She was born in the shadows of poverty, separated from her mother early in life, left for weeks at a time in conditions of abusive neglect by a traveling father and living a life unimaginable to most of us by the age of 5.
With her brother, she was adopted by a Mennonite couple with a son of their own who were active in church and community. When Cindy was a teen, her parents felt called to become missionaries in South America, building schools, clinics and churches deep in the mountains, driving often-repaired 4WDs over jungle “roads”, then often ferrying loads on their backs for mile further uphill to begin their work, all while teaching basic hygiene, nutrition, child care and English.
Cindy thrived in the jungle, surrounded by life and a new culture. She and her brothers explored the surrounding countryside and participated in all the functions and missions of the community.
The struggle between the Sandanistas and the Samosa government brought an end to the mission, in 1979, and Cindy and her family were forced to flee the country in the outbreak of violence. She and her brother went to Costa Rica, where they finished school and graduated with a class of missionary children.
Back in the United States, Cindy worked as a nurse’s aide for the summer, taking extra and double shifts whenever needed, riding a bicycle to and from work, catching a ride from her father when conditions were just too rough, and still managing to do her share of household chores and survive having not one but two brothers.
In the fall, she went south to the little town of Harrisonburg, in the heart of the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley; an old Southern city complete with Masonic Temple, picturesque courthouse, farmer’s market and town square, suffering from the growing pangs of becoming a university support system for two thriving schools.
Those schools were James Madison University and Cindy’s new home- Eastern Mennonite College (which would later become Eastern Mennonite University). Horses and buggies could still be see on a daily basis on the roads, and hitched to well-worn racks and posts outside grocery stores, farm implement shops and stock sales. Small groups of polite children rode bikes along the back roads and their humorous, plainspoken parents worked in the fields and the local stores, while New Wave and debates over the Reagan era dominated most of the rest of the world.
Here, Cindy met her future husband. The two of them dropped out of school to marry, disco went the way of the dodo and Ronald Reagan waved from the nation's saddle.
Cindy’s first child, her daughter Rebecca, was born five years later, in 1986, her son Andrew in 1989. Both children were (and still are) beautiful, healthy, intelligent and curious and sweet.
But while her life appeared on track with The American Dream, all was not well in Cindy‘s world.
Her relationship with her spouse had grown and changed, as many early marriages do. Her health was failing, the result of a lifetime of hard work above and beyond the call of duty, including work as a nurse, a firefighter, an EMT, a caterer, and the full-time demands of being a mother of two with an attendant group of neighborhood friends whose numbers ranged from two to a dozen.
On the spiritual side of her life, her church was on the verge of splintering along political and philosophical lines just when she most needed the support of her faith and many of her friends were suddenly silent strangers.
After years of silently enduring agony in her back and knees, and suffering splintering migraines, Cindy finally pushed herself beyond the ability of the flesh to accommodate even the strongest of wills.
In December of 2001, she suffered what turned out to be a stroke and was admitted to Rockingham Memorial Hospital.
She could not see without double vision. She could not communicate coherently, although she "felt like everything (she) said was perfectly clear". She was paralyzed down her right side and could not walk; not at all to start with, then only with two canes.
Nonetheless, three weeks later, she prepared for Christmas, including dinner, as she always had.
In March of 2002, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system. In layman's terms, her body was attacking itself, and the resulting half-dollar-sized lesion on her brain stem had caused the stroke. She was immediately prescribed a dozen pharmaceutical medications to deal with the MS, while simultaneously recovering from the stroke it had caused with more medications and physical therapy.
The strain of the rehabilitation worsened her already chronic back pain to the point of agony, and then the system simply failed. In January of 2004, she underwent reconstructive back surgery, in which her spine was reinforced with titanium rods and plates. Eight weeks later, she was walking; no longer using a walker, relying instead on two canes, sometimes only one.
Most people would have, by this point, surrendered to self-pity and a victim mentality, content to simply collect a disability check and slowly degenerate into a cripple.
Cindy is not most people.
