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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2014 Donna Day: "Her Name Is Donna"



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I went to college with some pretty amazing people.  One of these people was a guy named Jeremy Hornik.  He frequented the theater and film departments (as did I), was my TA for an intro film lecture class, and was a generally all-around nice guy who I was always glad to see and talk to.  Always had something wry and funny to say.

One of my favorite Jeremy stories was the way he saved my January road trip of 1993 from going off the rails.  I had planned an extensive road trip, visiting friends and relatives between upstate NY and Wichita, KS (home of my college housemate).  I'd drive out there, pick up Tres, and we'd rock on down the road talking music and life like a couple of beat wannabes.  On the way I was visiting my long-distance girlfriend who lived in Chicago.  Well...long-distance relationships are hard enough for grownups let alone kids, and after her refusing to let me sleep in the same bed with her because her other boyfriend had just left the day before (all information I learned on arrival) and then me fooling around with her roommate a little for revenge but mostly because her roommate was a smart, funny, charismatic hottie paying attention to me unlike my "girlfriend", I found myself being asked to leave several days earlier in Chicago early one morning.  Who do I know in Chicago?  I may have actually called someone to ask them and the answer came back "Jeremy Hornik".   I got in touch with Jeremy and called him.  These were the days before cell phones, so I was relying on land lines and pay phones.  I said, "I'm breaking up with my girlfriend, can I come stay with you for a night or so?"  He said, "That's perfect, I just lost my job.  Come over."  He had been working in the box office for Gilligan's Island: The Musical which closed.  He showed me a drawing or two he'd done - one was titled "Mary-Ann Runs Amok" where the wholesome lass went on a killing spree.   We went to the Chicago Zoo either that day or the next day and trundled about in the cold, feeding the squirrels from a park bench.  It was appropriately bleak.  The soundtrack to most of that road trip was Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska".   I appreciated the friendship, the dark humor, and Jeremy's positivity.  I left Chicago feeling pretty hopeful and together.

You never think when you graduate college about the ways people's lives will touch you later.  I don't think anyone envisions themselves getting divorced, getting a disease, or going through agonizing physical and/or emotional pain.  We all seem invincible and ready to conquer the world.  Some do conquer the world.  But most of us just live fairly normal lives.  Like Rick Danko of The Band said once in an interview, "I used to say I wanted my music to change the world, but now I'm just happy if it improves the neighborhood."  His music did change the world though, so he is a bad example.

Anyway, fast forward to many years later where Jeremy had a daughter the same age as mine.  Her name was Donna.  I was in touch with Jeremy early on on Facebook, and one day found out quite by accident that Donna had cancer.   My experiences with cancer were few.  My grandmother had beaten breast cancer.  I'd never known anyone personally who'd had it.  I'd been around chronic disease, though, for most of my life in my close family.   I'd also known of one small child (distant relative of friend) who'd died in a freak accident, and my best friend had died in a car accident.  So I knew death and I knew disease, but not cancer.  This story and their journey hit home.  Mainly because I had and still have trouble with the fact that Jeremy was one of the highest-quality people I knew.  It just didn't seem fair that this was happening to him.  He'd fed the squirrels with me!  He was a great guy!  Surely there was some kind of karma for these kinds of things. I was assuming his wife was of similar excellent calibre and she most definitely was once I had friended her as well.   Also, I still to this day believe that the greatest pain a human being can suffer is the death of a child from the parent's perspective.  Many call parental love the highest form of love.  There are twisted exceptions, of course, but it's awful.  Parents should never have to watch their children die.  The parents die first, that's how things "should" be and unfortunately as we all know isn't necessarily how it goes.

I followed the whole cancer story as it was progressing and felt extremely helpless.  When I feel helpless, I take action the way I know how:  music.  I just assumed that Donna being a kid might like a song with her name in it, and whatever I could do to ease the pain of what the family was going through...well I wanted to try.  I set out to create a happy kind of fantasy where everyone was dancing and things were happy.  While I was writing it, I learned that Donna had taken a turn for the worse, and in fact I think was sent home with most treatment being discontinued.  I wanted her to hear the song before she died, and thus quickly dashed off a recording.  It's nowhere near what I was envisioning in terms of production and one day will hopefully finish it off the way it deserves.   But here was the extremely gratifying response I got:

Donna, what would you like to say to Chris who wrote you this song?

I'd say something sweet, like the song he wrote.

Would you say thank you?

(Donna nods her head.)

What do you think about the song?

It's good.  It is.  It's funny.  La, la, la, la, la . . .

Chris - Donna asked to listen to this before bed tonight after one of her favorite books, Llama Llama Red Pajama.  Just wanted you to know that it is already well loved in our home.  

The lyrics are below.  You can listen to the song here:  Her Name Is Donna

Donna died peacefully on October 19, 2009, many many years too soon, but surrounded by a universe of love.  Today is Donna Day in her memory.  Money is being raised for her charity Donna's Good Things, and there is a St. Baldrick's headshaving event planned at Candelite Chicago on March 29th.  So I'm just trying to improve the neighborhood by spreading the word.

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HER NAME IS DONNA

Her name is Donna
She rides a llama
In the Bahamas
With her mama

And her daddy
He has a caddy
He is a rich man
They call him “Sultan”

Her name is Donna

She’s got more knowledge
Than an ostrich
Who went to college
Up in Cambridge

She’s a great dancer
And a romancer
When she smile all
The people start singing

“Her name is Donna”

Her name is Donna
She and her mamma
They go to Ghana
With their iguana

Her last name’s Hornik
But she’s no nudnik
She fly around like
Shiny Sputnik

“Her name is Donna”

She has a brother
He is a baby
His name is Jay jay
He is a cutie

My name is Chris and
And I wanna say that
I’m glad to meet you Miss Donna
“Hello, I’m glad to meet you.  I went to college with yo daddy”