This bright, sunny Sunday afternoon is a victory of sorts. Anne Feeney, folksinging legend, hellraiser extraordinaire, is Skyping with her 31-year-old-son, an NGO lawyer in Ecuador. She's watching her 4-month-old grandson perfect his latest trick, rolling over. She smiles; she beams.
But everything has its price, and this exertion, accompanied by her first housework in months -- Swiffering the hardwood floors, doing dishes, even brewing a good stiff cup of Barry's black Irish tea for an old friend -- has taken its toll. Pale and drawn, curled into the corner of the living room couch, she's swathed like a mummy in black sweats, heavy socks and knit cap.
"I'm going to finish cleaning the house," she rasps, her voice more throaty than it was in her hard-singing days. She hoists a mug of Pomegranate Pizzazz and downs a fistful of meds (antibiotics, anti-diuretics, defibrillators) for her cancer and various related ailments. "I'm on a roll."
That roll's been a long time coming -- since August, when Feeney, 59, was diagnosed with lung cancer, a deadly 11-centimeter tumor she calls "the weasel."
Sure, she's had the occasional good moment, including performing two songs at her own December benefit, a Mr. Small's soiree which drew 300 friends, supporters and top-drawer local musicians. Nevertheless, she admits that between her surgery, chemotherapy, drugs and a 50-pound weight loss, "I don't have the wind that I used to."
Well, there are benefits to being sick. Like being home. Her cozy, white frame house is festooned with pro-labor and leftist political prints. Perched atop a Swissvale hill, it boasts a rear view that overlooks what once was the Homestead steel works. But with a singing schedule that stretched coast-to-coast for some 200 days a year, "my house was little more than a tour stop," she recalls. "This time of year, I'd be on the West Coast."
Meaning that instead of looking forward to housework, she'd be getting up at 10, eating a hearty breakfast, gassing up the car and driving 150-200 miles to the next gig. Starting by 8 p.m., she'd play two 45-minute sets, with a half-hour of CD-selling time sandwiched between. She'd end the night at a local public house to "continue the discussion," as she puts it.
That West Coast swing would take her up and down California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. In all, Feeney's touring took her to some 40 states a year, with occasional stints in Denmark, Sweden and Ireland. Hobnobbing with such famous fellow folkies as Utah Phillips and Peter Yarrow, Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton, she and her vintage Martin played colleges, artists' colonies, festivals. "It's a beautiful life," she says, smiling. And it has included more than 40 years of leftist political activism, from anti-Vietnam war and civil-rights rallies through the women's, environmental, union and peace movements. Now, she says, "the next two years are going to be real touch-and-go." She pauses. "If I live."
Now, it's not uncommon for Feeney to sleep up to 20 hours a day, having no energy to do anything other than read her daily dose of five dozen cards and letters, and 100 e-mails. While she still manages to send her monthly e-missive to an 8,000-person subscriber list, most days she's too wasted out to answer much of anything.
"I've got mountains of cards and envelopes to enter in my database," she says. "A couple of lawn- and leaf-bags full. I need to get out some kind of thank-you."
That includes notes to scores of people who contributed $50 apiece to help defray her mountainous medical bills -- as well as organizers of Feeney fundraisers from Eugene to Fort Lauderdale, Vancouver to D.C., Cleveland to San Francisco. "It's so amazing," she says. "It's validating my whole life."
With less than two years to live, Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig famously called himself "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." Does Anne Feeney feel the same way?
"Cancer is a wonderful way to die," she says, straight up. "You get plenty of warning. You get to do a lot of things you want to do." She pauses, then smiles. "But I'm not ready to accept that I'm in my last time yet."
Rising angularly, she sees a visitor to the door. First a long, hard hug. Then that jaunty grin, a ghost of the old days.
"This is a typical Feeney goodbye," she snorts. "Get out of here while you still have a chance."