Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The love of my life

I haven't written on this blog since Nov. 5. That was the day my husband, Mark, stopped working.  He thought he had injured his back in late October, and after toughing it out for a couple weeks on Oxycodone and Advil, he finally gave in to the pain.  On Nov. 5, he had the first of many tests. He was in horrible pain and couldn't lie down or walk. He lived the next two months on our living room couch.  He had to give up playing music, give up teaching, give up driving, give up his life.  We stayed at home, isolated and focused on how to help him get better. Between Christmas and New Year's Eve, he learned he didn't have just a back injury.  He had a broken vertebrate caused by cancer that was moving through his bones and weakening them.  "I'm going to fight this thing," he said. On Jan. 5, he started fighting, sitting through a five-hour session of chemotherapy. But the cancer was vicious and fast-moving. It was mean, dark, sadistic, and it took a piece of him away every day.  Still, he endured more tests, one after another, week after week.  They all offered more answers, but they didn't offer hope.  On Feb. 2, I took him to the hospital. He was weak and had lost nearly half his body weight.  After three days, he was a little stronger, and we came home.  A hospice nurse arrived the next morning.  "I'm going to fight this thing," he told her. Still, the cancer continued on his rampage, and on Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, at 3:17 p.m., he took a final breath. Our daughter, Alexa, and I were there by his side, holding his hand. 
We were married for 33 years and together for 36 - the whole of our adult lives.  We were one heart, two halves of a whole person. When one of us faced a hardship, the other one helped. When I lost my job in 2007, he helped me see the opportunities that lay ahead. When he had open-chest surgery later that year, I helped him get back on the forest trail we often walked by our house.  Since 2007, we have both worked at home, and were together every day and every night.
I can't believe I couldn't help him this time. We both tried. We both believed.  But we couldn't do it.
Now my heart is broken.  My friends are holding me and Alexa in a fierce embrace.  "Write about it," they say.  So I am. 

Mark Acord, July 4, 1954-Feb. 14, 2010
Mark Acord, 55, died at home in Woodland Park on Sunday, Feb. 14, with his wife, his daughter, his sister and his friends at his side.

Mark was born July 4, 1954, in Moline, Ill. He fell in love with music at an early age, and by the time he was 14, he was playing trumpet in a funk band in the Quad Cities. He went to the University of Northern Iowa, and received his degree in music education in 1976.

He played trumpet in a jazz trio, but when he picked up a bass guitar a few years later, he was hooked. The bass was the perfect instrument for him – he liked to say it was the brains of a band, while the drums provided the heartbeat.

Mark and his wife Deb started their first rock band in 1983, playing clubs and concerts throughout Iowa and Minnesota. In their most popular band, Hero, Mark was the front man and bass player.

Mark and Deb were married in 1976, and when they honeymooned in Colorado, they vowed to relocate here. In 1986, Mark and Deb made their move to the mountains and Mark continued his musical career. He played with local bands Beauty and the Beasts, Cadillac Jack, and the Rhythm Method. At the same time, he began teaching in a studio at Rice Music. His students were important to him – he often used part of the lesson time to talk. But he also wanted his students to excel, and when any of them won scholarships to colleges or honors or awards, he was thrilled. He developed an innovative approach to the bass guitar, teaching theory and improvisation and encouraging his students to play Bach as well as Metallica. In recent years, he moved his studio several times, ending at ProSound Music, and with each move, his students followed him.

In recent years, Mark was the bass player for the Channel Cats, a blues band that played clubs throughout the Front Range and hosted a blues jam session at downtown clubs. He also began working at Woodland Park Middle School, leading sectional practices for trumpet and French horn players. He designed a blues jam session for beginning players, and placed his youngest students next to area pros on stage

Mark loved music. He met his wife, Deb, in college, and she quickly learned that a day wasn’t complete for him until he practiced three or four hours. Mark also loved the mountains. With Deb and their daughter, Alexa, he explored Colorado’s wilderness. He named his favorite place – a hidden backcountry campsite in the Lost Creek Wilderness – “heaven.” He was a dedicated weightlifter, an accomplished fisherman and a strong hiker and backpacker and he carried Alexa and her backpack until she was old enough to manage on her own. He often said that preparing for a backpacking trip was the most fun part – he was a self-professed “gearhead” and he loved knives. He often read about world religions, mysticism and physics and was a champion campfire builder – a skill he demonstrated on his last camping trip last summer with Deb. He was a relentless supporter of his wife and he idolized his daughter, whom he called “Leca.”