To begin paying down the enormous medical bills and help support her family, she began part-time work at the Ottobein Grocery Store. Unfortunately, there were complications with the reconstructive materials used in her back, and in April of 2005, she underwent another surgery, wherein she was first opened along the original incision, along her spine, then rolled over and quite literally disemboweled, to allow access to the inside of her spine and pelvic girdle.
The second surgery took a much greater toll on Cindy, as you may imagine.
It took her two weeks longer to revert from using a walker to just a cane. Ten weeks total, from reconstruction to relative freedom of movement, all the while on meds for both the back surgery and the MS. During this period, Cindy and her family moved to Bridgewater, Virginia, a small farming and college town closer to the services she would require to deal with her MS.
By March of 2006, she was back at work, this time as Administrative Assistant at US Training and Development, a security training and operations center in the Shenandoah Valley.
In May of 2006, she underwent another surgery for a torn meniscus of the right knee. In six weeks, she was back on her feet. For the next year, she worked at US Training, keeping track of operations and personnel, raising a family, and trying to hold her life and marriage together.
In May of 2007, at the urging of her husband, she left that job to become a Volunteer Center host for Habitat for Humanity in Pendleton County, West Virginia's beautiful Germany Valley, near Cherry Grove.
In August of 2007, despite all her efforts and her continuing illness, her marriage dissolved. Alone and undaunted, Cindy continued to work as a Volunteer Center hostess, handling groups of 40-100 kids and adults who came from across the country to participate in HFH's volunteer building program; introducing them to the people, culture, and natural beauty of West Virginia.
I met Cindy in January of 2008, having just ended four long, frustrating years as a carpenter, foreman, and superintendent for a design-build general contractor in Louisa, Virginia, where I had help build or overseen the construction of theaters, restaurants, and multi-million dollar houses.
It wasn't love at first sight... but it was as close as you can get.
At the time, I was living in the basement of the old Smoke Hole Assembly of God Church in Smoke Hole Canyon, one of the lost and often-overlooked corners of West Virginia; putting up new climbs, hiking old logging roads, and searching for some meaning in my life. After four years of building un-needed things for unappreciative people with too much money and no souls, I hoped that Habitat would let me use a lifetime of carpentry skills to actually help those in need.
When Cindy walked into the very first staff meeting of my first week at Habitat, it felt as if the entire world stopped breathing for a second.
I know I did.
By February, we were seeing each other on a regular basis, as I attempted to knock out a year-long backlog of repairs, warrantee issues and improvements needed both at the center and at the assorted houses Habitat's volunteers had constructed over the previous year.
Unfortunately, as is true with so many non-profit organizations, especially on the local level, corruption and office politics ran rife through Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity of Franklin, West Virginia, our home office.
When I challenged the Executive Director's delusions of control over the operation by insisting that construction should meet the specs of the National Building Code from foundations to shingles, the National Building Code manuals mysteriously disappeared from the offices, both central and field.
When I held my ground that building costs be accurately determined instead of simply ballpark estimates, this Director simply pulled out estimated costs from the year before and submitted them behind my back.
At the same time, she re-hired a previous construction manager, fired for incompetence and under investigation by the SCC as well as intensely disliked by almost all of the volunteer groups with which he had worked.
The final straw came when I insisted that the construction crews were my responsibility and thus under my control, as well as questioning why one of the highest income families in the county (the director's husband worked for Habitat as well, as Financial Director) lived in a Habitat house. On Valentine's Day of 2008, I was summoned to a joint meeting with the Director and the chairman of the Board.
After a half hour in which she stumbled over her excuses and reasons, searched in vain for emails to prove my insubordination, and finally flew into a red-faced rage at my calm acceptance and thinly-veiled amusement, I was summarily dismissed... less than 24 hours after the Director assured Cindy that "(she had) no intention of firing" me. When I refused to surrender my phone before deleting the phone numbers of my family, I was threatened with arrest, which was hilarious coming from someone who had been investigated by WV Child Protective Services, as well as having herself been arrested for assault in a domestic dispute (Michelle, the Director in question, had left her previous husband after meeting and seducing a young priest-to-be on an AmeriCorps trip, and it was during this break-up, when she had used Habitat housing to carry on her affair, that she had struck her husband with a coat hanger and wound up in jail).
