It was Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta about 4 years back when I met Marti. She was a former radio personality and I was a new kid in town not knowing a ton of people in my new city at the time. I snuck my way into a music conference taking place at Smith’s to try to make new friends and get my name out there and Marti was on the hunt for more radio gigs on a trip to ATL from Auburn Alabama. We met eyes and struck up a convo. I suppose we could both read each others’ eyes that neither one of knew what we were doing exactly but that we were hungry to meet people. We talked for a while and connected quite a bit. Mostly joked around and felt better about not really knowing anyone but it was a bonding experience.
We kept in touch and she later told me about a new philanthropy that her sister Sandi started with some of her friends to raise money and awareness for the Southeast Alabama Medical Center Foundation. Sandi had been battling cancer for some time at this point. She said they couldn’t pay me to come down to play for the event but that they’d be willing to put me up for the night before the 6am call time to play some fun, upbeat music before the race starts at 7am. I’m always down to help with philanthropies, cancer in particular because of how pervasive it is. That’s how I thought about cancer, but I didn’t really know anything. Yet. I’d also never been to Dothan or played in Alabama at all before and so I said I’d do it.
Fast-forward to the evening I arrive and check-in to the Marriott in Dothan. Nice digs for my standards as far as spending the night somewhere is concerned. Very nice of them and up to that point I was talking with a pleasant woman named Valerie. So far, so good.
I don’t really get any sleep as hotel pillows suck in general and I’ve since learned to ALWAYS bring my own for the head-tilt-ratio I’ve grown to depend on for good sleep. No worries, I’ve done far more on far less sleep so I hit the shower and headed down to the Southeast Alabama Medical Center, the site of the Champions of Hope 5k. I was met by friendly faces who guided me to the stage to set up my sound and start playing. It was at this point that I first met Sandi. She seemed like she was doing ok but you could see that “recovering from chemo therapy” hair-do. That was what she looked like physically. What she talked like and put out in the universe from the inside was gentle, soft, and honest with a powerful spirit for good. I was taken with her immediately. Her immediate and extended family were also gems. Her mother, Joyce, was a cheerful woman with a tremendous zest for life and people. I could tell immediately where Sandi got it from. She and I have shared many jokes and Johnny Cash sing-a-longs. Who knew they’d have great taste in music too ;) I finished setting up and started playing as the racers gathered.
That year there were a few hundred people I believe. Honestly, I’ve lost track over the years, but I digress.
The race ended and I was still playing, then they started the ceremonies. Thanking sponsors, racers, organizers and an acknowledgement of the selected Chairperson for the year’s event, presented with regal accoutrements. That year it was Sandi. What a fighter I realized she was. Able to take on an adversity with the tenacity and brutality that cancer has, meet it head on and pour your heart and soul into helping others. That’s character. That’s guts. That’s Sandi. I later met many like her, but she was the first for me to put it all in perspective.
I thanked them for inviting me and they thanked me profusely for coming all the way from Atlanta to be a part of it. They think they benefited from me coming down there but it was only when I left that I realized that I felt I owed them. Valerie, Marti, Joyce (Mamasita, as I came to call her), Sandi and too many others too list.
With a week to go before my most recent Champions of Hope appearance I got a disturbing message from Valerie saying that Sandi wasn’t doing too well and that I should be prepared when I see her. I kept that in mind as I made the trek down south.
I arrived in Dothan with plenty of time to spare so, of course, I wanted to see the family clans associated with Sandi that I had grown so fond of so I swung by to see her. I swung by the Publix to grab some flowers for her as a clumsy token of affection and hopefully to bring a smile to her face. I was, as always, received with a smile, but I was not ready to see what I saw.
If it weren’t for her generous smile and sparkling blue eyes, I would not have recognized her. She was completely bald, emaciated, both breasts gone with the chords of an oxygen machine attached to her nose. This was bad. This was really bad. I swallowed my overwhelming sympathy for her and anger at her condition that had almost taken me over completely and replaced it with giving her a big, but cautious, hug and saying my standard saying to her: “hello gorgeous”! She said how happy she was to see me and congratulated me on my recent appearances in Rolling Stone magazine as well as flattering things like “so you’re not too big to come to little ‘ol Dothan yet?” Like I said before, the pleasure is mine to be there with these people. There was talk of her not being able to make that evening’s Spaghetti Dinner to take place that night, the night before the actual race. I played it and she made it out. When I saw her at the event, she wore a cascading blonde wig, fabulous clothing (as is par for the course for Sandi) and doing her best to attend without oxygen but the cancer had different ideas.