In the end, he was still thinking about music, and even asked Dale Creel, his friend and fellow Channel Cat to help build a stand for his bass guitar so he could play it sitting down. On the day before Mark died, he was humming a blues tune.

Mark is survived by his wife, Deb; his daughter, Alexa; his parents, Merle and Marilyn Acord of Princeton, Iowa; his sister, Marsha Acord of Mount Vernon, Iowa, and nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his grandparents.

A celebration of Mark’s life is being planned for a later date. Donations may be made for his daughter’s continuing education at Acord Education Fund, ENT, PO Box 15819, Colorado Springs, CO 80935.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I love my cell phone

This has really happened: I’m talking on my cell phone and I realize… I can’t find my cell phone. A wave of panic washes over me. I begin searching frantically, all the while continuing to talk. When I finally realize I’m holding my phone in my hand, I’m embarrassed, but relieved.
I admit it – I’m obsessive about my phone. An over-the-hill BlackBerry, it goes with me everywhere. At night, it resides on my bedside table. When I shower, it waits for me on a nearby shelf.  When I walk or hike or shop, it’s in my pocket. And when I can’t find it, even for a moment, I panic.
It’s not like I’m obsessed with talking on it. I don’t have thousands of minutes. I don’t have unlimited texting. I have a Bluetooth but I only use it at home when I’m interviewing someone for a story. But I have become accustomed – some might say addicted - to being able to connect with people anywhere and any time.
I have friends who archly proclaim “Oh, I have a cell phone, but I hardly ever use it,” the same way they would say, “Oh, I don’t watch television;” as if having AND using a cell phone is somehow a weakness or a character flaw.
So, yeah, I am attached. It’s an attachment that started when my daughter was in middle school. My husband and I both worked 25 miles from our home, and we found our first primitive cell phones gave us a valuable connection. We felt safer; she felt safer. And as she grew up, we depended more and more on our phones to keep track of each other (OK, I admit that we used them more than she did for that reason.)
When she went on her senior trip to Mexico during high school, she called us to reassure us she was safe.
When she rolled her pickup truck on an icy mountain road, she called us before she called 911, to tell us she was OK. We got there before the EMTs. (For a while after that, I panicked just a little bit every time she called.)
When she was in Santa Fe, N.M., with a class from her college, she was hit with a debilitating flu. Stuck in a cheap hotel room for five days, she called me often for advice or for company.
One winter night, when I found myself stuck on Vail Pass in a blizzard with a windsheild wiper that broke off in my hand, I called my husband, and he talked to me while I waited for help. When his tire blew out on a mountain pass and he spun out, landing precariously close to a creek, he called me, and I went and picked him up.
But my phone dependency isn't just reserved for emergencies.
I like having that connection. Today when I was walking my dog in the forest nearby, I was pocketless, and I carried my phone. In the forest, it rang. It was my sister, checking in while she walked her dogs. For a while, we walked and talked together.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tricks and treats