Eventually, this tempest in a teacup finally passed. The Director realized that she really had no power over anyone more well-informed than herself who was not afriad to write letters and make phone calls, especially someone who knew where one or two bodies were buried, so to speak. Cindy and I joined the Lambert Hilltop Park Association, the group that actually owned the Volunteer Center and the land it was on. One of our first moves upon joining was to attend a meeting at which we convinced the Association NOT to give the Center to Habitat, as well as revealiong a bit about what went on "behind the scenes" and urging them to refuse to renew the lease when it expired in 2014.
There's more than one way to skin a corrupt non-profit, as you will see.
In July of that same year, Cindy resigned as Volunteer Center Host, on camera, at a Board Meeting, in which she read a three-page summary of the corruption and unresolved issues of this troubled branch of an otherwise noble cause. The Director and Board accepted this with seeming equanimity. Of course, they had no way of knowing that, minutes before the meeting, Cindy had mailed copies of this speech to every organization that she had encountered during the previous year.
When she finally learned of this uncontrolled information dispersal, the Director, quite simply, came unglued. She confiscated every available copy of the letter, and launched a spin-control letter of her own, which most of the organizations saw for the damage control that it was.
In the following years, this branch of Habitat was sued repeatedly, and lost seven court cases for nearly $1,000,000 in fines and restitutions. At present, there are other lawsuits pending, many groups have disassociated themselves from this particular Habitat, their lawyer has resigned, and warrantee work on the poorly-constructed houses still remains in limbo.
The same Director is still in charge. Her husband is still Director of Finances. And they are still living in a Habitat house while making more money than anyone else in town, including the magistrate and most of the realtors.
This sort of corruption shackles the people of this region just as surely as the stereotypes and prejudices of visitors.
Cindy and I went on to explore the mountains and forests of Germany and Pendleton Valleys. I taught her to climb, and she reminded me how to laugh. We fell so very deeply in love and she moved into the apartment upstairs from mine in the old church.
We spent the next two years exploring Smoke Hole Canyon and the North Fork Mountain. On the cliffs and boulders of that magical place, Cindy was transformed; from curious beginner to an experienced climber with an avid appetite for sport, trad, and multi-pitch climbing. She worked through the inevitable pain that followed every day of climbing, learning to focus beyond the electrical shock feeling that came with any use of her hands on many days, finding her balance and morphing from catepillar to a beautiful butterfly before my very eyes. Her general health and mental attitude improved, as her endurance increased and her belief in herself was reaffirmed again and again.
But the medicines which she took on a regular basis affected her mentally and physically. She suffered from bouts of depression and self-doubt, as well as disorientation and lack of energy. It was after a particularly bad period that ended in a trip across the mountains to stay in the hospital that I introduced her to cannabis as an alternative to the many experimental drugs and addictive narcotics whose side effects Cindy had endured for so many years.
Some of you may wonder why I would take the risk of admitting to usage of a control substance.
To be honest, neither I nor my wife couldn't give a hoot in Hell about the law or anyone else's moral judgement when either one as stems from racism, corruption, or ignorance.
Having a badge is no proof against being wrong.
Cannabis and hemp laws are a product of all three; created to protect industrial timber and petroleum and cotton interests as well as preventing the intermingling of white kids with "lesser races", these laws now feed a soulless, multi-billion dollar rehabilitation and private incarceration industry, as well as pulling in millions of dollars for police unions and drug prevention programs that do little or nothing to keep kids off the pain meds they typically find in their Prohibitionist parents' medicine cabinets. As many as 17 people die every day from the "medications" dispensed by revolving door pain clinics in Florida and other parts of the south, but the raids continue to focus on cannabis, which has NO recorded fatalities, ever, from simple ingestion or inhalation.
