When Abaad Behram got the call from his doctor two years ago confirming that the lump in his neck was a tumor, he knew exactly what to do: embark on a long-planned European vacation with his partner, Barbara King Mingo.
“I took my cancer on holiday,” Abaad, 61, told me. “We went to Switzerland, Montreaux, Copenhagen. . . . We went to Venice. I took that cancer everywhere, man.”
And when they got back, Abaad started seven weeks of intense radiation therapy. Five times a week, he went to Inova Fairfax Hospital and donned a protective mask that had been molded to cover his head and shoulders, leaving part of his throat exposed. He was bolted to a table, and the tumor was irradiated like a hot dog in a microwave.
I’ve known Abaad — or known of him, anyway — for more than 30 years. He’s a rock-and-roll guitarist and singer who was in such memorable local bands as Razz, Artful Dodger and the Howling Mad. Imagine if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had simultaneously fathered a child with a Bollywood actress. The result would be Abaad, who moved with his parents from India to Northern Virginia in 1969, when he was 15.
We expect rock stars to die in plane crashes or from drug overdoses, clad in tight pants and velvet frock coats, not to perish from head and neck cancer, ushered out wearing a flimsy hospital gown.
Abaad was never going to wear the gown.
“I did little things so I would keep my personality and my sense of normalcy intact,” he said. “I said, ‘Do I really have to wear the gown?’ They said, ‘No, not really.’ ”
So he didn’t. And when Abaad discovered that the soundtrack to his treatments was often icky pop — Justin Bieber and the like — he asked if he could hook up his iPad. “I’d play Django Reinhardt, whatever music I wanted to,” he said. “They were very gracious about that.”
So many musicians don’t have health insurance. Abaad does. In the 1990s, he started working in Fairfax County schools as a music therapist. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and today he is a special education teacher at Franklin Middle School in Chantilly, Va.
Cancer scares a lot of people, Abaad said. “I’m not saying it didn’t scare me, but I didn’t stay scared. That’s where that rock-and-roll element comes in: All right, we’re here. What are we going to do?”
One thing Barbara did was make art. She’s an instructional assistant at Fairfax’s Fairhill Elementary and an artist. When Abaad’s radiation treatment was over, she took his protective mask and embellished it, covering it with beads and sequins. There’s a guitar, an apple (representing teaching), a fish and a crab (Abaad’s a Pisces; Barbara’s a Cancer), teardrops under one eye.
“I see one side of the mask as being light and the other side as being darkness,” Barbara said. “Half of it is pain; half of it is healing.”
The result is both beautiful and discomfiting.
Of all Abaad’s musical incarnations, I think my favorite was Johnny Bombay and the Reactions, the band he fronted in the early 1980s. Their song “Ramona” — you can find it on YouTube — is three minutes of marvelously dirty guitars over a slinky groove.
He’s resurrected that band — with many of the original members — and will play Friday at Villain & Saint, in Bethesda, Md., with Jake Starr and the Delicious Fullness. (Disclosure: I’ve played in bands that have opened for Abaad and Jake.)
The radiation treatments — and subsequent chemotherapy — were successful, but Abaad was left with damaged salivary glands, causing a dry spot in his throat. Does that make it hard to sing?
He laughed. “I just have myself another scotch and go for broke,” Abaad said. “What else are you going to do?”
It’s only rock-and-roll . . .
We’re about three weeks into this year’s Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising campaign. Our goal is to raise $250,000 by Jan. 6 for three worthy local charities. Each tries to help end homelessness in our area. Community of Hope works with District families. Sasha Bruce Youthwork works with teens and young adults. Homestretch works with families in Northern Virginia.
So far, our total stands at $$23,833. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift that will move us closer to our goal. To donate, visit posthelpinghand.com.
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