Laurie Whalen Rockstar Memorial Fund
The Laurie Whalen (aka Lisa Jean) Rock Star Memorial Fund is dedicated to the love and support around us that Laurie embraced every day.
As a boogie queen, forever in love with the music of Michael Franti and Spearhead, she inspired the Rock Star Memorial Fund through which we hope to share as much positive energy and love as Laurie would have given.
Every dollar donated goes to granting the wishes of those with special needs to attend a special concert with Michael Franti and his band.
Laurie, my sister, was my superstar. Her charm and gaiety translated to unconditional love, a sense of humor that Kevin Hart would envy, a perception of the world free of judgment, defying gravity with a rhythm that would illuminate Michael Jackson’s dancing. She taught me acceptance, patience, kindness, hope, compassion, and more.
Michael Franti and his band Spearhead, had been with Laurie and me since 1994. Laurie who, despite her diagnosis of Down Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, connected with Franti’s lyrics. Together we weebled and wobbled and never fell down physically or emotionally while singing and dancing to every song Michael and his band played, even when our mom advanced to Stage 3 Alzheimer’s.
The band and their songs carried me through my sorrow as caregiver to my mom and Laurie. After my daughter Eliza died, their words “Of Course You Can” held me up when I wanted to fold, shrivel away, and disappear. They guided me with thoughts of hope through nine miscarriages, singing, “A baby’s love leaves fingerprints upon the heart.”
Laurie’s Stage Light Was Dimming
Then we were dealt the next devastating blow. Laurie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, too. She shut down, and like Helen Keller, communicated mostly physically, through angry and aggressive behaviors. She required constant supervision and became a danger to herself and others. She paced like a caged animal, tried to exit moving cars, and increased her use of The Plop. Whenever she didn’t like what she was being asked to do, she sat down and refused to move—be it in the street or the entrance to McDonald’s. And she could stay in one spot for up to three hours. Even music no longer could reach her, until she met Michael Franti.
The Sound of Sunshine
I was looking for something to calm the agitations of Laurie’s soul and an opportunity for her and I to meet those who made a difference in our lives. We were awarded tickets to see Michael and J Bowman in concert.
We were treated like royalty. Queen Elizabeth herself would have been jealous. Our throne was the handicapped section of the theater. Hossein, the band’s tour manager, was a king among kings. Despite his obligation to oversee Michael’s and J’s needs, with genuine compassion and unwavering dedication, he demonstrated what a true nobleman is. He watched over us all like the Royal Guard. And with the patience and understanding of the Dalai Lama, he treated Laurie with the dignity of a princess. Little did we know that Queen Laurie would be adored by the masses less than two hours later.
Hossein escorted Laurie and me to the bowels of the theater to meet Michael and J. My anxiety heightened. What if Laurie ignored them? What if she did The Plop?!
J greeted us with his effervescent personality. Laurie responded stone-faced…and then laughed.
“Hello, Laurie,” Michael said.
Laurie tickled his stomach and squeezed his six-foot-six frame.
“How are you?” he asked.
She tipped off his hat.
Laughter overflowed like champagne being popped.
Grinning, Laurie embraced Hossein.
J enveloped her in love.
We hung out in the dungeon-like room (which was wonderfully tranquil) as the band prepared to go on, and then we watched from the wings of stage left as Michael and J performed.
“It’s time,” Hossein said to us. “You can go out to be with Michael and J.” He motioned us toward the stage.
I held back in the darkness.
“Oh my, oh no, oh dear,” I muttered. My heart was throbbing, my mind racing, my palms sweating, and my stomach twisting in knots. Not because of stage fright or being star-struck, but because I was unsure what Laurie would do. Self-doubt left me immobilized.
All the World’s Her Stage
What happened next, I will never forget.
Like a cat snubbing her nose at dry kibble in search of caviar, Laurie lifted her head and pranced onstage like she was walking on water, leaving me in the dust. As she marched her beautiful booty right to the very front, the crowd exploded. Magic filled Laurie’s entire being and the song “Sound of Sunshine” released it.
Laurie became a cross between twenty Oompa-Loompas and eighteen Edyta Sliwinskas. She wiggled and swayed, shimmied and shook. Her arms were like an octopus on steroids, moving in all directions to the beat of the music. She tossed her short locks about as if they were tresses of gold in a hair conditioner commercial. Her smile stretched from ear to ear, like a Cheshire cat who had found her boundless supply of caviar. Her feet commanded her body, which seemed to be light as a cloud with wisps of air whirling about her, raising her up and twirling her to the pulse of the music.
Michael, J, and the audience had ignited something in her that had long been smoldering. The sea of faces she looked out on embraced her unconditionally. Cell phones lit up as they captured her on film. Hands rose as if reaching for her enchantment. Laurie was the star attraction and she aimed to please.
A volt of confusion surged through me. Who was this beaming ball of energy? Was this cat-like creature the same one who was so often aloof and unreachable? I laughed aloud. Then I teared up and stopped breathing. No longer lost, Laurie was found. In that moment, Laurie and I were alone, flashing back to the happiness and innocence we experienced so many years ago dancing in her room. My chest filled with so much joy, my heart barely had room to beat.
