She Stood by Her Friends:
The Healing Touch of Tammy Wynette
by L.E. McCullough
© L.E. McCullough 2008
The true story of a chance meeting between a country music superstar and a Long Island homemaker that resulted in tipping the balance from Death to Life... in case you've ever doubted the power of positive thinking...
“Harold, this is Dad. You’d better get home right away. Mom’s not doing well.”
With a deep sigh, Harold Eggers, Jr. hung up the phone after listening for the third time to the message that had come in just after six p.m. on his apartment answering machine back in Nashville, Tennessee. It was now nearly midnight, and he was on a band tour bus headed west along Interstate 40 chasing a rising full moon across the flat Oklahoma roadscape.
Home was Long Island, New York, and it would take a small miracle to get him there. It would take an even bigger miracle to defeat the cancer that had invaded his mother’s body and left her a mere shadow of her former self, clinging to life by a thread.
But that’s exactly what was about to happen. Two miracles from one exceptional source: legendary country singer Tammy Wynette.
Harold’s mother, Honora Eggers, will be the first to tell you that country music was the furthest thing from her mind that summer of 1983 as her husband, Harold, Sr., assisted her valiant effort to recover from breast cancer surgery the year before.
She didn’t know a banjo from a bowl of grits, and if you had told her music superstar Tammy Wynette would shortly play a major role in her life, she would have gently but firmly — in the brisk Brooklyn accent she never lost — directed you to the nearest mental health crisis center.
Each time Harold called home that summer, his mother’s condition and mood had worsened. By August, she was feeling so bad, she said she simply wanted to die.
Tonight’s homecoming summons for Harold, his two brothers and three sisters hinted at the unspoken yet unavoidable truth: this could well be the last time they would see their mother alive.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look like he would be able to fit a family emergency into his work schedule. Harold was the tour manager for country singer/Hollywood actor Ed Bruce, co-writer with his wife Patsy Bruce of the Willie Nelson-Waylon Jennings megahit Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys and co-star with James Garner in the Bret Maverick TV series. Every Thursday through Monday Harold was on the Ed Bruce band bus traveling across America to another gig or personal appearance.
Usually, the road trips gave Harold an exhilarating sense of freedom, the whooshing highway noise a big wave sweeping him toward new adventures.
Tonight, each mile just took him further from home.
The bus phone rang, jarring him from his reverie. It was his girlfriend, Jan Smith, Tammy Wynette’s personal hair stylist. She and Harold had met a few months earlier during a European music tour featuring Tammy, Ed Bruce, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Monroe, Boxcar Willie and other country music stars. Back in the U.S., Tammy and Ed followed parallel tour paths, and Harold had frequent opportunity to visit Tammy and her entourage. In fact, it was obvious that on many occasions, Tammy invited Ed and his band to her show so Harold and Jan could get together.
During the course of his music industry career, Harold had worked with many “stars”. He’d learned that a performer’s public persona was not always indicative of who the real person was offstage. It didn’t take him long to realize that Tammy Wynette was one of the most genuine and generous entertainers in the business. She treated all those who worked with her as friend and family. He marvelled at how kind and open she was, not only to her own staff but to employees of the various concert venues she’d likely never speak to again.
Jan empathized with Harold’s situation and had often spoken to Tammy about his mother’s health. Before hanging up she said, “Harold, keep your faith. And give me your folks’ phone number in New York.” He thanked her, figuring she would call and say a kind word or two to his dad. Jan was just that sort of thoughtful person. Harold eased into his bunk and said a prayer or two in the cool darkness.
The phone rang an hour later. It was Jan saying that Tammy Wynette had invited Mr. and Mrs. Eggers to her next concert the following night, a show at Westbury Music Hall in Long Island, forty miles from the Eggers’ house. “Oh, and you better see if you can get to the airport in Tulsa,” she told Harold. “There’s a ticket waiting for you to fly home.”
Harold was pleasantly surprised but not shocked. If anyone could make miracles happen, it would be Tammy Wynette, whose life from Day One had been a storybook saga of overcoming one obstacle after another.
