‘A lost year’ after a car accident and the pandemic
Award-winning musician Michael Massey says there’s still ‘so much left to do.’
In March 2020, acclaimed musician Michael Massey’s world came to a crashing halt. But not in the abstract sense that so many others’ did when the pandemic began. On the first of that month, while sitting at a stoplight on Stoughton Road with wife Robin Valley-Massey at the wheel, a truck traveling 50 miles per hour barreled into them from behind. The couple survived, but just barely.
“It’s hard to keep close sometimes, how close to death we were,” says Massey from his studio at his east Madison home of 21 years, where he is back at the piano keys reflecting on a year that was surreal by any measure. “I came really close to losing her. And I still haven’t processed that a year later. I honestly haven’t.”
Valley-Massey is the RN clinic manager for Developmental Disabilities Clinical Services at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Waisman Center. Massey is a lifelong performing singer, songwriter, composer, pianist and producer with five award-winning albums and countless other achievements to his name. Both are now back to work, though they suffered life-threatening injuries that plague them to this day. Valley-Massey’s were most severe; she endured emergency surgery to fuse four broken vertebrae in her neck, spent a week in ICU and another 15 days at a rehabilitation facility. For much of that time, she was not allowed visitors (including Massey, after his own release from the hospital with a head injury and broken vertebra and ribs) due to new and rapidly changing COVID-19 safety protocols as the country scrambled to implement lockdowns. When she did come home — where, at least, they could be together — it was to a life that was forever changed, both inside and outside their walls.
“I knew that we had a long road, and I was sad that the rest of the world had to join us in that lost year,” Massey says — but the close call also brought perspective. “If something would have gone even slightly different, we wouldn’t be walking. So we didn’t take anything for granted, even though we were in pain. It was still a joyful time.”
It was also a time of tremendous community support. Their adult daughters, Emily and Anna, moved home to shelter in place and become full-time caretakers for their parents. One month after the accident, on April 9, the couple was buoyed by an online fundraising event spearheaded by friend and News3Now’s Charlotte Deleste; Valley-Massey’s sister, Karen Broitzman; and Big Dreamers United’s John Urban and Lea Culver. The event raised tens of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of the family’s spirits. Beyond the necessary financial support for all that insurance didn’t cover, the community outpouring was “priceless,” particularly given the unfolding pandemic.
“We sat in disbelief for most of that day. It was amazing, beyond our wildest imagination,” Massey says. “As much as the money, or more than the money, was that feeling of people supporting us and [that sense of] community. All the more remarkable [was] people’s generosity and support when they themselves were, many of them, in dire straits.”
Given his profession, Massey’s life would have been upended by the pandemic anyway. In the months leading up to the accident his touring schedule included shows in New York, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee and all over Wisconsin.
“I was personally having one of my best years, musically,” Massey says. “It was great money-wise and it was great opportunity-wise.”
In addition to his album recordings, Massey has always had various projects in the works including writing radio and television commercial spots for dozens of major clients, scoring films, and composing productions such as “Dracula, A Rock Ballet” which was performed by Madison Ballet and recorded live at the Overture Center in 2013. Since 2010 he has performed regularly with Piano Fondue, a Madison-based dueling pianos entertainment company, and he was also working closely with actor/writer/producer/director Suzan Kurry to write his first musical.
When the pandemic shuttered those opportunities overnight, Massey had to find a new way to harness the music that has always doubled as his therapy.
“Without the ability to compose or write a song or actually just even play, I would have gone insane long ago,” says Massey, who has been open about his past struggles with alcohol and is now 27 years sober. When daughter Emily, also a musician, moved home after the accident, her Chicago-based band “Slow Pulp” was in the middle of recording its first full-length album. Massey built a makeshift vocal booth in his home, “borrowed a really good mic” from a friend, and they built the bulk of her vocal tracks there with Massey in a neck brace engineering and even contributing a piano track.
“It gave me a purpose,” Massey says. “It helped clear my brain when it was very foggy.”
Also, early on in the pandemic, Massey began recording showcase videos for Piano Fondue’s website. In June 2020, Piano Fondue’s “live” shows returned with virtual performances online six days a week. Massey now performs live for 90 minutes every Monday night at 7 p.m. from his home studio. Even more exciting, he says, in-person Piano Fondue shows — outdoors, at least — are returning in June 2021.
“[Piano Fondue] allowed me to focus, which I truly believe helped me recover,” he says. “It’s been wonderful.”
But the one thing Massey has been unable to do since the accident is write a song. Although he estimates he’s written more than 400 original songs in his lifetime, “whatever that spark is” hasn’t come back.
“I’ve just been waiting for that feeling, that feeling I’ve had since I was 14 years old, the ability to know there’s a song you can pluck out of the air right there. They haven’t been there,” he says. “I’m not panicking yet but it’s been really difficult.”
Part of it is the emotional impact of a really tough pandemic year in which the couple has lost several close friends and family members. Another part is the ongoing processing of his trauma from the accident. Unlike Valley-Massey, who saw the truck coming in her rear view mirror but blacked out after that; Massey never saw it coming and also never lost consciousness. He still relives the moment of impact — his head spidering the windshield, then snapping back against the passenger seat. The terrifyingly still, unnatural slump of his wife’s body over the steering wheel.
But there were obvious miracles, too. Frightened as he was to move Valley-Massey for fear of paralyzing her, he couldn’t stand to see her that way and so he gently pushed her back in her seat — a gamble which, as it turns out, cleared her airway and saved her life. There was also an “angel on earth,” a nurse, Stacy McAtee, who happened to come upon the accident and offer immediate help. “We haven’t been able to properly thank her, because of the pandemic,” Massey says. “But we’ve got a standing offer for as soon as we can, buying her the best dinner in whatever restaurant she chooses.”
Then there’s the larger, invaluable silver lining: the couple is alive. They can walk (although Valley-Massey’s best case scenario for recovery in her neck is 40% movement) and they are together. Their bond with their daughters has profoundly changed, their gratitude for their community has only strengthened and their thoughts about future opportunities have only expanded. He may not be writing songs just yet, but Massey is writing a memoir about his prior battle with alcoholism and the new life he built in recovery these past 27 years, in hopes of helping others who struggle similarly. Both he and Valley-Massey are finding ways to give back to the community that showed up for them and they hope to continue to do professional work that fulfills them.
“I think for the world, collectively, it’s a lost year. We do have a finite time on this planet. And I guess the way we’ve reacted to the adversity of the last year will carry us through the subsequent years,” Massey says. “There’s so much left to do. I’m not planning on slowing down anytime soon.”
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