Those who may judge have never walked the Road on which we travel, and this is my wife, for whom I would gladly lay down my life or spend the rest of it in prison. All other considerations are tangential to that fact. Cindy has said that if arrest and incarceration is the only way to bring home the point of the tens of thousands of sick people and veterans who are harassed, forced to venture into the black market, arrested, and in some cases killed, then so be it. Ours will be another story of the police going after a victimless crime, while the narcotics and meth market thrives around them, and sex offenders walk the streets.
The changes did not come overnight... but they did begin. Over the course of the next two years, Cindy gradually weaned herself off meds that cost the taxpayers $2500-3000 per month (she was by now on social Security Disabilty); drugs that would have destroyed the function of her liver and kidneys, as well as posing the risk for brain tumors and other unknown side effects. She lost weight, gained muscle tone and mental clarity, experienced fewer spasms and seizures, less day-to-day pain, and more quality of life in general.
For those of you who will now mount your lectern and pontificate about "welfare recipients buying dope with government money", remember that this is a woman who held a number of high paying jobs during her life, and who paid into the system many times over. Consider, as well, that I, her husband, could claim disability due to the condition of my back and neck, but continue to work, after paying over $30,000 into Social Security during the last 35 years in construction, food service, and concert rigging, moneys I do not intend to collect and will in fact never see, since they are being poured out into the pockets of the new Obamacare horde.
One of America's science fiction greats, I think it was Asimov or Heinlein, once wrote a story in which citizens who could design an automated system to do their job were paid the equivalent of one year's pay for designing that system. If Cindy can save the system $3,000 every month in medicines, as well as avoiding the costs of the routine check-ups to see, not if but how fast her kidneys and liver were failing under the impact of all those meds, while avoiding the inevitable hospitalization from organ failure, doesn't she deserve the choice to instead use $500 of natural medicines to keep herself healthy, functional and engaged? If you believe she does not, I invite you to give a coherent argument to defend your view in the comments section following this article.
After the winter of 2010/11 brought 28 straight days of precipitation and dropped over six feet of snow on the canyon, we decided to move someplace closer to medical services and civilization, such of it as may be found in the backwoods and small towns of West Virginia's Panhandle. But we would never forget those amazing days and nights of discovery and wonder, love and laughter, shared triumphs and sorrows and life, there in that amazing place we had called home; Smoke Hole Canyon.
With little or no work for me (I routinely drove 2 hours or more to Virginia to do tree work or such labor as I could find), and only $1100 dollars a month coming in from her SSDI, we moved into a decrepit apartment, little more than a slum, really, in downtown Petersburg, WV. Cindy could make a home from a refrigerator box, and soon our little nest was as cozy as any fallen-down, century old building could be.
From the beginnings, there were problems, as we swam counter to the notions of Petersburg's entrenched "gentry"; racists and' crackers, corrupt cops and crooked businessmen and -women with a highly overblown sense of their own importance in this tiny fishbowl of a town which had not changed significantly since the Civil War.
One of our only allies during this period was Darlene Casto, the lovely, laughing, warm-hearted lady who ran Buelah Land, a floral and gift shop beside our building. Darlene is a descendant of the Ours family, one of the families that settled Germany Valley, and her memories and family history reach back to the beginning of the 20th century and beyond. Some of the only bright days we had during the struggles of this period were spent sitting in comfortable old chairs amid the amazing displays and enticing smells of her shop, talking and laughing.
When Lois Grove, the slumlord owner of the building, tried to evict us after repeatedly entering our apartment without permission or prior consent, lying to us about her right to do so, and harassing Cindy over paying an electrical bill that was not her responsibility, we countered her action with a $20,000 lawsuit. When her lackeys showed up to continue the harrassment, they found that not only did this child of the Ohio streets have a will of iron, she had a rather large dog named Michael. The electrician Lois had hired to prove her assertions that Cindy was cheating her out of an electrical bill payment instead gave evidence in court that the building was badly wired to the point of being dangerous, while Lois had her employees there to commit perjury regarding statements they had made to the same effect. Had Cindy elected to pursue the case, we could, no doubt, have won... eventually.
