Saralee Perel

Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, can be reached at 

Her novel, Raw Nerves, is now available as a paperback and an e-book on

My Night With Tony Bennett

When Tony Bennett performed at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, I felt he was conveying his words only to me. And in fact, two hours later, that was precisely what he'd be doing.

One month earlier, my husband, Bob, surprised me with tickets. I adore Tony Bennett. When we're kayaking, it's Tony's music that I sing my heart out to, over the waters of Cape Cod Bay.

But for seven years since my spinal cord injury, I can't function after 5 p.m. The remainder of my cord that's still intact is exhausted by day's end from trying to do the work of a whole spinal cord. So it gives up and I'm limp. This happens to many people like me. We call it "crash time."

"Sweetheart," I told Bob, "you know I can't walk or talk at night."

"Yes, you can," he said. "I help you walk. And when you have trouble finding words, I find them for you."

Holding me, he said, "We can cancel. It's OK."

As I was about to cancel, I looked at the tickets in my hand: "CAPE COD MELODY TENT PRESENTS AN EVENING WITH TONY BENNETT." I silently declared: If I don't try to push through my crash-time barrier now, I never will.

Then I had a crazy idea: finding a way to meet Tony Bennett.

After 22 calls, someone mentioned a guy who knows Tony. That guy was the legendary Dick Golden, who graced Cape Codders with his passion for jazz and American standards on radio stations WQRC and Ocean 104.7 for 35 years. We met a long time ago.

I called him in Washington, D.C., where he now lives. He remembered me. Feeling terribly shy, I forced myself to say, "Um, I hear you know Tony Bennett."

"We talk nearly every other day."

I explained what had happened to me and then said, "Bob and I are going to his concert. I'm going to try pushing through a physical hurdle and go out for the first time at night since my injury."

"Wonderful, dear." Such a sweet guy. "How can I help you?"

I told him about my crazy idea of meeting my idol, of overcoming the physical challenge to do so and how inspiring that would be for me. And I told him about my hope to share that inspiration with others trying to break through their own barriers.

Dick said, "Tony's not just a singer and a painter. He's a humanitarian. I'll see what I can do."

As promised, I e-mailed Dick a few columns about how I've learned to walk again after being told I couldn't, so that he and Tony could get a sense of what I meant by breaking through barriers.

He forwarded my columns to Tony and explained my story. Then Dick told me that Tony remarked about my courage and would love to meet me.

Holy guacamole!

Of course, my lunatic persona took over. I wrote an introductory sentence in case I went blank. I put it in my purse along with 287 breath mints. But I knew I'd forget my note and instead sound like Tarzan. "You sing good."

And poke him in the chest saying, "Me like."

I asked friends: "What should I say to Tony Bennett?"

Everyone was so helpful. (Note: I'm being sarcastic.)

One gal said, "If he asks what song you'd like to hear, say his famous ballad: 'She Wore an Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.'"

Another said, "Stand while he's in the middle of his most well-known song and shout, 'We've already heard a billion times where you left your stinkin' heart. Enough!'"

My friend, musicologist Bill O'Neill, was even more helpful. "If he asks if you'd like his autograph, say, 'Sure. Please sign it 'To Saralee — that's S-A-R-A-L-E-E. With love, Frank Sinatra.'"

Every piece of clothing I've worn since the '60s was strewn around the house. Eventually Bob stopped looking up when I'd say, "How does this look?" He kept reading the paper mumbling, "Fine," to everything.

To get Bob to look up, I wore nothing but my brother's tiny prayer cap, a yarmulke. When Bob said, "Fine," I asked, "Isn't the hat a bit much?" He looked up, did NOT notice I was naked, and added, "Tony's Italian. You're Jewish. They act the same. Wear the yarmulke."

Our meeting would take place after the show, in the green room. With my cane and Bob's arm, I managed to get to our seats. People were so kind. When Tony's songs received standing ovations, I stood. Several women helped me up and then held on to me so I wouldn't fall.

Afterward, Dick brought us inside the green room and introduced us to a few guests — including Joan Kennedy and son Ted Kennedy Jr., who has overcome his own physical challenge.

When Tony walked in, my body temperature skyrocketed. The first thing I said to the first Kennedy I ever met? While fanning my face with my scarf I panted, "Hot flash! Got any ice?"

It was like a slow-motion movie scene as I watched Dick bring Tony Bennett to meet me. My sweet husband put his arm around my shoulder to show his love and support. Then he softly whispered in my ear, "Breath mints!"

I handed Tony a gift bag filled with treasures from our home. There were two tiny hand-painted plates of Cape Cod scenes, a framed old postcard of the Long Point Lighthouse and two little books.

He thanked me tenderly. Then he faced me. No, he was not ready to have our pictures taken yet. We talked. He was aware of my triumphant moment.

All my anxiety was gone. I felt peace. I said, "Because you wanted to meet me, you have helped me help myself. And by doing that, you will be helping many people with all sorts of disabilities break through barriers they never thought they could."

I told him I was going to write about this moment and share it with the world.

Those words were not written down. They came from my heart. I believe we made history on that one beautiful night, when a scared crippled woman pushed beyond "impossible" limits — and made it.