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Friday, Aug 29, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Memories of Ronstadt, and a dreadful disease

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The scene was old Tampa Stadium on May 31, 1975. I was among the many thousands who gathered for one of those big megashow concerts that began in the warm afternoon and lasted well into the night.

The Eagles were there.

The Charlie Daniels Band.

Seals & Crofts.

And a rising singer named Linda Ronstadt.

Even against a lineup that were some of the top bands of the day, her powerful voice and performance was a lasting memory from that show. She was the bright young star with a future that seemed limitless.

Maybe that’s why it was an extra jolt when the news came out the other day that Parkinson’s disease has robbed Ronstadt of her ability to sing. It will surely steal other parts of her life as well, because that disease is a monster.

I watched it destroy my Aunt Ruth. She was a vibrant lady, always active and aware. She was also roughly the same age as Ronstadt, who is 67, when she was diagnosed. Doctors told my aunt she would die of something else long before Parkinson’s reached its full fury inside her body, but they were wrong. Within two years, she had constant, uncontrolled shaking. Soon, she could barely walk.

Her speech became slurred and difficult to understand. She begged for any relief from this horror, but there was none. She died in a nursing home, and I know she would have preferred almost any fate besides that.

There are better medications now to fight this disease than when my aunt faced it, but there still is no cure. Hopefully, they will help Linda Ronstadt and others facing the same challenge, but the progress is agonizingly slow.

Researchers at the University of South Florida and many other places have been working on this for decades, but they can’t even say for sure what causes it, let alone how to cure it.

The Mayo Clinic’s web site says genes and heredity could have something to do with it, or environmental toxins. It basically remains a mystery, though, and it is exasperating.

We can say the same about too many other diseases. For all of the advances we have made, something like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease – comes along and turns life upside down for so many. Alzheimer’s is maddening. The cure rates for certain cancers and viruses remains frustratingly low.

Actor Michael J. Fox is one of the best-known faces of Parkinson’s. During an appearance a few years ago at a golf tournament in Tampa, he talked about the reality of living with a disease like this.

“Once you accept it, it doesn’t mean you’re resigned to it. It means you’ve acknowledged what it is, it’s a fact in your life, and it’s not going anywhere,” Fox said. “Your hand is shaking and there is nothing you can do about it. Once you’ve accepted it, you can make decisions going forward.”

For the rest of us, that means accepting that the only way to hear Linda Ronstadt’s music now is through tapes, records or iTunes – or in the memory of a warm spring day a long time ago.

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