As the song “Say Hey (I Love You)” ended, Laurie bowed and brought her arms over her head full circle as she flicked her hair to infinity.
“Laurie!” Michael yelled, gesturing her over to him.
“Laurie! Laurie!” the crowd started chanting.
Michael cloaked little Laurie in an embrace that rocked the audience to their cores. Their roars of glee bounced off the walls and ceiling. The others onstage, who had come up during one of the many songs Laurie danced to—people who had raised thousands and thousands of dollars for people like Laurie—jumped up and down and enfolded each other in exultation.
Michael’s lyrics “I love you, I love you, I love you” were the words I tried to telepathically transmit to each member of the audience. Because every person in the Ogden Theatre that night—Hossein, the security staff, the ticket sellers, the ushers, the light and sound engineers, and the attendees—had changed Laurie’s life.
Laurie bowed again, as if the spotlight was on her and her alone. Our hearts were on fire. Her own dimming light was now brilliant, and it lit up our lives.
Jedi Mind Flush
As Laurie finished taking her bows, Hossein gently guided us toward stage right… Nope. Laurie wasn’t having anything to do with that. She wasn’t leaving this party clearly thrown for her. I redirected her stage left, thinking the familiarity might encourage her exit.
And that’s when it happened: She did The Plop.
Imagine a large brown bear being hit by a sleeping dart. She embedded the cellulose fibers of her back end into the grains of the stage. Laurie became an immovable force of nature.
Oh no! my mental self-talk screamed. I’m going to have to go retrieve that Chewbacca I birthed to help get her offstage! The entire Star Wars cast will need to bring the Force to move her.
I didn’t want to employ the catch-and-release, which involved my holding on to her like a wrestler from the WWE, because then I’d have to explain to Michael, J, Hossein, and the adoring fans why I was sitting on Laurie and that, yes, in fact, she could breathe.
“I’ll get you a Dr. Pepper,” I offered in a panic.
(She was addicted to 20-oz Diet Dr. Pepper in plastic bottles. I had brought some to the show for emergencies such as this.)
“Maybe a Subway sandwich?”
“I’ll take you to the bathroom?”
This she responded to!
I coaxed her up and while our back ends exited, the audience of sixteen hundred applauded.
Two Souls Soothed
As we snaked our way through her admirers, The Laurie Show continued.
“You were amazing,” said one fan.
“You are a rock star,” gushed another.
“Can I have your autograph?” begged a newfound groupie.
During that walk to her throne, over one hundred people complimented Laurie.
One woman in the waves of
admiring strangers directed her enthusiasm at me.
“That was magical,” she sighed.
With that, my floodgates of emotion burst and I sobbed a river of tears. All the suppressed stress from the previous years washed from my soul. And this stranger held me so tightly, it was as though Blue the Bear had emerged from the jungles of Jungle Book to comfort me and assure me that I was not alone. I will never forget that woman. My sighs of sorrow were released and replaced with relief.
My tears continued to flow as Laurie and I picked our way to our friends. My waterfall streamed endlessly as I floated in a pool of awe. We all cried together, feeling empowered with hope.
Laurie had not danced like that in ten years.
“After silence,” says Aldous Huxley, “that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
The concert gave Laurie expression. After that, she stopped and danced to music, she talked more, she was more engaged, she was more at peace.
Two weeks after the concert, Laurie collapsed and was rushed by ambulance to the ER. We feared she was having a stroke. It was pneumonia. She healed but did not fully recover and was put on oxygen 24/7. Michael’s song “I’m Alive” must have carried her through. She was thankful for each new day and will let us know so. “I’m alive! I’m alive!” she would yell.
Laurie went to four more concerts of Michael and his band, and was on stage for three (the fall of snow sabotaging the fourth attempt.) Each time, Michael and all those around him allowed her to steal the limelight for her few moments of glory.
The Final Encore
Monday, January 23, 2017, was the last time I was in touch with Laurie. I called her in New York from Colorado. We Facetimed so I could see her and remind her of who I was.
But she wouldn’t speak to me; she was stone-faced. I tried saying “Aflac” and “Stinky” and “Dr. Pepper” and talking about our dog Twitch. Usually these things got her to laugh.
She wouldn’t flinch.
I had Michal Franti & Spearhead playing as I do every morning to get the day started, so I walked the phone over to the speaker and blasted their music at her. Locked away as she was, their song “The Sound of Sunshine” gave her a way to communicate without words. In a final Dancing with the Stars encore, she Sliwinska’d her arms over her head and pumped them with jubilation. She twirled and shimmied and shook. She whooped with joy. Her eyes twinkled and her Cheshire-cat grin glowed.
Laurie died of a heart attack on January 28th. I got to see her last dance and her most memorable. She left me with a vision of her smile and buoyancy. She connected the dots by dancing. She filled my heart with love.
Laurie’s memory lives on with each song played by Michael Franti & Spearhead. I share her legacy by taking people with special challenges to their concerts. The Do It For The Love Foundation, along with the L. W. Rock Star Memorial Fund I started, helps me give flight to others.
Thomas Carlyle famously said, “Music is well said to be the speech of angels.” The beauty of Michael and J’s music gave speech to my angel, Laurie.
—Excerpted from I’ve Never Made a Mistake…Once I Thought I Did, But I Was Wrong