Donna’s Turn: In Celebration of a Singular Life
by Wes Eichenwald
On January 19, 2016, I lost my best friend, the mother of my two children, and my wife of nearly 13 years, to nonalcoholic liver disease. Although she had been ill for some time, I had held out hope until the last day that Donna would survive; although forewarned, I was still unprepared for the outcome. She had spent the last two weeks of her life in an ICU in a specialty hospital in San Antonio, and while I’m not going to go into details about her medical odyssey over the past couple of years (that isn’t the purpose of this blog), it was an excruciatingly difficult time and the emotional equivalent of a Tilt-A-Whirl, and unfortunately, all the prayers in the world from her many friends and family members, including me, didn’t save her in the end.
Donna Ann Young Eichenwald, a/k/a Mrs. Pogoer to readers of my other blog, was but 56 and a half years old, and her departure to the other world has left a huge hole in the lives of those who knew her. She was a professional musician, corporate writer, chef, photographer, mother extraordinaire, great friend, and so much more; you can find her obituary online here.
What was Donna really like? In a nutshell, she was sharp as a box of tacks, and hilariously witty, and caring and giving and really, just the best, and if you knew her at all you absolutely loved her and cherished knowing her.
I have spent the past few days writing the following tribute. As it takes over 20 minutes to read it’s probably too long for a spoken eulogy, but it still barely scratches the surface of her remarkable journey through this world.
Quite an intimidating task it is, to write a eulogy for my best friend and favorite sounding board – I kept hearing Donna saying, in her matter-of-fact way, “This is a bit much,” or “You’re way off base here, I don’t want you to say this, this needs to be cut.” Couples who’ve been married for a while, you know that you know each other’s gears and sprockets like nobody else. Since Donna was such a compelling, precise writer herself, she set a high standard for me. I always liked to send her drafts of my articles for publication before sending them to my editor of record, to get her opinion. Even if all she told me was, “It’s good,” it made me feel better.
So for a while now, I’ve been feeling more than a bit cast adrift in the high seas. But I’m trying.
Although she had been ill for some time, with too many ups and downs, Donna’s passing was still so shocking to so many, even if they’d known of her struggles, certainly including me, because it just seemed so inconceivable that she could leave us. After all, she was the linchpin, the communicator, the one with insight and wit always at the ready, the one who was always engaged in life and never too busy to lend a sympathetic ear to anyone who reached out.
Even now, several months later, I still can’t believe she’s gone. And you know, I don’t think she is. Surely, someone who was always such a forceful presence in the room, such an indispensable observer, commentator, and participant in the daily comedy, drama and occasional farce that defines our life on this earth, cannot just vanish without a trace. We need to speak with her, to check in, to help us find our own balance, to make sure we haven’t gone crazily off course. To help us find our center, and, most certainly, our core humanity and decency.
Among many other things, I’ve been reflecting over the past few months on the groom’s toast I made at our wedding reception at Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange, in April of 2003. Looking back on it, I don’t think it was a particularly good toast. Frankly, Donna didn’t much care for it, either. Perhaps the ideal groom’s toast should be made no earlier than a couple’s tenth anniversary. A lot of grooms could benefit from some perspective. Maybe some brides as well. But mostly, I think, the grooms. So maybe this is my opportunity for a do-over. And here’s where Donna tells me, “OK, but you’d better not screw it up this time.”
Over the years I’ve come back in my mind time and again to our wedding day and how lovely it was, more so in memory every year, and how, for me anyway, it actually set the bar for our marriage, for our lives together. Some of you were there – it still feels like just a few months ago. A plethora of pink and orange roses, Groucho glasses, and yarmulkas in which we had printed “I went to Donna and Wes’s wedding and all I got was this yarmulka.” And dancing to “They Don’t Know,” twice.
A day or so after our wedding, we paid a visit to a cemetery in Queens to visit the grave of my mother, who had died some 13 years before. And Donna took her bridal bouquet along, and left it on top of my mom’s grave… because, she said, she wanted her to be part of the ceremony.