When our daughter was little, we would follow her around our dark neighborhood as she gathered about 20 pounds of candy in a pillowcase. We’d lived in the same house since she was two, so she developed a long timer’s knowledge of the neighborhood, knowing and remembering the best-decorated houses and the houses with the best candy.
I was jealous of the neighbor who went all out, piping creepy organ music through external speakers and setting up an entire yard of plasterboard tombstones. I was impressed by the couple who dressed up like scarecrows and sat, motionless, on their front porch, jumping up whenever a group of trick-or-treaters approached. And the entire neighborhood was awed by the family who gave out “FULL-SIZED CANDY BARS.”
So one year, we went for it. We decorated the front porch with sticky plastic spider webs; brought out the strobe light (left over from our rock ‘n’ roll days – that’s another story), and played spooky music on a CD player in our garage.
We thought it was the high point of our Halloween attempts, but the lights caused some of the parents to stumble drunkenly in the driveway, and the littlest kids were a bit scared by the music.
The next year, we took a new approach. We kept the strobe light packed away and bought FULL-SIZED CANDY BARS. We had done it – become legends among trick-or-treaters. Word of our generous treats traveled fast, and costumed children flocked to our door in large, boisterous groups.
We had tried to balance our supply according to demand but we were woefully under stocked, and after we ran out, the doorbell kept ringing. We raided the cupboards and came up with tiny boxes of raisins. We raided the change jar and started tossing quarters into the bags of those who still came.
But our shot at becoming a neighborhood legend was over. We were instead branded as “the house where they give you raisins.”
The next year and every year after that, we’ve handed out those woefully unimpressive snack-sized candy bars. No matter how many we buy, we run out. We aren’t about to improvise (we still remember the raisin debacle). So we are forced to turn off the yard light, close the blinds and wait it out.
This year, two feet of snow blanket the ground. Trick-or-treaters are going to have to work hard to fill their bags and I’m thinking it might be time to impress the crowds once again.
I wonder where that strobe light is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Snow day

It’s been snowing all day today, and I wish my sister was here. She lives a thousand miles away, but if she were here, we would celebrate the deep snow and treacherous roads the way we always did: With a road trip.

When I lived in Iowa, she and I would wait impatiently each winter for those nasty blizzards that closed schools and work and made many roads impassable. We would make a plan and head for the mall.
We didn’t really like the mall when we could get there without adversity. But if we had to really work for it, it became an adventure. And if it was open when we got there, we rarely bought anything. Instead, we wandered the quiet halls in our snowboots and heavy coats and treated ourselves at the food court.
“It’s our Norwegian heritage showing,” we would tell each other. “Yeah, we’re not afraid of a little snow.”
I’m not sure why we celebrated that “heritage” at Sears instead of on cross-country skis, but it seemed right. And afterward, we waited for the inevitable question from family and friends: “You went out in that?”
Oh yeah.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Respite on the highway

I returned last night from a 1,500-mile road trip. It should be about a 10-hour trip, each way, but it took us 12 hours to get to my parents’ house in Iowa and 12 hours to get back. Those extra two hours? Don’t tell my mother, but we wiled away those extra minutes at highway rest areas. Before we left, my mother had warned me to stay away from them. “Bad things happen there,” she said ominously. “Really?” I asked. “What kinds of things?”
She went on to regal me with stories from her friends who had heard about vague rest stop horrors from their friends, or read about them…somewhere.(All predicated with “They SAY…”)
I was traveling with my daughter and my dog. Our traveling days were warm. The sun shone brightly. So we stopped at rest stops, unfolding our stiff legs out of the car and exploring the tiny park-like parcels of land. After stops along I-76 in Colorado, I-80 in Nebraska and I-29 in Iowa, we began to feel comfortable with the rest stops’ sameness – sensible concrete buildings where unrecognizable music played on some hidden sound system; lobbies where the furnaces were already turned on; well-kept grass lawns; and a smattering of original touches – a modern sculpture gallery in one, a plastic dinosaur in another; a well-raked sandbox in another. The centerpieces of the rest areas – the bathrooms – were uniformly clean and quiet. Along the way, we found small treasures – a cattail-fringed pond glowing in the sunset; an elm dropping acorns to the ground.
The stops provide a welcome respite from the hum of the highway and endless mazes of road construction cones. They are a throwback to the past; to a time when towns near the interstate highways weren't all built up with Wal-Marts and McDonald's.  And they are disappearing - Arizona recently announced it is closing its rest areas to save the state money. 
Yet, when I saw my sister during our Iowa visit, she echoed my mother’s concern. “Don’t ever stop at rest areas,” she warned. “People disappear.”
“Really?” I asked her. “What happens to them?”
“I don’t know,” she replied in a hushed voice.
I don’t either. We exchanged greetings with other travelers. We did see one car with Oklahoma license plates that had been painted with the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (why would you do that?) and countless strangers smiled at our beagle, who always steals the show.
I don't feel any more endangered at a rest area than I do at, say, a shopping mall or an airport. They SAY bad things can happen there, too.
And on our rest area tour, we had no close calls, no scary encounters, no 911-moments, except for these: that cheap tissue-paper toilet paper that tears when you try to pull it, and one unforgiving vending machine that took our dollar and kept our Sweet Tarts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The adventure continues