Known as “the Heroine of Heartbreak” for her deeply emotional approach to traditional country music themes, Virginia Wynette Pugh was born in rural Mississippi and raised by her grandparents after her father died. Married as a teen and then quickly divorced, her third child was born with spinal meningitis, leaving her with expensive medical bills.
She began singing in local clubs to supplement her meager waitress income, and her talent soon won her a spot on a Birmingham, Alabama, television show. In 1966, she moved her family to Nashville, secured a recording contract with Epic Records and took on the stage name of Tammy Wynette.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Tammy dominated the country charts with 17 number one hits, acquiring numerous industry awards and the well-deserved sobriquet “First Lady of Country Music”.
In songs like Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad, I Don’t Wanna Play House, D-I-V-O-R-C-E, The Ways to Love a Man, Singing My Song and the anthemic Stand By Your Man, Tammy Wynette created a compelling musical style that spoke to the innermost feelings of millions of women.
Yet her rags-to-riches tale had a dark side, much of it chronicled in the tabloid press. Married five times, she suffered from chronic internal illness. She was plagued by break-ins and vandalism at her home, financial mismanagement by business associates, death threats from stalkers. In 1981 she was abducted, driven to a remote location outside Nashville and beaten and terrorized by unknown assailants.
With such episodes in her recent past, no one could blame Tammy Wynette if she had chosen to be wary, even unfriendly, in her dealings with the public.
But Tammy did not succumb to fear. She refused to be isolated from her fans. And she understood the feeling of despair, which is why she had responded so readily when Jan told her of Mrs. Eggers’ predicament.
Tammy had the solution: come to a concert and let music wash away the sorrow and pain.
Honora Eggers had been a Rockette with Radio City Music Hall back in the 1930s. Summoning every last ounce of old-time trouper stamina, she struggled out of bed to satisfy her husband’s cockamamie notion about seeing a country music show.
But she did want to go to this concert. She had never felt more miserable in her entire life. Mr. Eggers insisted, and she finally got dressed and into the car. The freeway was bumper-to-bumper traffic. She begged her husband to turn around and go home. He kept saying, “We’re almost there, we’re almost there,” as Mrs. Eggers prayed silently, “Please, God, don’t let me die on the Long Island Expressway.”
Once the Eggers got to the concert site, they searched in vain for a parking spot. After a half hour, Mr. Eggers spotted a big tour bus in a back lot with a woman standing outside one of them. It was Jan Smith, and she motioned for them to pull up and park next to the bus.
Mrs. Eggers was barely able to walk, and before she had gone a few feet, another woman came out of the bus and strode toward them with a friendly wave and a beaming smile as wide as the day is long. Mrs. Eggers knew it was Tammy Wynette even though she’d never seen her before. Tammy’s smile was dazzling, her enthusiasm contagious. Within a few moments of conversation, you felt like you’d known her forever.
Her trademark mane of platinum blonde tresses bouncing off her shoulders, Tammy threw her arms around the Eggers and kissed them on the cheek. She radiated her usual warmth and fussed over them as if they were celebrities. “Come inside the bus and we’ll get dressed and fixed up for the show,” she trilled.
And that’s exactly what they did. Tammy led the Eggers through her well-appointed suite-on-wheels, acting as tour guide and introducing them to husband George Richey, her band, backup singers, even the bus drivers. When Tammy walked them backstage to the press room, they figured they’d say goodbye and that would be the end of it.
Not by a long shot. Tammy had the Eggers sit next to her at the interview table as she answered questions and posed for pictures. Mr. Eggers watched his wife bask in the reflected glow of a bonafide star. He could see the excitement in his wife’s eyes. There was a glimmer, a light he had not seen for a long time.
After the press briefing, Tammy invited Mrs. Eggers to her dressing room. “Come on in, Honora. We can talk while I get my hair done,” she said.
Mrs. Eggers was amazed that Tammy Wynette was sharing so much of her valuable time with complete strangers. Jan fixed Tammy’s hair and makeup and did the same for the singers. And then Jan offered to style Mrs. Eggers’ hair. The personal attention was overwhelming, and Mrs. Eggers struggled to keep from bursting into tears.