I was very moved by this act. I still am. It speaks volumes about what kind of person she was, the kind of person who would be so thoughtful and selfless and always thinking of others before herself. Which she was always doing.
In the end, isn’t it the little things that get you the most. Donna had the loudest sneeze I’ve ever heard come out of another person. You could hear it two rooms away. And an infectious laugh that came from just as deep within her. Donna was as human as anyone else, but she was always herself. She lived at the intersection of logic and compassion, of activism and empathy, with a ton of wit and fun and laughter. She did things her way. You were just happy to come along for the ride.
I knew Donna, all told, alpha to omega, for fifteen years. We were married for about twelve and three-quarters. As I’ve said on previous occasions, after I met Donna at the beginning of 2001, via email when she first wrote me directly on January 11th, then in person that August, when we were both already over 40, certainly not elderly, but, you know, not really kids anymore, when she walked into the Café Loup, a lovely bistro on 13th Street in the West Village, and she was everything I knew she’d be and we just had the most wonderful day together, ending up that night at the Knitting Factory, and we just went from there.
I was always kind of jealous of all the old friends of hers, many of whom are here, who had known her back when she was a freewheeling bassist about town, making music and hay in the clubs and cabaret rooms and theaters of Manhattan and environs, consorting with the greats, the near-greats and thought-they-were-greats of the classical sphere and Broadway and off-Broadway circuits. It made me want to go back in time to, say, 1986 and move from Boston, where I was living, to, say, Jersey City, and go where the action was, go where she was. Start life in earnest, why wait all those in-retrospect-wasted years? The invisible hand of the universe, though, bides its time. Does what it wants.
As most of you know, Donna excelled at a great many things – music, writing, cooking, photography, conversation – but one lesser-known odd talent of hers involved having accidental encounters with celebrities, whether it was running into Dan Rather by chance three times in one day, or playing poker with several well-known female celebrities in a hotel room.
Suffice to say, she had a lot of stories, some of which you’ve heard today. Or will.
In later years I’d sometimes urge Donna to write about these colorful chapters of her life, as I always found her tales hugely entertaining, but she’d usually say something like, “I got my jollies on stage, I don’t need to blab about it.” And so, she left it there. From what I’ve seen, I’ll just say that cabaret was and is fun stuff, good handcrafted entertainment, but also heartfelt, genuine, and real. Like the lady herself.
When Donna and I began emailing each other, me from Ljubljana, Slovenia, she from North Brunswick, after commiserating in an online group about – and how ironic it seems now – the untimely death of a singer we both loved, Kirsty MacColl, who wrote “They Don’t Know” and many other fine compositions, one of the first things that struck me about her correspondence, besides its literacy and wit, was that she knew how to spell and put together a sentence…really well. As someone who finds intelligence sexy, this appealed to me. We soon began writing back and forth like we’d known each other all our lives.
The being born on the same day thing no doubt helped, what Donna once called “the 7/11 shorthand.” Re-reading all our old emails recently, I was amused that it took me two months before I got around to asking her what her last name was. A lot of our correspondence referenced songs, music, and musicians, our common language, she as the performer and listener, I as the enraptured member of the audience. We had both been shaken to the core by Kirsty’s death, and, as she wrote to me, “I’ve been thinking that there has to be something more than putting yourself above everything else. What’s odd is this increased empathy I feel now. I just keep thinking that there’s something I’m missing, some better way of giving, helping people, going beyond myself.”
The day after the 9/11 attacks, which happened 18 days after our first meeting at the Cafe Loup, and just three days after I’d returned home to Slovenia, Donna and I emailed each other about a lot of things relating to that, one of which was her telling me about a news report she’d seen on TV, quote, “describing a woman giving birth on the sidewalk in the midst of this mayhem.”
