Nov 20, 2005

Chapter 25

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948

Cecil's world

We lost Cecil.

A neighbor called, saying he drove by and saw that the lights were off. That never happened before. Cecil had an obsession about light and dark. He always left all the lights on, day and night. All the lights. The porch light, the barn lights, the lights in every room of the house. The whole place was always lit up like an ocean liner crossing the fields.

Now, it was in complete darkness.

The kitchen door was not only unlocked, it was swinging in the wind. The dog was whining in a corner. The horses were out in the field; he normally put them in the barn at night.

His gun rack was empty. There was an ominous note in it, saying, "I buried my guns in the ground."

There was no one in the barn. No one answered from the darkness of the fields and forests when his name was called.

The search began with flashlights; and almost immediately, something unusual was found; from the back of the barn, across the field, and into the forest, there was a fresh, rough trail. It was if horses had gone back and forth, dragging something.

More flashlights were brought. The trail seemed to go on forever, deeper and deeper into the forest. Those who have wandered the forests at night will know what it's like; rocks and swampy areas and fallen tree trunks, underbrush and uneven terrain; and impenetrable darkness on all sides. The forest was so thick and the pathway so feebly traced, it was impassable to All Terrain Vehicles.

The path went on for about 3000 feet. That's a very long way in the forest at night. It led to a place where there was a clearing beside the stream. Cecil had long talked about building a cabin there. He wanted to live and die there in peace. Without electricity or telephone; hunting and fishing. And he could rent out the farmhouse to get some income; as he had no job.

But it was a green zone, so he could not get a building permit for that, or for anything else, even though he owned the property and lived there. His application to the authorities to live and die the way he wanted on his own land was refused, without a hearing, without a right to appeal.

The trail led to that spot. It appeared that he had dragged lumber from the barn, with harnesses on one or both horses, and the ends of the boards dragging on the ground. In the clearing, he had built a wooden platform, several feet above the ground. Like a deck in a suburban backyard.

He was lying on top of the deck, in the middle of the clearing, facing the sky, and he was dead.

Cecil had taught us all about Being Hank Williams.

Cecil also taught us about Being Lenny Bruce.

But he never taught us about Being Cecil.

He lived alone in a farmhouse near the end of a dirt road. He had lost his job as a roofer because Parkinson’s took away his sense of balance.

His wife had left him and took the children with her, some years ago.

He taught a 10 year old boy from a neighboring farm to ride a horse. The two of them could be seen riding fast through the fields.

Which is especially interesting, because Cecil could ride a horse without falling off. He could ride a horse when he could not walk.

He could roll a cigarette without shaking, at times when he could not hold a spoon to feed himself.

His friend, David, had died of Parkinson’s years before.

Cecil viewed Parkinson’s as an intelligent alien predator, and he thought we should hunt it down and blow it away.

Winters were a nightmare for him. He usually could not shovel snow. The cold made him tremble violently and painfully. He would almost set the house on fire struggling to put wood in the stove. He could no longer use a chainsaw. He made a 50/50 deal with a neighbour. His trees, his saw, neighbour’s labour; share the firewood 50/50.

He closed off the upstairs and part of the downstairs with plastic sheets to conserve heat. The only rooms he inhabited were the living room, the kitchen and the bathroom. He was not a good housekeeper.

He slept on a mattress on the floor of the living room. In the mornings, he could not stand up. So he would roll off the mattress onto the floor, and then he would partly crawl, partly roll, to the bathroom, and then to the kitchen.

In earlier stages of the disease, he could get up and move around about an hour after waking, using first a walker, and later in the day, only a cane, after doing some exercises, being Hank Williams for awhile, and swallowing industrial quantities of brain-altering pharmaceuticals.

But as time went on, he had to crawl on the floor for a longer and longer period of time before he was able to stand up. In summer, he would crawl outdoors and roll down the hill. He would go and pick up apples off the ground, from the apple trees on the other side of the field, put the apples in a rucksack and crawl back to the house. He maintained a vegetable garden every summer, crawling up and down the rows. The right position, he said, for weeding. He said things look different from a ground level.

He had a poster on the kitchen wall showing his favorite painting. It was Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth. On the wall beside the painting, he had scotch-taped the following:

“Anna Christina Olson (1893-1968) was a lifelong resident of the farm pictured in Christina's World. She had a degenerative muscular disorder that was never diagnosed, that took away her ability to walk by the late 1920s. Eschewing a wheelchair, she crawled around the house and grounds. Wyeth said that he first did the complete painting except for the colour of her dress. When he put on the first daub of pink, he said it blew him across the room.”

Cecil said it blew him across the room too.

Cecil was a pioneer, at least to us, in fighting Parkinson’s with music and laughter.

Hank Williams and Lenny Bruce rushed to the Pearly Gates to greet their biggest fan.

Cecil was a good man. He is gone now.

But his spirit lives on and on.

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