"One day everything is normal, and the next you're starting chemo," Michael Parker says.
These are true and woefully common words. In February, Parker's wife, Susan, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After the tears, after breaking the news to family, friends and colleagues, after the battle plan was mapped out, the couple behind the Opal Divine's empire of local pubs got an idea: We can use the bars to raise money for the Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas . They told their story over pints of beer on a recent afternoon at Opal Divine's Freehouse on West Sixth Street, a rambling place with good craft beer and a menu more than a cut above pub grub.
Even as Susan was undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, a mastectomy and the removal of her lymph nodes to fight off a rare form of the cancer — one that often can't even be detected with a mammogram — she and Michael were dreaming up Drink Pink, which launched in June at Opal Divine's Penn Field location. The deal was this: For every Opal's prickly pear margarita ordered, Opal's would donate 50 cents to the BCRC ($1 for every shaker). And this is a good margarita, with fresh lime, organic agave nectar and prickly pear puree.
They also promoted the BCRC's Art Bra calendar, sold Drink Pink T-shirts and more.
There have been a host of fundraising activities, including "Boob Bash" with the Jigglewatts burlesque troupe. But as of earlier this month, they'd raised something like $6,000 — most of it one margarita at a time.
The finale is Saturday, when the Sixth Street location hosts Halloween karaoke — Scaraoke — with a $150 prize for best song and costume combo, the Jigglewatts one more time, Art Bra calendars and more. It goes from 8 p.m. to midnight; admission is a suggested donation of $5 for the BCRC, but unless you're broke or just a horrible person you should give more. They'll be presenting one of those giant checks made out to present to the organization.
Susan, 45, an Austin native, first met Michael, 49, two decades ago, when he was tending bar at the Dog & Duck. Michael got in on Billy Forrester's groundbreaking pub, which was an early adopter and champion of the American beer renaissance. In 1991, Susan switched to the other side of the bar.
"It was a long and smoldering relationship," says Michael, who's lived in a dozen Texas towns and elsewhere. "We had our ups and downs. Turns out we couldn't stand for either of us to be with anybody else."
Susan makes her point a little more directly: "I thought he was hot," she says. They've now been married 17 years, "a little longer than the Obamas," she notes.
After nine years, nine months and nine days at the Dog & Duck, they were ready to strike out on their own. One night Michael was riding his motorcycle and saw the "for lease" sign at 700 W. Sixth St., called Susan, woke her up and said, "This is it."
They opened a month later, just before the 2000 South by Southwest Music Festival. They had Hank Williams III play and did typical SXSW land-office business.
"And then reality set in," Michael says.
The next week they made $200. That's no typo — $200 for an entire week.
So it goes for owners of a small business, this one and its two sister establishments named for Susan's grandmother. Parker says he still suffers from "seasonal insomnia." One time they had to sell a pop-up camper to make payroll. And he's not even in charge of the books — Susan is the chief financial officer.
And now she has another job. Beating this disease. The good news is she says she feels great and has completed chemo and radiation. But no matter what, the news that came in the spring of 2009 will reverberate for years.
"It's going to be part of our lives for a long time," Michael says.