How Tom Chapin Saved My Life

January 30, 2008

Make a wish! Have a ball! Dream a dream! Be it all!
—theme song for Make a Wish, 1970s Sunday morning children’s program
performed by Tom Chapin, b.1945, American singer-songwriter,
text by Lester Cooper, 1919-1985, American television writer and producer

From 1971 until 1976, Make a Wish aired Sunday mornings on ABC television, “right after Bullwinkle,” as some fans fondly remember. I watched it regularly from some time in early 1973 through the first few months of 1975.  In those two years I experienced (or endured, or suffered, pick your verb) a major clinical depression, understood as such better in the looking back on it than in the living in the middle of it. While I was in it, it was just my life.

It began with the darkening of the days as 1972 came to a close, but it persisted through the spring and the summer graduate school term in Vermont, and then into another full turn of the seasons. I’d lost touch with the friends I had in college and had difficulty forming new attachments after a series of rejections. I was isolated and lonely. I functioned in the classroom, but just barely. I slept a lot, took joy in little. There were days when I would come home from school, watch “Another World” until 4:00, and then go to bed. I’d wake up at 6:00 and not know which 6:00 it was. Saturday nights I watched Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, listened to a folk music program on public radio, and then went to bed.

Sundays were the worst. I would get up, take the paper in, and sit on the floor between my two love seats to read it. If I drank coffee it was Maxim freeze-dried crystals with Coffeemate, the memory of which makes my coffee-snob taste buds shudder now but which I drank then because it’s what we had in Apartment 101 at University Apts and the texture and the odor of it helped bring back at least a faint whiff of the happiness I felt that year. Malls weren’t open on Sundays in those days, so there wasn’t even that distraction, and the day stretched ahead toward Monday morning, when I’d go back to work, delivering the most canned and uninspiring of lessons. (There are no students from those days who keep in touch, who tell me of the positive influence I had on them. To tell you the truth, there are very few students from those days whom I remember.)

One Sunday morning, terribly dejected and longing to hear another human voice, I turned on the television, and there was Tom Chapin.

Make a Wish was a fast-paced half hour of free-association wordplay, faintly psychedelic graphics, life affirmation, movement, energy. A lot of the music was written by his brother Harry, whose long narrative songs I was fond of. I watched the program every week from then on, and no matter how miserable and sorry for myself I’d been feeling before the show, no matter how much I wanted to just fade away, I felt some measure of relief after it. I’d rise up from the floor, attend to my lesson plans and class preparation, and somehow find the inner resources to get through one more week.

In 1994, twenty years beyond the deepest despair I know I’ll ever feel, I took Lynn, eight years old, to see Tom Chapin and Friends, his show aimed at families with children between four and eleven. It was everything Make a Wish had ever been — clever, hopeful, joyous. After the performance Tom came out into the lobby of the theater to meet and greet the audience. He was sitting on a bench signing programs, and when the seat beside him became available I sat down next to him.

“You’re not going to remember anything I’m about to say,” I told him, “but I’m going to say it anyway.” And I told him what he was for me in 1974, at my lowest and loneliest. “Harry entertained me with his sweet sad story songs. You saved my life.” “Thank you for telling me this,” he said, and kissed me on the cheek.

Ten years later I saw Tom’s show again. This time I took my cousin and his wife and their eight-year-old daughter. The concert was in March, and near the end Tom announced that it was his birthday, and he asked if there was anyone else in the audience who was having a birthday. It was just a week past mine, and my cousin jumped up, pulled me up, and propelled me into the aisle. Tom Chapin took my hand, looked into my eyes, and sang, “Happy birthday, happy birthday, we love you.” I have sent him a birthday card every year since.

To say that Tom Chapin saved my life might be an overstatement. I was never so desperate that I would have made an unequivocal gesture of self-destruction. But when I look back at those bleak months when I needed help and didn’t know how nor whom to ask for it, I see myself sitting on the floor of my apartment, my chin resting on my knees like a ten-year-old, watching Tom Chapin, and feeling just a little less lost.

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