were supposed to play. Did he cancel the gig, or find another guitar player and not even have the decency to notify me? I kept practicing anyway thinking that he would get in touch at the last minute with the details, but no call or email ever came. I had nothing else to do but blow it off.
At next Kimbro’s performance a week or two later, I found out from CJ that Gary had hired him to play guitar at his gig. I couldn’t believe it. I really didn’t blame CJ. Most likely Gary hadn’t even told him that he promised the gig to me. Still, it left a bitter taste in my mouth for both Gary and CJ. It just seemed disloyal and I fired him. It wasn’t long after that when Greg Bailey separated from his wife and decided to move to Mississippi. I knew the band, as it was was over. Now with Josh playing bass and drums with Joe Rathbone and Greg and CJ gone, I was on my own again. I played a few solo gigs but I really missed the power of the band and soon made plans to find more players.
In the meantime, Joe was preparing for a couple of gigs in Detroit. One was a radio show hosted by Motor City’s local hero, Mitch Albom, a best-selling radio personality, author, screenwriter and musician best known for his book, Tuesdays With Morrie. Joe needed a steel guitar player to perform live on the radio show. The second gig was at a Dylanfest at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor a day later. Man, that was my cup of tea. I was going to sing lead on two Dylan songs, Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You and Stuck Inside of Memphis With the Mobile Blues Again.
Before Joe, Eve Fleishman (a wonderful jazz and torch singer) and I headed up north in Joe’s old Nissan Maxima with over 250,000 miles on it, I had contacted some local bass players and drummers on Craigslist and we were set to go. Hopefully these guys could cut the mustard, but in my experience, Detroit musicians are some of the best in the country. I had heard their stuff on the internet and was confident in their abilities. The main problem was Joe. He and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on many things. Joe, another brooding Scorpio, was going through a hard time with his separation from his wife and two-year old daughter. In fact all three of us are Scorpios and it’s a wonder the car didn’t just implode from the vibes. When we were lost somewhere near Cincinnati, I asked a Highway Patrolman parked next to us for directions. After I got the info and we pulled away Joe read me the riot act. He must have had some bad experiences with the police and I couldn’t understand why he was getting so irate about me asking for simple directions. We had nothing to hide—no dope or open containers—so what was his problem?
The next incident happened when he couldn’t get his car to start. We checked the battery and it was fine. I looked at the plugs and they were okay to. Then I happened to look at the gas cap and noticed a crack. That was it! All he needed was a new gas cap. I found an AutoZone and paid twelve dollars out of my own money for a new cap. I thought that would smooth things over between us. It didn’t. After calling up my cousin Bobby Graff who lived in nearby Troy (he came out to the Dylanfest along with my niece Emily who was attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) to meet us at a local Mongolian BBQ restaurant, Joe was really putting out the vibes. I couldn’t take it anymore and stepped away from Bobby and Eve (Bobby was quite taken with Eve and was busy chatting her up) confronted him right there and then. Although I didn’t want it too, I felt it could have come to blows. Joe was at least four inches taller than me but I think we weighed about the same. I hadn’t been in a fight since elementary school but enough was enough. He backed down, but never came clean about what was bothering him. The rest of the trip I ignored him and spent most of the time talking with Eve. By the time we made it back to Nashville, I knew Joe and I were not going to be friends—not even business associates. At least I had the memory of playing live in Detroit and pretending to be Bob Dylan for a few minutes. I had a blast and I think out of the twenty Dylan acts, we were one of the best. But now it was time for me to gear up for my new album and find some new musicians. This time I would try to capture a live feel in the studio as opposed to playing all the instruments myself as I had done with my previous three records. I wanted a killer drummer, a rocking keyboardist and a bass player who could play the upright. I knew they were out there it was only a matter of putting out the word. Oh well . . . back to Craigslist!