Donna thought of these lines from one of her favorite poets, Chrissie Hynde, in “Show Me”:
Welcome to the human race
With its wars, disease and brutality
You with your innocence and grace
Restore some pride and dignity
To a world in decline…
Welcome here from outer space
The milky way still in your eyes
You found yourself a hopeless case
One seeking perfection on earth
Some kind of rebirth
And as we know now, she found that better way. Oh, and we both survived car accidents that should have killed us – me in 1983 in Hawaii, Donna in 2001 in New Jersey (which she described to me shortly afterwards by email). I still don’t know what to make of that.
Musically, though our tastes didn’t always coincide, we shared a similar omnivorous affection for the quirky and overlooked gem; chart success or genre didn’t matter, quality and originality did. Donna’s tastes ran from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Jonathan Richman, from Rosemary Clooney to the Pretenders, from Mel Torme and Judy Garland to Madness, the Specials, and Bjork’s refreshing first album sung mostly in Icelandic. This might seem to some to be all over the map; in truth, it was always consistent to her own exacting, intelligent and (as she would tell you) supremely correct standards.
Urban sophisticate though I thought I was, Donna also opened my eyes to an entirely new world, where she and her friends played in the sandbox that was the piano-bar and cabaret circuit of Manhattan. After surviving what she saw as the distasteful politics of the classical-music world, she found her natural habitat. She made plenty of friends there. Good friends, lifelong ones. Some of you know this song that calls this to mind for me:
But us, old friends,
What’s to discuss, old friends?
Here’s to us
Who’s like us?
Cue Liza, I guess…
After having taken up the clarinet at the age of six, Donna started playing the double bass two years later; though the bass was twice her size, she was never intimidated by the prospect of playing such a bulky instrument. After all, wasn’t she as capable as anyone and actually, much more capable than most? She thought she could make quite an impression with it, and she did. She claimed she’d never had to learn to read music; she just knew how to play, and, with the exception of taking piano lessons when she was past 40, taught herself how to play most of the instruments that attracted her interest. And was good at all of them.
Within the context of an orchestra, the bass is aptly named, as it’s the foundation of everything. As one of Donna’s musician friends put it to me, the bassline supports every instrumental part above it. As, too, within our family Donna was our base and foundation.
Donna provided me an entry point into a world I’d previously only discerned from the periphery, and I’m not only talking about cabarets. Before we’d met, although I’d had my own share of adventures, I was largely content being an observer of life, not truly a participant. Meeting Donna changed all that. Marriage, children, a house, a lawn, a dog, a cat, a hamster – the whole catastrophe, as someone once said. Neither of us minded. We’d both of us waited long enough, and we relished our turn at the wheel of family life.
Some of you know that Donna had an interest in psychics and the paranormal. So do I, though to a lesser extent, but several years before I made first contact with Donna, the day before I was due to relocate to Slovenia (for the second time) in 1997, I happened to be in a hotel somewhere in the New York suburbs that happened to be hosting a third-rate psychic fair. I sat with one of the psychics for a reading, it may have been tarot, and the first thing she said to me was, “Gee, have you just gotten divorced?” I said no, I’d never been married, and she told me that I felt most at home in an old city with old buildings, which certainly described Ljubljana. And then she said she saw me with, quote, “a girl who moves pictures around.”
I didn’t know anyone like that then, but that was Donna. She was an inveterate remixer, a tinkerer, a mover-around of not only pictures but furniture, ways of preparing food, ways of doing things in general. Like her elegant mom, Lorraine, also an artistic craftsperson and decorator of refined taste, Donna was a consummate, and constant, arranger. Every few months I’d come home to find Donna had completely rearranged the living-room furniture on her own, couches, bookcases, everything.
A few of you might be familiar with the phenomenon of Donna ordering pizza delivered. She was very particular about what she liked and what she didn’t. Picking up a pizza-to-bake at home from Papa Murphy’s, we’d often get a plain cheese for the boys and another, smaller one for us. “Get a chicken bacon artichoke pizza,” she’d tell me, “but have them leave off the chicken and the spinach, and put on extra artichoke hearts and cheese to make up for it.”
