Denise Oakley listens as her husband Corby plays one of his guitars in their Innisfail home this week.

Corby Oakley: The power of music

Forty-one-year-old Corby Oakley is riding an “unstoppable train.” The Innisfail resident has a rare form of early-onset dementia for which there’s no treatment or cure. He had to quit working for an oilfield company since being diagnosed last fall with a condition that’s obliterating his short-term memory. Over the last 12 months, he started to stutter and take forgetful pauses. He also stumbles from dizziness when he walks.

Forty-one-year-old Corby Oakley is riding an “unstoppable train.”

The Innisfail resident has a rare form of early-onset dementia for which there’s no treatment or cure.

He had to quit working for an oilfield company since being diagnosed last fall with a condition that’s obliterating his short-term memory. Over the last 12 months, he started to stutter and take forgetful pauses. He also stumbles from dizziness when he walks.

But whenever Oakley sits down to sing with his guitar, he’s the same guy he ever was — the same gifted musician his wife fell in love with when they were both junior high students in Red Deer.

Oakley doesn’t stumble over lyrics when he sings ZZ Top, Collective Soul or Green Day songs with his pitch-perfect rock voice.

And he doesn’t miss a note when he fluidly plays his electric guitar — as many Red Deer farmer’s market patrons will have noticed when they passed Oakley, who was busking last summer in his wheelchair across from the antiques stall.

“I’m starting to lose some words … but the music comes with muscle memory,” explained Oakley, who spent two decades as a professional singer and guitarist with the Calgary-based cover band Applejax.

Along with Calgary band mates Jerry Day and Grant Mitchell, Oakley was twice invited to entertain in Hong Kong by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. The Applejax trio also backed Ronnie Prophet at the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show, and worked with such hit-makers as Buddy Knox (Party Doll), Lucille Starr (When the Sun says Goodbye to the Mountains), and renowned fiddler Al Cherney.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, “we played many high-profile corporate gigs,” said Oakley — including a decade of STARS fundraising galas in Calgary, for which the band received a 10-year recognition plaque.

But the group played its last gig in February. A few months earlier, Oakley had learned something was going seriously wrong with his brain.

He had been forgetting things, like driving to work. One day, he arrived at his job and walked away from his car without setting the brake. It rolled into another vehicle. His wife was called by his employer and took him to the hospital’s emergency department.

After a series of tests, Oakley was told he has a degenerative condition that’s killing his brain cells. Specialists believe he has either Lewy body dementia or the hereditary spinocerebellar ataxia. In both cases, the progressive conditions are irreversible and untreatable.

He had to go on long-term disability from his job as a crane operator.

Without corporate music gigs on weekends (Day and Mitchell shelved Applejax rather than continuing without Oakley who had been an integral part of the band since 1995), Oakley was left with a lot of time on his hands. To boost his spirits and allow him to continue doing what he’s always loved, his wife Denise suggested he perform as a busker at the Red Deer farmers’ market last spring and summer.

“I thought it would give him something that he’s very competent at that’s his. He’s been good at it his whole life, so he doesn’t have to doubt himself when he plays,” she said.

The idea of busking “was very scary,” said Oakley, since he wasn’t used to playing solo.

But he got a street performer’s license, purchased a battery-powered amp for his electric guitar, pulled out his binder of lyrics, and started practising in front of the Music Centre Canada shop on Little Gaetz Avenue, where his former guitar teacher Ray Repp works.

The first change he collected was $1.87 — so he put that amount into his collection jar every time he set up to play at the Saturday morning farmer’s market.

And whether it was due to this good-luck charm, or Oakley’s obvious talent, he became a big hit with market-goers, as well as neighbouring stall operators. “I started to develop a following,” he recalled.

Some vendors liked his playing so much they would hunt him down whenever he tried to move to a different location at the market. The lady from Paradise Coffee would lure him back to his regular spot, across from her booth, with free smoothies and muffins, while the hummus vendor suggested new Metallica songs for his play list.

“I looked forward to it every week. It was a friendly atmosphere and it made me want to do more and do better,” said Oakley. “I would add more songs, so they wouldn’t have to listen to the same ones all the time — and they appreciated that. They said some guys come and do four songs all day long, over and over. But I had a list of 40 songs.”

Denise remained by his side as he busked. She said she enjoyed watching her husband be transported to a carefree place. “When he closes his eyes and plays — he calls it noodling— he goes into his own world and forgets everything else.”

Oakley’s descent into dementia is admittedly harder for her to bear than it is for him. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m a complete wreck,” said Denise, who stopped working as a finance manager so she can stay home and spend more time with him.

Oakley doesn’t find his condition as upsetting, since his lack of short-term memory ensures he lives in the moment. “I can think about it right now, but in four minutes it won’t be there to think about” — whereas his wife can’t stop thinking about it.

Denise wishes they could have spent more of their lives together. As it happened, they dated as 14-year-olds at Glendale Junior High School until both of their families moved away from Red Deer. They then lost touch for a couple of decades and both forged partnerships with others that didn’t work out in the long run.

After splitting from her first husband, Denise met a mutual friend who was in touch with Oakley. In June, 2009, she sent him a Facebook message saying “do you remember me?”

Oakley never forgot her. He would think of the teenage Denise sitting on a basement deep freezer, watching him rehearse with his first band. She would dream up KISS-like costumes, and figure out how to make rock boots with seven-inch platform soles.

“She was always so supportive, always encouraging me to play,” he said. “She enjoyed my music as much as I did — which is something I did not have in any other past relationships.”

“He’s my favourite. There’s no one else I would rather listen to,” maintains Denise. “I’ve heard some songs a million times and I never get tired of listening to them. There’s just this pride. You feel it in your chest: like, that’s my boy …”

When the two junior high school sweethearts met again as adults in their mid-30s, their “second first kiss” sealed the deal, according to Oakley. They were engaged by July, and married on Sept. 9 of the same year.

Their blended family includes Denise’s two sons and Oakley’s daughter. The youngest 14-year-old son still lives with them and is coping as well as he can with Oakley’s deteriorating health.

Denise said she feels “incredibly lucky” to have found Oakley again and is trying hard to see things from his more adaptative perspective. While she would find it easy to “feel really bad” every day, Denise said she’s trying to “spin” the situation and see it instead from an angle of gratitude for the time they have had together.

“I’ve always been a make-the-best-of-it kind of guy,” said Oakley. “We saw the Lego Movie … You know the song, Everything is Awesome? We sing it every morning when we get up,” he added, “because it could always be worse …

“You’ve got to think of the positive things in life.”

The musician is looking into performing at open-mic nights at Red Deer clubs over the winter. He has also recorded a CD of original music that he wrote over the years, called Decades Ago. It’s available for $10 by calling Oakley at 587-784-3348.

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