Friday, March 17, 2006

COUSIN KEITH


















His twisted body lurched forward
in a determined jerking motion,
a rhythm of step, drag, step, drag,
one braced leg following the other,
arms swinging widely
as part of an effortful and
delicate balancing act.

Face taut,
mouth drawn up,
eyes concentrating,
he determinedly focused
on the act of moving forward--
it cannot be called walking--
on his own two feet.

One got the sense that
everything others do easily,
mindlessly, has been
a major challenge for Keith
for sixty-four years

Deliberately
he fed himself.
Painstakingly
he shaved his face.
Haltingly
he dressed each day.
With furrow-browed attention
Keith negotiated all actions of which
Most think nothing.

And so he talked slowly,
wide-mouthed,
syllables forming ever so gradually
that one anticipated where
the sentence was going
and was impatiently tempted to
finish it for him.

But one learned to let Keith
finish his own sentences,
to complete his queries when possible.
It made a difference
in his eyes—whether they
shined into you
or turned greyly away.

Encased in this twisted body
was a sharp mind
and a sensitive heart.
Though halting,
his words were piercingly perceptive,
honed more pointedly by their
necessary economy.

No one could joke and laugh
with more abandon than Keith.
No one could be more frustrated
with his pervasive condition than Keith.
At times
he would convey mild embarrassment,
at others,
sheer agony would cloud his eyes.
Through it all,
he personified a dignity far beyond
the grip of cerebral palsy.

Keith lived beyond
the expectations of us all.
And now he rests
from the work of living,
from the labored effort
to speak, to move,
to give, to be,
preceding his cousins in
crossing from life to death,
or from death to life.

My cousin, Keith Sheffield, died in March 2001. He lived among us for 64 years. Keith, who lived with cerebral palsy, was the first of thirteen grandchildren of Willie Robert and Laura Mae Sheffield to die. I was privileged to join other Sheffield family cousins to bear his pall to a Cincinnati, Ohio gravesite. I wrote this piece in an attempt to memorialize him and to pay tribute to all who show the world how to live through severe disabilities.

Photo: The 13 Sheffield grandchildren (plus one now ex-spouse of a grandchild). Keith, the oldest cousin, is first on the right in this 197o photo. Me? I'm in the orange shirt in the middle.

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