About seven times out of ten, she’d be unhappy with the results I brought home, whether it was pizza or pan-fried wontons. Eventually, I learned not to take this too personally. A call from Donna to the restaurant manager would inevitably ensue, during which time she would not hold back about what exactly was wrong with the order, and perhaps refer to her own time in the food service industry. Most of the time, she’d end up getting the next order on the house.
She didn’t do this just to get free food, and didn’t just move things around for the sake of looking busy. It was all towards an end, the end being, I suppose, perfection, bending the world, or at least her corner of it, to her will. And I’m not saying this to make fun of her. Donna just expected the world to live up to the high standards she held for herself.
In this she was setting herself up for perpetual disappointment – which she of course knew – but Donna saw no reason to lower her standards just because others were accustomed to letting things slide. She understood that God was in the details, and that if you take care to make sure that you get the small bits right, the big picture would, usually, end up looking the way it should. Her actions were proof of that. Her intellectual rigor, and her rather prosecutorial way of conducting arguments using Socratic dialogues, one question leading to another, sometimes exasperated me, but I had to admit that whatever point she was arguing, she was right about, at least 98 percent of the time. She was a fan of the book series “The Four Agreements”: Be true to your word, always, wasn’t just a slogan for her; she lived it every day.
Nobody could deflate a pompous blowhard better than Donna (which I know from personal experience). Kirsty MacColl also had this talent in songwriting, which is one reason Donna liked her so much.
One of the things Donna wrote to me, early on, about her reaction to Kirsty’s death: “After the initial waves of shock and grief, I also realized what a wake-up call this was. None of us have time to waste; suddenly it seems no one’s safe and there’s hardly enough time to tell the people you love how much you care about them.”
Along with watching old musicals, and opera, and the Food Network and dance contests, and cooking for family and friends, and decorating for Christmas, and, of course, being with our boys, playing and appreciating music was what she loved. Even in the last year of her life, missing the camaraderie of fellow musicians, she got together a small group of lovers of the Great American Songbook, calling it the Northwest Austin Cabaret-Piano Bar Casuals. And so we had evenings where people came and played and sang in our living room, with Donna, of course, on bass. It was fun while it lasted, if all too short-lived when her illness made it impossible for her to continue. I’m so glad she got to do that.
Like all marriages, we had good times and some not-good times, challenges and tragedies, but there was also resilience and love, understanding, humor, and tenacity. I never stopped loving her or admiring her.
As a mother of twins, including a non-verbal child, Leo, diagnosed with autism, Donna fiercely fought for them and changed a lot of people’s minds as to what a so-called Special Needs child is capable of. With Luka, she consistently and enthusiastically encouraged his natural creative bent and sense of humor.
Even though she was so cruelly taken from her boys before they had even gotten to celebrate their eleventh birthdays, I know that however long they live, Luka and Leo will be forever blessed by their mother’s influence, her caring, her warrior’s spirit and her precious love, and that’s something nobody can ever take away. Nor can anyone take away the years Donna and I had together.
Before I met Donna, I’d never met anyone else like her.
And I’m most certain I’ll never meet anyone like her again.
When I think about what it is that I owe Donna, I end up thinking that it’s pretty much everything important. Without her, I would have probably ended up living like a hermit in some small apartment in Slovenia. Which is a nice place, but I wasn’t meant to stay there.
She taught me how to love unconditionally, how to have compassion, how to have empathy. Nobody needed to teach her; it’s clear to me that she was born with those qualities, just like another instrument she knew how to play.
As Matthew Fox wrote in his book Creation Spirituality:
Compassion is a kind of fire…it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears, and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
And when I think of the most meaningful moments of my life, the greatest moments, the most profound moments, they are inevitably, and inextricably, connected with her.
And now you and I, as hard as it is to hear, and so implausible, must continue living in a world without Donna Ann Young in it.
