My wife Joan deeply loved Bonnie Raitt, as a musician and as a role model. Joan always saw Bonnie as a wonderfully strong, outspoken and progressive, independent woman.
Growing up, I admired Bonnie Raitt as well, for her social justice advocacy and activism. My early musical passions, on the other hand, leaned more male heavy, to musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne.
But after Joan and I met, fell in love and married, I found myself coming to share her intense passion for Bonnie Raitt’s music. In our household, I had the chief responsibility for keeping tabs on upcoming concerts, and I made sure to buy tickets whenever Bonnie came through our Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Over 35 years, we must have seen Bonnie Raitt in person at least 10 times, at venues that ranged from the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and Wolf Trap in Virginia to Constitution Hall and the Kennedy Center in the District.
Our two daughters, now in their early and mid-30s, went through a musical evolution as well. They went from captive audience, forced to listen to Bonnie ‘s music on long car rides, to big fans.
Throughout all these years, Joan’s career in education was getting ever more demanding. She rose to a top administrative position in Special Education for one of the nation’s 20 largest public school systems, with responsibility over a mega-million dollar budget. In such a large system, not surprisingly, Joan ran into some bitter “office politics,” and she could take efforts to put roadblocks in her way, personally. Bonnie’s song, “I Will Not Be Broken,” would become Joan’s personal anthem.
We would end up able, by and large, to handle all the ups and downs of career and family life, at least until we faced the challenge of a gut-punch we had never expected: Joan’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in March 2019. At the time, Joan had just about reached her 63rd birthday.
Music — from Bonnie Raitt and anyone else — would quickly fade from our focus. Appointments with oncologists and chemotherapy treatments would soon fill our schedules, followed by proton therapy from our home outside Washington to trips to Baltimore’s University of Maryland Medical Center. Eventually, our treatment path led to the “Whipple procedure,” a surgery that aims to double the chances for a better five-year survival rate.
The doctors warned us beforehand that even initially successful surgery can go south. In Joan’s case, unfortunately, it did. Which brings me back to Bonnie Raitt.
What could I do for Joan in those final days? How could I lift her spirits when her life was ebbing away? I thought about Bonnie Raitt and, with some wonderful help, I tracked down email addresses and contacts for people close to her. Her personal assistant would soon prove invaluable. I had one question: “Would Bonnie be willing to call a lifelong supporter to lift her spirits in a most difficult time?”
The answer would be yes.
We had a few predictable fits and starts in setting the contact up, but finally, early in February 2020, we had everything all ready. About an hour before the scheduled call, I gave Joan some warning. I told her she’d be receiving a call from the West Coast. Was our friend Sharon, Joan asked, going to be calling? No, I replied, “Bonnie.”
“Bonnie who?” Joan asked.
“Bonnie Raitt,” I said.
Joan went into total shock. For just a moment, she could forget all about her oppressive prognosis.
At the scheduled time, Bonnie called. She and I spoke briefly. I told her about Joan and how much Bonnie’s music had always meant to her. I explained that I had been working for economic and social justice as a Maryland state legislator since the 1980s. Her response: “Keep on fighting.”
I then went upstairs and gave Joan the phone. Bonnie would be friendly, affirming and inquisitive, particularly about Joan’s lifelong commitment to children with disabilities. After almost 15 minutes, the call ended, leaving Joan in semi-shock, still trying to process that she had just spoken to the Bonnie Raitt.
Joan passed away six weeks later. I can only hope she had sweet dreams after the call strong enough to banish — if only for a few nights — the end she knew was coming. Bonnie Raitt frequently sings the great John Prine song, “Angel from Montgomery.” That evening of the call and ever since, Bonnie Raitt has been that angel for our family.
Early this June, my daughter, some friends, and I saw Bonnie Raitt perform for the first time since Joan’s passing over two years earlier. What with COVID, Bonnie hadn’t been touring for several years.
Her set and music turned out to be, as always, outstanding. She became particularly emotional explaining the roots of her new song, “Just Like That,” the story of a man who seeks out the mother of the young man who gave him a new heart — and life. Bonnie’s love and compassion came through deeply throughout the concert. But I already knew that. I knew her caring amounted to much more than mere performance.
Only one of my daughters attended that night, the other had an out-of-town commitment. She missed a great concert. I enjoyed it immensely.
It just wasn’t quite the same.
Paul Pinsky (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former teacher, currently serves as a senator in the Maryland state legislature.