But life is too short to waste on stupid people. A decade had passed since Cindy's original diagnosis of MS. Ten years is generally viewed as the "golden time" between diagnosis and deterioration with MS patients, and Cindy had too much living left to do. She had never seen the Pacific Ocean, never been to the Rocky Mountains, could not remember the Grand Canyon and had never seen the towering majesty of Yosemite or the amazing shores and forested mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
After winnowing our apartment of possessions down to a single truckload and dropping the court case, we bid farewell to Darlene and our few local friends and left Petersburg; living out of an S10 pickup truck and a tent for several months as I began to sketch the outline for a climbing guidebook to Smoke Hole Canyon; climbing and swimming with friends, hiking and exploring the few remaining corners of Pendleton County and Germany Valley before finally heading west in July of 2011.
In Colorado, hopes of work and a place to stay fell to dust, and we spent a month slowly starving in the mountains of the Sangre de Cristos. Through it all, Cindy never lost her smile, her faith, and her ability to find a ray of sun on even the darkest of days.
We left for Flagstaff, Arizona on August 4th, 2011. They told us there that we would never find work, never find a place we could afford, never amount to anything.
It was nothing we hadn't heard before.
Two weeks later, I started a new job, we moved into a new apartment, and on August 16th, 2011, we were married in the Chapel of the Holy Dove, a tiny building in the mountains between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. With the wages from my job, we started a breakfast program for the city's needy and homeless; fixing up to 40 breakfast burritos at a time on a tiny hotplate in the microscopic apartment kitchen where we lived, handing them out to people in the city's parks and shelters.
In December, I began working at the Flagstaff Family Food Center, a local outreach that provided hot meals to as many as 300 homeless, needy, and working-class families every day, as well as delivering 50 meals to the local mean's shelter, making donations of clothing available to those without, and providing a safe place to learn and study for the children of those we fed. Cindy volunteered in the kitchen, where her laughter and wide-ranging experiences privded a welcome break from the routine stresses of everyday operations.
In April of 2012, we returned to the East Coast, driving 2000 miles from Joshua Tree National Park to Harrisonburg, Virginia in 72 hours to tend to family matters, sort our remaining possessions, and see old friends. We stayed in the houses of friends and family, and and returned to the forests, camping once again in Smoke Hole Canyon. Three weeks after we arrived, we learned that Cindy's daughter Rebecca was pregnant with her first child, our first grandchild.
On May 4, we proudly watched as Becca was pinned after completing the first Eastern West Virginia Community College Nursing class for RN certification.
On May 11, we set out for Ohio, to see Cindy's Dad after a double-bypass heart surgery. While she was truly glad to spend time with her father, the atmosphere there was still too strained for us to be truly comfortable. Despite our marriage and my months of working as many as three jobs, Cindy's parents have never really accepted me. She said her good-byes to her Father and Ohio, and we left the next day.
On Friday, May 13th, we reached Colorado Springs, 48 hours after setting out from the East Coast.
I have written all this in introduction to a lady I truly feel to be one of the most unique human beings with whom I have had the honor of sharing time and space.
That is no exaggeration… Cindy defies the need for invention or exaggeration. She takes life as it comes, as best she can, she deals with what is. She dreams of tomorrow and she does her best to live those dreams. Her hand and her mind are both open, as is, frequently, her mouth, especially when she sees stupidity, inequality, or injustice. She is quick to laugh and always ready to help.
We could all take a lesson from Cindy, and I hope you will take time to read her blog, Living Outside the Box, and to look at (and maybe even buy) some of the handmade jewelry she offers on her Facebook page, Owl Feather Productions.
In her life, through trials and sickness and sorrow, Cindy Gray has accomplished things that many born of privilege and surrounded by opportunity have not dared; she has overcome the kinds of adversity that make legends and heroes and heroines of simple decent humans caught in the inexorable tide of tragedy.