In the words of one of her favorite authors, Thomas Wolfe:
“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile…Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”
I may be wrong, but I suspect Donna may have been thinking of that passage when she decided to include Wolfe’s writings in the Kurt Weill show she helped create for our friend Ricky Ritzel in 1992, in particular the late-period Weill song “Lost in the Stars,” with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson:
I’ve been walking through the night and the day
Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey
And sometimes it seems maybe God’s gone away
Forgetting the promise that we’ve heard him say
And we’re lost out here in the stars
What I have learned from her, what I feel for her, is difficult if not impossible to put into words. But I know she has made me a far better person, and I will be forever grateful that our orbits finally connected, if for all too short a time.
I know now that we are here on earth, for however long, to love each other, and care for each other, and if we’re lucky, to create something beautiful that will survive us.
Donna did all that. She lived it every day, and to my great fortune, showed me by her personal example every day.
In a world filled with venality, callousness, greed, prejudice, paranoia, irrational hatred, and stupidity in general, Donna showed us a better way to be human.
And so I can say, and I hope you’ll join me in saying: Congratulations, Donna. You won. You figured it out.
Early in our relationship I asked Donna why she hadn’t ever gotten married. Certainly, she had had offers.
“I don’t know,” she told me. “I think I intimidated people.”
She didn’t intimidate me, although I knew she was insanely smart and multitalented and, like a bass-playing, irreverent Mary Poppins of the cabaret, practically perfect in every way. I found her invigorating, I loved the challenge, and though neither of us was perfect, I knew we were meant to be together.
Being her husband was, and is, the honor of my life. And yes, even now I count myself lucky.
We should all be so lucky to have, at some point, someone like Donna in our lives – even though nobody I know is really like her. She was, truly, my better half.
Not to get too metaphysical on you, but I believe that everything we do on earth has a resonance. Everything we do means something. Exactly what it means is open to interpretation, but I have to believe – and I do believe – that a pure heart and sincerely good intentions count in the plus column when it’s all added up, and the final forms submitted.
Donna is, and will always be, my shining star, the bride in her gown playing the double bass at our wedding reception.
And so much more. So much more.
To paraphrase a remark by Kirsty MacColl’s mother Jean, “Donna is still with us; she is still touching the hearts of all the people she loved.”
Back in mid-August of 2001, shortly before Donna and I would have our first fateful meeting at the Cafe Loup, we were emailing each other on the subject of free will vs. predestination, and we both agreed that we hated the phrase “It was God’s will.”
Donna wrote this to me, and I want you to hear it in her own words:
“The whole ‘God’s will’ thing is beyond me. I understand why people say it; they’re at a loss for something comforting to say. Not to wrap this up in religion, but this is why I could never buy into any sort of concrete notion of God, because it makes no sense that someone’s just pulling our strings as though we’re helpless marionettes. I didn’t buy that as a kid, and I don’t buy it now. I’m all for free will, but I also believe there are other forces at work.
“And that brings us to coincidence — that’s a different thing. I’m sure we’d agree that my New Age Silliness Tolerance Level is higher than yours, and I confess to having several friends who make their living at being psychics, whatever that might mean. I mention that because they both maintain that certain unique opportunities inevitably come our way, and it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to cast fear and expectations aside and take advantage of them.
“For the past four or five months I’ve had quite a few people telling me that there are no coincidences, too — and given the events of this year, I’d have to agree. The first thing that popped into my head when I read what you’d written was this passage from Wolfe’s Of Time and the River:
Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth. Whereon the pillars of the earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending — a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”
“Again,” Donna wrote, “I hate to keep going back to death, but if there’s any blessing to it, it’s that it forces us to take a closer look at our lives. When I was sick, it was surprisingly easy for me to arrive at a certain peace with the prospect of death, and though I was committed to fighting it all the way, I was okay because I’d come to accept the presence of a certain energy, if you will, the wind and the rivers, something that propels us, something more than just a will to live.”
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that one day, we’ll be together again.
Until then I can only know this, in a slight rewrite of one of Donna’s favorite songs, and mine too, that we played for her in the hospital on the last day. Donna always encouraged me to sing, so, here you go:
Millions of people swarming like flies ‘round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
And they don’t feel afraid
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset
They are in paradise.
Thank you, Donna. I love you.