09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
Most new fathers look a little frazzled after their wives give birth, but last spring at St. Mary's Hospital in Athens, Ga., John Berry, 34, clearly needed something other than a shower and a good night's sleep. Slumped on the floor outside the hospital nursery less than two hours after his wife, Robin, delivered their second child, Berry looked gravely ill and could barely respond when a passing nurse asked if he was all right. "I'm really not," he replied weakly.
That moment, in the early hours of April 29, was a turning point in a medical drama that has ended with Berry, now recovered, back on the road performing for audiences that invariably greet his hit single "Your Love Amazes Me" with standing ovations. Berry may hesitate slightly, unsure of a chord or key from time to time, but a little temporary memory loss can be expected when—in addition to becoming a daddy again—you've just recuperated from surgery to drain a life-threatening cyst in your brain.
It was shortly after Christmas last year, Berry recalls, that he began feeling "slightly out of it. It was sort of like having a constant fever of 99." Preoccupied with shuttling between a concert tour and the Nashville studio, where he was recording his second album (tentatively titled Every Time I Call Her Name) for Liberty Records, Berry didn't tell anyone that he felt unwell. But Robin, 28, noted a change in her husband of six years: "He was tired all the time and emotionally drained."
Robin, who sings backup for Berry, reluctantly left the tour in February for the final months of her pregnancy. The separation only increased her uneasiness. "John just seemed to be withdrawing, getting further and further away from himself," she says. "I was sure it was emotional, and at one point toward the end, I even went out and got some books on depression." She began driving to the Green Acres Baptist Church in Athens every morning to pray, worried that something was wrong with their marriage.
Meanwhile, Berry continued to ignore the warning signs, even though he says he has "a phobia about aneurysms." His father, Jim, 68, survived a cerebral aneurysm at age 31; but an aneurysm killed his mother, Marie, at 52, in 1981, when Berry was 21. (The condition, which is sometimes caused by weakness in a blood vessel wall, can be inherited.) Then one night in March, Berry awoke on a flight to Chicago with a thunderous pounding in the back of his head. "I thought I was going to die then and there," he says. After the flight, he immediately inquired about a CAT scan, but obtaining one seemed complicated and expensive, so "I just forgot about it and kept going."
Berry continued to slide. Between February and May he lost 30 pounds. When his bus air-conditioning broke, he found the stifling heat unendurable. In April he began gulping up to 10 ibuprofen tablets a day and sleeping 20 hours at a clip, waking just to perform.
Then on April 28, Robin felt her first labor pains. "To give you an idea how out of it he was," she says, "when I told him on the phone that I was sure I was about to deliver, he just said, 'Well, I'll call you tomorrow and see how you are.' " Berry managed to get home to Athens from Washington—but don't ask him how, he doesn't remember. "I'll never forget the sight of him when he walked into the room," says Robin's mother, Carol Calvert, 62, who had driven her daughter and grandchild TaylorMarie to St. Mary's. "He looked so awful, it was devastating," says Calvert, who travels with the family as bookkeeper, babysitter and one-woman support system.
At the hospital, Robin brought into the world one life, 5-lb., 13-oz. Sean Thomas, and almost immediately began worrying that her husband's would be taken. Scooped up from the hospital floor and whisked to the emergency room, Berry finally had a CAT scan and MRI, which revealed a colloid cyst—not itself life threatening but potentially fatal if it caused a block in the flow of spinal fluid. Still, Robin says she was relieved to find "that there was an actual physical cause for John's behavior," and not "a mental or emotional problem, or a problem in our marriage."
Ten days later, Berry entered Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Neurosurgeons there had determined that they could make two small openings in Berry's skull and drain the cyst. The worst part, Berry says, was having a wood and steel frame bolted onto his head to immobilize it for the procedure. To deaden the sites where the four bolts would go, he says, "they shoot Novocain deep into your scalp. Those shots, I am telling you, were the worst pain, the most awful thing I've ever experienced in my life."
Informed by radio stations why Berry's concerts were being canceled, fans started gathering outside the hospital. Flowers and telegrams streamed in. Unbeknownst to him, Berry's "Your Love Amazes Me" had hit No. 1 on the country charts on May 10, the very day he was wheeled into surgery.
Berry spent nearly a week in intensive care, where his disorientation convinced him that he was reliving his painful 1981 hospitalization following a motorcycle accident that had crushed both his legs. Moved to a private room, he screamed and thrashed, hounded by hallucinations that he was in prison. After those first traumatic days, Berry stabilized and was sent home to the 86-acre farm near Athens, where the family lives in a modest two-bedroom house (a larger one is in the works). He recovered with remarkable speed there—no doubt cheered by the discovery that he had his first hit song and that his management company had sent a Honda VLX 600 Shadow motorcycle to the house as a salute and as a get-well-soon present. The day after he arrived home, while Robin and her mother were out grocery shopping, Berry climbed onto the big machine and took his first motorcycle ride since the 1981 crash. After that, Robin confiscated the keys, but it was clear Berry was not going to be held down for long.
On June 6, less than a month after the surgery, Berry appeared at Fan Fair in Nashville; on June 16, with Robin, two children and mother-in-law in tow, he kicked off his tour in Los Angeles. As the bus rolled on through the summer, Taylor-Marie played on the floor, and Robin fed Sean Thomas. Conversation hovered over topics like laundry. "Our life is really just like everybody else's," said Berry, yawning, "except ours is rolling on wheels." And for a moment, he sounded as if he actually believed it.