Angels Talking: Cecelia’s Story

Cecelia Henry has been writing stories since she was 9 years old. She writes most of them in pencil on loose-leaf paper at a small desk in the kitchen of the group home she shares with five other disabled adults. Her eyesight is poor, so often she cannot read her faint print. The stories fill up a ring binder titled Amazing Stories. There are stacks of stories in her bedroom, drawers full of them at her mother’s house and still more stored on a shared computer. She’s written poems, too, that often deal with spiritual subjects. But her stories reveal a mischievous side – with invented tales about people she knows and places she’s imagined.

“I write stories so I don’t get bored,” she told me one afternoon. And then she laughed. “I got hundreds.”
Here’s one about her graduation day from high school and a trip she imagines with her mother: “She will take me to Alaska,” Cecelia says, reading from the computer screen.

“Is that far?” she asks.

“Yes, you’ll have to take a plane,” I say.

One of her housemates laughs at that. He can’t explain what he finds so funny because he doesn’t speak, but Cecelia gets the joke and laughs too.

There are stories about dreams and fancy dresses. About love and loss. And burglars in the night. And some about her mother. This one, from Amazing Stories, isn’t so funny: “I miss my mom. She was in the house cooking. She looked out the window and saw a girl that looked like me so my mom said there is Cecelia. I never meant to give her away. She has a special love for her mom and dad.”

Cecelia provides a few details of her early life. She remembers that she once had curly hair. There was a time when she couldn’t walk. She had a brother who died and she was in a coma. Her mother, Diane Johns, fills in the rest. Cecelia did have a baby brother. His name was Robbie Henry Jr., or “Little Man” for short. One cold, icy morning, January 7, 1977, Diane was driving Cecelia and “Little Man” to her mother’s house. She was almost there when another car hit hers and she landed in a ravine. Diane’s family buried “Little Man” while Diane was in the hospital and it was only after she had recovered from head injuries that Cecelia’s father told her that their baby boy was dead and their 6-year-old daughter was in a coma, dying. The months passed. The doctors operated on Cecelia, but she was still in a coma – her eyes wide and blinking. After six months they concluded that there was nothing else they could do. They made arrangements to place her in a rehabilitation hospital for children and told Diane that her daughter would be a vegetable. “If you can bear to see her, you can go see her, but you’re young. You may want to just go on with your life and do what you have to do,” Diane says, recalling the doctors’ words. “And I told them, ‘No. I’m not going to do that. And I’m taking her home.’”

Diane and Cecelia’s father filled Cecelia’s room with stuffed animals, fed her through a tube and talked to her. “You need to come on back to me, Boo,” Diane would tell her. One day, a month after she came home, Cecelia’s father was shaking a stuffed bear with a bell around its neck and singing to her. “Give it to me,” Cecelia said, proving the doctors wrong. Six months later, she walked. Six months after that she went back to school. Eventually, Diane and Cecelia’s father divorced and Diane bought a house west of town in what was then the countryside. She wanted safety and quiet for her daughter. Cecelia finished school and enrolled at the Enrichment Center, an arts-based program for disabled children and adults. Diane remarried. And Cecelia wrote. As Diane tells the story, Cecelia was nearly 30 when she started talking about moving away from home. She had friends, other disabled adults, who lived on their own or in a group home. She wanted that life too. Her mother wasn’t so sure, but Cecelia’s stepfather, Adolph Johns, says that over time he persuaded Diane that Cecelia needed a life of her own. She moved into the group home on Independence Road in 2001.

Cecelia writes at least three times a week, with Sharon, the group home manager, and Gloria, the overnight manager, figuring heavily in her work. Cecelia imagines adventures for both of them. “Sharon saw a frog in her pond and she screamed and woke her father from his nap and he said, ‘Sharon, if you married a king he will take good care of you and will take you to his castle and cook a good meal for you.’” The story goes on to tell about Sharon’s life with a king for a husband, which makes perfect sense, especially if you find frogs frightening, the way Cecelia does.

Cecelia says that she likes it when people read her work. Her poems have been published in anthologies of work by students at the Enrichment Center. She wants that and more for her amazing stories. “I want to publish a book so that you can buy my book and enjoy my stories.”

Phoebe Zerwick, October 2013