This is it. The end of my writer’s block. Oh, I’ve been writing for the past two weeks, but none of it ended up here, on this blog.
But it’s been a tumultuous two weeks, and each time I sat down in front of my computer to write about it, I drew a blank.
How does a writer write when she’s dealing with a seemingly never-ending stream of e-mails and letters informing her that her services are no longer needed?
It’s kind of strange – you would think that if I had more time to devote to the blog and I needed less time for work that pays me, I could sit all day, expounding on all sorts of topics in elaborate detail.
But it doesn’t work that way. With each announcement, accompanied by predictable explanations that include the words “monetary concerns,” “cutbacks,” and to put a little spin on it, “transformation,” and the usual platitudes like “I hope we can work together again some time,” and “we loved your work,” I got more frustrated.
More frustration? Less productivity.
Since I started working full-time as a freelance writer, life has been unpredictable but enjoyable. One job would end and another would begin. Several provided steady, reliable paychecks, something that’s really unusual in the freelance world. And I supplemented our income with strange little jobs – the kind I would have thought about in whimsical terms (“I could be a …”) but never pursued when I had a full-time job.
But about six months ago, everything started falling apart, and in the last month, my schedule really began to deteriorate. I started hearing from colleagues who were also supporting themselves freelancing, and their experiences were the same.
I shouldn’t be surprised – one of my long-term projects had to do with cars and newspapers (couldn’t see that coming!) Another one was a dream job with a promising future, but when the owners sold out, the giant conglomerate that took over obliterated the local content.
And so on and so forth.
I’ve gotten used to living month-to-month, not knowing what’s coming up. It’s an exciting life. Adventurous, even.  The dictionary defines “adventure” as “an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks.” Dangerous? I’m not sure of that. Risky? Perhaps. There are inherent risks in not having a reliable income.
But it is an adventure, nonetheless.
Right now, one of my friends is in the midst of a three-month adventure, traveling though China, Bali, Australia and New Zealand. I know another woman who is moving to Helsinki, Finland, because of her husband’s new State Department job.
I don’t have any travel or relocation plans in my future, but, like them, I have the thrill of not knowing what will come next. My life will continue to be an adventure

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Alzheimer's lesson

I told my dad on the phone that we had a bear visit our deck last week. It had snowed and I left our bird feeder out overnight. In the morning, surprisingly large bear footprints were framed by the slushy snow.
I laughed as I told the story. I knew we weren't in danger. I knew I could prevent further visits by doing what I should have done that night - not offering any more midnight snacks.
Dad listened carefully. Then, five hours later, he called me back. He was upset. He just couldn't shake the image of a bear threatening us. “Are you safe?” he asked. “Can you do anything to make sure nothing happens?”
We’ve lived in the Colorado mountains for more than 20 years, and we’ve entertained my parents many times with stories about the wildlife that visits our yard – deer, bear, raccoons, a bobcat, foxes, and in the first few years, an elk herd that has since moved on.
My dad was always interested and amused by our tales about the bear we caught clutching a PopTart wrapper in our garage; the deer that stood down our beagle, the fox who trotted up to us with a pillaged hotdog in his mouth.
But this time, there was no laughter; only fear.
My dad has Alzheimer’s. Most days, he keeps it at bay. He loves to talk about politics and sports and the economy. He jokes with my mom and volunteers at a local nursing home and plays a mean game of Gin Rummy.
The disease is hardly recognizable most of the time. But when something worries him, it consumes him. My story about a bear was something he couldn’t let go even though he couldn’t do anything about it; and ultimately, because he couldn’t do anything about it.
So he called me back. “I’m sorry to bother you. But I’m just worried about you,” he admitted. “I know,” I said. “And I appreciate it.”
The next day, I called my parents in the morning. “The bear hasn’t been back,” I reported. “I don’t think you have to worry anymore.”
“That’s good,” my dad said, noticeable relief in his voice. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Alzheimer's is erasing parts of my dad, day by day, but one thing that hasn’t vanished yet is his ability to love and desire to take care of his family. If that love comes through as worry, that’s OK.