LEWISTON — When Terry Farrington sent a Facebook message to country singer Tony Jackson on Monday, she wasn’t expecting a lot.
Mostly, after a yearlong medical nightmare with her dad, she just wanted to take a breath and say thank you to the singer who’d helped get them through it, even if he had no idea he’d helped.
“My dad had open heart surgery a year ago,” she wrote. “He nearly died many times.”
She’d played him Jackson’s song “The Grand Tour” over and over during his five months in hospitals and a months-long recovery. Now home, her 74-year-old father still plays the song.
“Music has the power to heal and nobody can tell me otherwise,” she wrote.
“Thank you so much Tony Jackson for helping me save my Dad even if it’s just a short while longer. My wish for my Dad is to meet you some day. I know it won’t happen but it’s ok . . . I just wanted you to know how you saved us both.”
Thirty minutes later, he sent a reply.
“Where are you and your dad?” Jackson wrote.
Three days later, he drove 10 hours to Lewiston to meet them.
‘It’s our song’
Leon Farrington’s medical saga began last November with open-heart surgery to deal with an aortic aneurysm.
He’d always been a healthy, rugged guy — 6 feet tall and more than 200 pounds, a former weightlifter and retired mill worker — but the surgery wasn’t an easy one. Complications arose immediately and kept coming: Uncontrollable bleeding. Stroke. Kidney failure. Infections.
At one point early on, he underwent three surgeries in 24 hours.
“They had a hard time keeping him alive,” Terry Farrington said.
A ventilator helped him breathe, then a tracheostomy tube did the job. A feeding tube provided nutrition. With Leon in and out of a coma, and not too coherent when he was awake, a neurologist warned the family that he probably wouldn’t be the same man they knew, if he survived at all.
A hospice nurse, Terry Farrington believed patients could hear even when their other senses seemed lost. So at every hospital visit, every day, she stood by her father’s bed, held up her phone and played his favorite country music from YouTube.
One day, the site suggested a new song: “The Grand Tour” by Tony Jackson, a sonorous remake of an old George Jones song.
My god, Farrington thought, my father is going to love this.
“I knew he loved George Jones,” she said. “And Tony Jackson was, like, singing better than anybody. Better than George Jones.”
She put “The Grand Tour” in her cycle of songs, alongside John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Mississippi” by Pussycat. She introduced each as it played.
“Come on back, Dad,” she’d add. “Come on back.”
One day, Leon was alert enough to ask a question: “What’s that song by that Jackson guy?”
Farrington suddenly had hope.
“If he can remember that much, even after a stroke and a brain bleed and some neurologist telling me he’s not going to be the same again and he’s got significant brain loss, I’m like, ‘I’m going to keep playing it,'” she said.
Leon spent five months in and out of Maine Medical Center in Portland, two weeks at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and a month recuperating at St. Mary’s d’Youville Pavilion in Lewiston. “The Grand Tour” essentially played on repeat.
“Every time I would visit, he would ask me to play it,” Farrington said. “So I would play it over and over and over again.”
As Leon got better, “The Grand Tour” became a kind of family anthem.
“It’s our song. It’s what kept us going,” Farrington said.
She credits her father’s doctor and other medical staff for saving his life. She credits Jackson and his song for saving her father’s spirit.
“I feel like he was really there for my dad and me. It pulled my dad through and he’s still here,” she said.
Leon doesn’t remember much about his time in the hospital, but he does remember some of the music. He remembers liking Jackson’s song because “he sang like George Jones — but better than George Jones.”
Today, Leon still deals with some residual medical problems — his kidneys are functioning at half the level they should be, he struggles to remember things and doctors are watching another aneurysm — but he’s back home with his lifelong partner, Susan Thibodeau. He can navigate stairs, climb on and off tractors, go out to eat with family. He plays “The Grand Tour” on his own laptop now.
“I couldn’t turn over in bed, that’s how weak I was,” he said. “I get around pretty good now.”
When Terry Farrington sent Jackson a Facebook message Monday, she signed it from a “deeply grateful daughter.”
Jackson decided he had to meet the family even before he finished reading.
‘I jumped in the car’
An up-and-coming country singer, Jackson often gets Facebook messages from people who want to say nice things about his music. But Farrington’s note was special.
His own father had gone through heart surgery a year ago. Although his father is doing fine now, Jackson could relate to Farrington’s story.