The event was a pleasure with the usual cast of characters I adore seeing in Dothan. True salt-of-the-earth people and genuine in their love and generosity. An oasis in a desert when dealing with the business I’m in sometimes. I went back to my hotel to ponder and I decided to run in the race the following morning since I was only playing the night before this time.
I ran the race, saw some of the people I’d grown accustom to seeing as well as making some new friends. Not hard to do when the folks are like they are there. Sandi was there too. T-shirt and jeans, sitting at the survivor’s booth, cables to her oxygen machine attached. It must have been very difficult for her to be there physically, but try shutting up the spirit she had. Just try. That would be a futile endeavor, dear reader.
The race was run and I didn’t suck toooooooooo bad with a time of 21min. Happy to have been able to be a part. I said my goodbyes to folks and planned to get together with Marti and the family after showering at the hotel. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d see Sandi alive. I would have had more ceremony or would have paid more attention to the nuances of the moment. Smelled the air. Hugged her a little longer. I don’t know what difference that would have made but I suppose it’s easy to feel a void in hindsight.
So I showered and went to the house where she was asleep. The event really took it out of her poor body. I spent some quality time with the family and hit the road to Mobile, AL. My next tour stop.
A couple of weeks went by and I was in my car on my way to Atlanta from my house to discuss my new plans of recording when I got a message on Facebook: “Sandi passed away today, I thought you should know”.
I was in total shock. I froze for several minutes, then started saying “oh no… oh no…”, felt my lip quiver and couldn’t keep it together for at least an hour. Panicked, I texted and called around to confirm it with someone, anyone as I was in total disbelief. Valerie called me back and confirmed the worst. She was gone.
We were sad but taking comfort in that she was no longer in pain. The burial plans came gradually and there was no way I was going to miss her service.
Sunday morning I made my trek back to Dothan to be at her service in the afternoon. I had no idea what to expect. I don’t have a lot of practice in this field to date.
I pulled up to the funeral home and was met by the old men who ran the home and then Marti. We hugged for a few minutes, I expressed my condolences and talked a little. I then walked inside toward the casket where I saw the families standing. I made my way to it, with flowers again which was another clumsy gesture to add to my roster. I went to Mamasita and gave her a big hug. Many of the people there who were much closer to Sandi than I was were thanking me for coming and told me how much Sandi loved me and how happy she would be to know I was there. It was very generous of them to say.
I then looked to my right and there she was. She looked beautiful, like a doll. She didn’t look real to me. Either that or I was in shock that that was Sandi and that she no longer had life in her. It was a shell that was deceptive in reflecting the content that was no longer there. I still, like always, turned to her and said out loud: “Hey gorgeous”. It was a perfectly natural reaction for me and it broke my heart a little that she couldn’t hear me. I made my way to the family members who were dealing with the whole thing quite well, considering, and seemed to take turns consoling others like myself who had just shown up to this sight. I guess selfless strength runs in all their genes. That, and I’m sure they’ve seen her suffer more than anyone and were partly happy that she was no longer in excruciating pain. I can’t imagine what she had been going through all these years. I don’t want to.
The service went on and her friends and relatives spoke eloquently and emotionally about Sandi and her life. Laughter and tears. Tears and laughter. It was a packed house. There were people from all walks of life, of all ages and of all socio-economic statuses. It was clear that there was no shortage of people that Sandi touched with her message.
As of this year’s Champions of Hope, over $250,000 has been raised to help cancer patients in need. What an amazing accomplishment for all of the hard working people involved.
She had touched so many lives and convinced so many people that one person can unequivocally have a huge effect on the world. I hope that her gracious modesty took leave momentarily toward the end so that she could absorb the credit that she so richly deserved for what she had accomplished. She achieved more in her life as it was painfully slipping away from her than most people do in perfect health throughout the course of their entire time on this earth. I always felt that I was the type to take advantage of my time here and to be joyous and thankful for what I have, but I learned a lot through Sandi.
My involvement with cancer benefits started profoundly with Sandi but sure hasn’t ended there. Since meeting Sandi and encountering all of the folks I’ve known since her with cancer, it’s become a special cause for me to help with cancer research benefits where and when I can. Many of the people (women specifically) diagnosed with it have had tremendously positive attitudes. I’m so happy to see that. I’m sure, some day, we’ll have a cure for it.
Whenever I feel like I’m tired or complacent or that I’ve done all that I can, I think of Sandi (as well as other survivors I’ve met) and I keep moving. She is a template of courage. She is a template of strength. She is the Champion of Hope.
If there’s some life’s work that you’re fighting for or some wild obstacle that is tearing you from your life somehow, you can make it through. You can be better. You can do great things. You can make the world better than when you first got here. It’s always up to you what you do with your life. Have the strength to go for it.
Rest in peace, gorgeous. Your work here is done.