When Aaron Graves began to experience a bad string of migraines about two months ago, he didn’t think too much of it. After all, his mom got headaches on a regular basis, too, and he’s been battling them to varying degrees since he was in high school. But pretty soon, other symptoms started to emerge, becoming more acute while he was on the road with Those Lavender Whales, the sprightly folk-rock band he plays in along with his wife, Jessica Bornick. [online copy corrected]
“It was weird to have four of them in a two-week span, but then I had this swimmy-headedness, just feeling kind of strange,” the 28-year-old recalls. “We were doing some shows around that time, and I was having some vision problems.”
A March 17 conversation with a pediatric neurologist friend didn’t go well, sparking a trip to the emergency room for an MRI. Soon, he was at Durham, N.C.’s Duke University Hospital, where he was told that he had a brain tumor. After more tests, Graves learned he was suffering from astrocytoma, a type of cancer of the brain. On a scale of one to four — with four being the most aggressive — his is classified as grade two, which means it is slow-growing and treatable.
After the word spread quietly through friends and family, a simple photo of Aaron, Jessica and their 3-year-old daughter Elvie appeared on the Facebook page of the local Mexican restaurant El Burrito, announcing a weekly lunch special — dubbed “Aaron’s Lunchbox” — benefiting his care. From there, community support kicked into high gear.
Local musicians funneled their goodwill into Papa Jazz Records— where proceeds from seemingly every local album sold are going Graves’ way — while other initiatives — special T-shirts screened by Bluetile Skateshop, a one-off guitar pedal created and auctioned off by Caroline Guitar Company, a sale at Sid & Nancy where 20 percent went to Graves — have drawn from other ends of Columbia’s creative community.
There’s also a “Mohawk Madness” drive with a monthly goal that, when met, will result in a particular friend or volunteer getting a mohawk haircut similar to the one Graves now sports after doctors removed a sample of his tumor.
A website — defiantly titled tumorschmumor.com — was soon created to organize and coordinate these efforts. As with everything else surrounding this situation, friends and family have been instrumental in its creation.
“Chris Gardner came up with the title to the site, and my sister helped set it up for us,” Graves offers. Together, he and Gardner run Fork & Spoon Records, a label they founded with another friend four years ago. “It’s super easy for us to add stuff and update, so as more things happen, we’ll be posting about them there.”
This overwhelming show of support has a lot to do with Graves’ years working with local music. The Whales have long been a local favorite, pleasing crowds in town and making connections with other scenes, such as those in Durham and Charlotte, helping bring new bands to Columbia. Fork & Spoon has spent the last four years putting out feisty and fetching pop and rock records from the likes of Coma Cinema and Say Brother.
“The minute we heard the news we knew we wanted to do something to help Aaron,” says longtime Papa Jazz employee Woody Jones. “After we announced our plan, my inbox has been flooded with other local bands wanting to participate. Many people are going out of their way to come in and buy local music to benefit Aaron.”
But in addition to his integral role in helping Columbia’s rock scene emerge on a regional level, Bluetile’s David Toole says that Graves and his wife are simply nice people, inviting friends to their house for frequent potluck dinners and generally injecting a positive vibe into pretty much every situation.
“Not that long ago at a Those Lavender Whales show, I was not in the best of spirits,” Toole recalls. “At the show, they kept messing up, but in the best kind of ways, and Aaron was so funny about it. There was just this energy to the night that lifted my spirits right up.”
Graves is covered for his treatment — which isn’t likely to include surgery — through Medicaid, but not every financial burden will be alleviated. The program won’t reimburse him for lost hours at his theater services job with Richland County School District One or travel expenses to appointments in North Carolina. Wallet-wise, Graves isn’t as bad off as he could be, but his financial outlook still isn’t great.
In addition to the monetary bump, the support he’s received has been a crucial boost to Graves’ spirits. He praises the members of his church for their efforts, as well as the resilience of his wife and daughter, but the help on the part of local music scene has been particularly special, proving that his contributions to the area’s culture haven’t gone unnoticed.
“I have my own crate at Papa Jazz and my own Bluetile T-shirt, which is super cool,” Graves gushes. “It’s crazy, and every day it’s a new surprise. It feels good to have so much support, and I like that there are options for people to choose from.”
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