Jeanne Apelseth and Michael Brunick had seen James Taylor perform before, but they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity last week when they were able to thank him for helping save Brunick's life.
Taylor had donated sheet music of his song "Fire and Rain" to the couple in late 2014 as they were struggling to raise money for Brunick's lung transplant. Through Charity Buzz, a website dedicated to selling memorabilia for charitable causes, they were able to raise $3,000 to help pay for the surgery.
"I was totally not expecting that," said Apelseth, 59. "I thought maybe we might get some small thing, but when he did that, it was amazing. He was so generous."
"I had to tell him, 'Without you and a lot of people like you, I wouldn't have made it,'" said Brunick, 63.
The meeting was the end of a long journey for Brunick and Apelseth, who knew each other from childhood but reconnected in 2003, and have been partners ever since.
"We consider ourselves married," Apelseth said.
No doubt that comes from their dependence on each other. In late 2003, Brunick was told that he had zinc oxide poisoning from years of work as a welder, as well as years of lung damage from his past as a smoker.
"At the time, I was still really capable, physically," Brunick said. "For the next few years, things were normal."
Beginning in 2006, Brunick's health deteriorated. By 2007, he was using an oxygen tank full-time, and by 2010 he was told by a pulmonary physician that he needed a lung transplant.
"We went down to the University of Arizona in Tucson to look at their program, because my daughters live in Mesa," Brunick said. "They were ready to list me, but they told me I had to come back after a triple-bypass first."
Brunick complied, but before they could move forward with the lung transplant, the university's program was closed.
"Which was, you know, very daunting," Brunick said. "Here you are, ready to be listed, and they took down the program."
The two kept searching, being rejected by Duke University, the Mayo Clinic and other organizations because of Brunick's cardiac problems. But Apelseth didn't give up and eventually found the Cleveland Clinic.
Even then, it wasn't easy, and it was another two and a half years before listing Brunick.
"You have to keep going back every three months to check up, test and see if you're sick enough," Brunick said. "But you can't go past the line of being too sick."
The price tag for the surgery was steep at $40,000 to $50,000. Apelseth led the charge to find the money, organizing several benefits.
"It's tough to get people to raise that much money within such a small town," Apelseth said. "I was brainstorming how else to do it."
Apelseth then came up with an ingenious idea to reach out to musicians who meant a lot to the two of them and might have a bit of extra money to help.
"James Taylor was at the top of the list," Apelseth said.
They were both fans. Apelseth said that she was a teenager when she first saw him live, and that she had a memory or meaning attached to every one of his song, citing "Close Your Eyes" as a favorite.
"That means a lot more because of our situation," Apelseth said. "It's been really tough going through years of health problem, so 'Close your eyes, it's OK' ... I think that means a lot to me."
Brunick said that he'd seen Taylor seven or eight times since the 1970s, naming "You Got a Friend" as a favorite.
"It's a pretty extraordinary song about hope," Brunick said. "That's the nice thing about his music. It's mostly hopeful stuff. Throughout my life, it gave me a smile."
They were given more than a smile after Apelseth reached out to Taylor and heard back from his personal assistant, who said that Taylor would donate sheet music of "Fire and Rain" from a concert at Carnegie Hall in the 1980s, one that had a bit of notation from Taylor himself on it. Apelseth said that "Fire and Rain" may now be her favorite song of his.
"Listening again to how those lyrics apply to the hard times Michael struggled through during this past decade ... dealing with significant health issues and dancing death, the fear of losing someone you love and fighting to save their life ..." Apelseth said. "I realize, this song says it all."
Apelseth said that they also received help from Rick Springfield and Roni Benise, who donated guitars.
Still, the journey wasn't over, and the two were still tested as they waited for a donor. On Father's Day 2015, Brunick said he didn't think he could continue to fight.
"I was on so much oxygen, and it took 8 liters for me to sit, 20 liters to walk," Brunick said. "It's a massive amount, like being in a wind tunnel. And I had dropped from 175 pounds to 138, had no strength."
Brunick told Apelseth: "I don't think I have it in me to make another trip, I'm so tired and worn out. I don't think I can do it."
"I was upset. I was furious," Apelseth said. "I felt like, 'You can't give up now. We've been fighting for years.'"
Four hours later, they received a call from the Cleveland Clinic, saying that a lung was available and they would send a jet for the two in 2.5 hours.
"I said, 'Well, I guess I changed my mind. I'm not ready to quit,'" Brunick said.
"It's a pretty great Father's Day present," Apelseth said.
Even after the surgery, there were problems for another 9 months, with Brunick suffering a toxic reaction to some of the anti-rejection drugs and an initial rejection of the organ. At one point, while the two were in Cleveland, his children were brought from Arizona, as it was suspected he would not live.
"He's kind of a miracle man, though," Apelseth said. "In the last three months, he's been great. He's talking about normal things, fishing again."
Today, Brunick says he feels great, even as he deals with lower-back problems and loss of muscle mass from years of inactivity.
"My lung is doing great," Brunick said. "I'm not on oxygen tanks anymore."
When the two learned Taylor would perform at the Rushmore Civic Center, they made sure to get good seats. Apelseth also contacted his assistant, who had asked Apelseth to keep her updated on Brunick's health.
"We asked if there was any way we could meet him and thank him for the part he played in saving Michael's life," Apelseth said. "I was told to call again a week before the concert, and the arrangements were made."
It was their first date since the surgery.
At the civic center, the two were given an envelope with passes and told to go to the sound booth after the show. They assumed they would go back with a large group of people, but the other three people there were sent back first. After some time, they were led to a room backstage.
There stood James Taylor, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and no shoes (with stockings on his feet), "beckoning us in to take a seat on the couch."
"I started to thank him and say how much it mean to me," Brunick said. "You know how emotional that can be."
The three spoke for a half hour, with Taylor asking several questions about the transplant, the process, the post-surgery medical issues. The couple was surprised to learn that Taylor knew a good deal about the medications Brunick used and about several medical issues.
"I asked him how he knew so much, and he said, 'I'm just curious, I'm really interested,'" Apelseth said.
The two told him that they planned on organizing a speaker tour or TED Talk to speak on behalf of organ donation. Taylor told them that he'd like to get involved, and made sure his assistant had their contact information. At the end, Taylor walked them out to the parking lot and gave them both a hug before leaving.
"We were like, 'Wow, did that really happen?'" Brunick said.
"What an incredible ending to a perfect night," Apelseth said. "Beyond our wildest dreams. What an incredibly kind and compassionate man."
The two are planning that speaking tour to inspire the sick to not give up and the healthy to think about becoming organ donors.
"A lot of people don't make it while they're waiting," Brunick said. "This is part of my tribute to my donor, who I only know was a 30-year-old male. I have to live a good life, do good things, honor that gift."
Michael Brunick's donor, James Taylor and the others who helped his cause were all important parts of his recovery. The most important was his beloved Jeanne.
"It took incredible strength, ingenuity and spirit for her to endure all of this, to take care of me all of these years," Brunick said.
Through the whole process, Apelseth worked full-time, aside from the four months immediately following the surgery, as a marketing director for ARC International, as an artist, and as a photographer with her business on the side, Sunchaser Fine Art.
"Now we're making the transition from caretaker to her being my girlfriend again," Brunick said. "She had to take care of everything, so it's time for me to take back some responsibilities. I'd love to be able to spoil her."
He added: "I have a hopeful future, I think."