Finally, it was show time. The Eggers started down the hallway, Jan escorting them to their front-row seats. Tammy came out of the dressing room and rushed over to Mrs. Eggers, taking her arm. “You’re gonna be fine, Honora. You’ll see.” She squeezed Mrs. Eggers’ hand, smiled and was quickly swirled away by her stage entourage.
Mrs. Eggers was speechless, but her mind was on fire. It was like waking up from a long dream. In spite of the pain, in spite of the weakness, she heard a small voice inside whisper, “I will be fine. I will.”
The curtain rose and Tammy Wynette entered the spotlight to thunderous applause. A stage hand set a huge bouquet of red roses at her feet. The crowd hushed as Tammy picked them up and stepped down off the stage and placed them in Mrs. Eggers’ arms, the bright spot following Tammy off the stage and bathing the two women in a shimmering pool of light. She spoke into the microphone, “These are for my friend, Mrs. Honora Eggers. I am dedicating this show to her.”
The hall exploded with cheers as Tammy Wynette ascended the stage, every inch the regal First Lady of Country Music. It was a moment that just hung there in the dimlit auditorium, suspended in a timeless swath of undiluted joy shared by three thousand hearts beating in common time. And each one of those hearts, whether they knew it or not, was pumping the spirit of life back into Honora Eggers. . .
Early next morning, the phone rang in the motel room where Harold, Jr. had spent the night, after the bus had thrown a rod and left the band stranded outside Eufala. He knew it was from home, and he was already mumbling an apology for not being able to take advantage of the free ticket. “Dad, I’m sorry, I—
“Harold, it’s Mom.” The voice was raspy and weak but pulsing with a grit and sparkle he had not heard since his mother’s operation. “I’m not going to give up. I want to live.”
And live she did. Twenty-five years have passed since the magical night in Westbury that marked the turning point in a long illness. Both Mr. and Mrs. Eggers are alive and well and living in Blanco, Texas, having just celebrated their 69th year of marriage together. Within days of returning from the concert, Honora Eggers had stepped back from death’s door and regained the emotional strength to fight and eventually defeat a fatal disease.
Harold Eggers, Jr. now resides in Austin and has a flourishing career as a music agent and record producer. He believes a miracle of spirit did occur at the concert, a miracle that defies rational explanation.
“Some part of my mother’s spiritual being rose up and fought back against the encroaching death her physical and mental processes had nearly submitted to. It wasn’t even something conscious, maybe. It was from somewhere deeper inside, maybe what you would call the soul.”
Tammy Wynette, sadly, passed away in 1998, finally yielding at age 55 to the heart and blood clotting ailments that had made her later years a medical nightmare.
The Eggers saw her for the last time in 1994 at a concert in Islip, New York. Tammy was ecstatic to see Mrs. Eggers in good health and great spirits.
But the women’s paths had taken distinctly different turns, and now it was the Eggers who were concerned for Tammy. Tammy looked very tired and worn out, yet she still gave her guests her complete personal attention.
Backstage after the show, it was Mrs. Eggers who offered consoling words and earnest prayers. The last sight they saw of Tammy was her waving goodbye, a wan smile on her drawn, pain-pinched features.
After years of giving so much of herself to so many people, it is possible that Tammy Wynette was ultimately exhausted by her own kindness. But the Eggers family will always be grateful for the brief encounter between a former Rockette from Brooklyn and the guitar-picking girl from Itawamba County, Mississippi, who healed with a song and a smile.
Was it truly a miracle? Did Honora Eggers’ cancer vanish because of a chance meeting with a music superstar? Can a determined “inner spirit” face down a pack of renegade tissue cells and lead the body back to health?
Ask Mr. And Mrs. Eggers, who recently celebrated another wedding anniversary. . . they’ll undoubtedly answer in the affirmative.
It seems that patients and their families facing a severe medical crisis need some sort of emotional awakening, however small, to stir the spirit and supplement the drugs and pills.
An awakening that might come from the most unlikely source. . . a place, a person, a picture, a song. An awakening that reaches to the core of the heart and lays the foundation for healing and hope.
Modern medicine makes big miracles, bigger and more divinely grand each day, but there is a place for small miracles as well. Harold Eggers and his family believe those miracles start with us.
And with folks like Tammy Wynette who confidently stand by us as nothing more — and nothing less than — friends.
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