“It really hit home,” he said. “And then she put in there that they would like to meet me and I was thinking the same thing, ‘I’d really like to meet him, too.'”
Jackson, 40, had grown up on military bases as the son of a Navy man. He joined the Marines after high school and went on to work as an IT executive for Bank of America.
A few years ago, a YouTube video of him singing “The Grand Tour” caught the attention of Donna Dean Stevens, a singer and wife of the late Country Music Hall of Fame member Jimmy Dean. She invited Jackson to perform the song with the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a famed country music show she’d resurrected in Virginia. He got a standing ovation and, soon, a record deal.
His debut album, “Tony Jackson,” was released in May. He’s been touring regularly ever since.
But this week, at home in Virginia, Jackson happened to be free between shows.
“I jumped in the car and said, ‘Let’s go to Maine!'” he said.
Farrington couldn’t believe it.
“Who does that? Nobody does that. It’s amazing. I’m shocked. I have goosebumps talking about it,” she said. “I can’t believe he would be so kind to put his life aside to come up here to Maine.”
Jackson showed up at Pedro O’Hara’s just before noon Thursday, wearing a favorite black ball cap and carrying two bags filled with gifts.
“Ahh! There he is!” Terry Farrington squealed, getting up from the table to hug him. “Holy moly!”
The table was filled with more than half a dozen people — her two aunts, an uncle, her 9-year-old son, a cousin, a family friend — but it was the elderly man on the end who drew Jackson’s attention.
“Hello, sir, how are you?” he said, shaking Leon’s hand. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
“You almost didn’t get to meet me,” Leon joked.
“I’m glad you’re still hanging around,” Jackson said with a laugh.
For 40 minutes, Jackson and the Farrington family chatted about the weather, music, Leon’s few memories of being sick. Someone asked how Jackson’s father was doing. Jackson asked how Leon was doing.
Every 10 minutes or so, a Farrington family friend would drop by to meet Jackson, shake his hand, say thank you.
That, it turned out, was just what Jackson had come to say himself.
“I just wanted to come and meet them, hang out, put a face with the name. And tell them thank you in person,” he said.
Jackson mentioned that he had brought a duplicate of his black ball cap. Leon dug through the gift bag until he found it and replaced the camouflage cap he was wearing with the new black one.
The men posed for photos together, then for photos with the group.
“It feels good. That’s the best adjective I can come up with,” Jackson said. “Usually, you play shows and it’s a good time. It’s fun and stuff like that, but you don’t hear a lot about it affecting people. I love being able to perform for a living; that feels surreal at times. But this is extra special.”
After about 40 minutes, Jackson had to go. A buddy, John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful, was playing a concert that evening in New Jersey and Jackson had promised to go. He had a seven-hour drive to start on.
Leon shook his hand goodbye. “Tell your dad I said hi,” he said.
A few local radio stations are playing Jackson’s latest single, “Old Porch Swing.” He’d like to play a concert in Maine someday.
Terry Farrington hopes he does.
“Bottom line,” she said, “music can get you through anything.”
Country singer Tony Jackson, back center, has a picture taken with the extended family of Leon Farrington, third from left, at Pedro O’Hara’s in Lewiston. From left are Albert Conant, Glenda Lilley, Farrington, Alberta Conant, Jackson, Bernice Breton, Terry Farrington and Daniel Farrington. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Country singer Tony Jackson, left, arrives at Pedro O’Hara’s in Lewiston to have lunch with Leon Farrington, Farrington’s daughter Terry, and their extended family. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Leon Farrington tries on the hat that country singer Tony Jackson gave him at Pedro O’Hara’s in Lewiston. Jackson was wearing an identical hat. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Terry Farrington gives country singer Tony Jackson a hug at Pedro O’Hara’s in Lewiston. Farrington reached out to Jackson on Facebook to say “thank you” and in return, Jackson came into town to have lunch with Farrington’s father, Leon and his family. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Terry Farrington and her 9-year-old son, Daniel, look at autographed pictures of country singer Tony Jackson given to them by Jackson at Pedro O’Hara’s in Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Country singer Tony Jackson, second from right, talks with relatives of Leon Farrington, second from left, over lunch at Pedro O’Hara’s in Lewiston. Farrington’s daughter Terry Farrington, right, reached out to Jackson on Facebook to say “thank you” and in return, Jackson came to town to have lunch with Leon and his family. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)