As we leave with Freddy’s birth we come upon his rebirth. Not all Parkinson’s victims have a savior -someone powerful enough to give them new life. Through Catherine however, Freddy is, in many respects, reborn. Her will power nurtures and preserves him. At a time when he could have quickly passed she united with him closer than before and helped him adjust to a new, dark, foreign world and remain. She is a cell of immense love, energy and light. She is the keeper of his new cell. On the couch inside their camper our conversation carries on and goes deeper. She levels with me, quits with the facts and begins to express the true feelings and emotions she has tied to her husband. In these expressions and in her deep commitment to him she propagates his tale and his spirit. Like a surrogate she carries on his story and his personality with impeccable depth, accuracy and care. No one can ever replace Freddy yet she carries on his flame. True to her name Catherine is his catharsis: his release, purification, his restoration, his chance. In my pursuit to understand Freddy I never expected that one of the most compelling pieces of the story would be his wife.
Early on, when Parkinson’s first took hold, she was his backbone. “When he first started losing his ability to play guitar he did get depression”, she confides, “and he stopped wanting to get up and he was laying in bed and one morning, after about four days in a row of him just laying there, I finally went in and said, ‘Are you gonna’ get up? Are you getting up today or what?’, and he rolled over and I said, ‘You either get up out of that bed and live with me or I’m out of here’, and he rolled the cover back and when he did I didn’t even grab shoes, I didn’t grab anything. I still had on my t-shirt from the night before. I grabbed my purse and my dog and I did!”, her eyes flash, “I walked out the door. I got about a mile down the road and he called me and he said, ‘Mama, I can’t do this on my own’ and I said, ‘Are you gonna get up? And live with me?’ He said, ‘Yea’ and he got up and went back to livin’. I know that if I hadn’t done that then he maybe would have died of depression. I said, ‘No, we can still do it. We can still sing. You are still the Lord’s messenger.”‘ I see Freddy retreating under his sheets and Catherine storming out of the house with tight fists and walking across the sand in the break down lane. “Mama”, he calls her low and sweet, his caretaker and lover. She turns around immediately, knowing she walked out only to make a point. His fuel, she is his home, his heart, the light that keeps him racing inside. She lives with a conviction that could make a believer out of a man even in the most dire slumps of his time.
While Catherine carries much weight in sustaining Fred it was the two of them together that made a conscious decision to forfeit his body in order to foster his thoughts. “The only thing he retains and holds onto really well is his mind”, Catherine says fondly, “He’s sharp as a tack and that has been the struggle and one of the reasons why he is incapacitated. We refused a lot of the drugs. He took one and realized that it was messin’ with his mind and his thoughts. Then, he didn’t wana’ take it. He basically avoided doing any of the Parkinson’s drugs. Basically it was almost like we chose to give up the body to keep the mind. Due to that, mobility went down. Chances are if we did all the drugs and did everything probably by now his mind would hardly be alive but he’d have a lot of his motor skills. But because we refused a lot of heavy duty narcotics he still has the mind but he doesn’t have motor skills and the reason, of course, that he wanted to keep his mind is because he’s a songwriter and he is a singer and he didn’t want to forget his words on stage and he didn’t want to forget how to write.” Showing a religious-like respect for the craft of songwriting, Catherine and Fred Powers sacrifice his movement and limbs to protect his mind and his treasures: the love for his wife Catherine and the matrix of lyrics and sounds floating and streaming in his head space.
Because of this colossal and heart wrenching trade, Catherine is left with more physical work than most companions of Parkinson’s victims. But make no mistake, she is infinitely graceful with her heavy load and infinitely grateful to have left his heart and soul. “He lost his ability to walk completely by the end of 2007”, she says, more calmly than I would expect. “He had abilities to help me walk him all the way up until 2010. Since 2010 he’s had no ability to walk or even to assist.” Soon she takes us to a scene where she and Freddy are intertwined in a moment of rare strength and beauty amidst these dire circumstances. “When he first began to lose his ability to walk on his own”, she smiles and reminisces as a small tear falls from under her glasses, “he would stand on my toes and I would hold him and walk him around the room on my toes. It was so precious.” When she finishes her voice trails off and she keels over in agony. Fighting the sadness she raises back up and stands tall. “I’m sorry”, she says lifting her glasses and wiping the tear away from her cheek, “I get really emotional sometimes. I love him to pieces.” I put up my hands to signal my understanding. Then I picture the scene. She is walking him like a mother might dance her baby boy’s feet on top of her shoes. They lock eyes and are young again. She puppets Freddy’s limbs around the room, turning labor into a playful and romantic embrace. What many would mislabel a burden Catherine cherishes as sweet memories and she seems thankful for every shred of touch and energy she shares with her husband. While Catherine is Freddy’s keeper, many times ‘mama’ quite literally moves him, serving as his mobility, his legs, his carrier out of bed and into the world. What body Freddy lost, Catherine, in all her strength, provides. What mobility Freddy was stripped of, Catherine, with her wiry arms and white camper as her angel-wings, lifts back within his grasp.
Loving Fred so intimately for so long has rubbed off on her. She has become like him in ways, carrying on elements of his character so the world may hold on to who and what he is. “He’s a witty person from a witty family”, she explains. “It cracks me up. All the way down to his grandsons -I’ve never seen a family so full of wit. I’m not witty, I’m not a fast thinker. All my wit comes from and still in lies in him“. Over the years Catherine has adopted pieces of Fred’s persona. Likewise, through Catherine, Freddy’s charm is able to shine forward and beyond and we can see the qualities he holds but no longer has ability to communicate. Intrigued, I ask her to talk more about Freddy’s personality -the root, the soul and the core of the man before me. Catherine’s words are a portal, a gateway to his being: “If you spent any time with him, you loved him”, she extends the short ‘u’ sound in ‘love’ making it resonate and fill the room to show just how magnetic he was.”Funny, always funny. I’ve had him do so many funny things.” She pauses to think of an example, “I’d be sitting there watching TV and he’d come out of the bed room and without looking at me, come in, he’d walk normal and then like right in front of me he’d do something off the wall weird, never look at me, never said anything, just keep walking and then he’d come back and do it again.” The story gets me giggling. I’m taken to a living room where Catherine is watching a TV show. A sly Freddy Powers walks into the peripheral unassumingly, composed, serious and just as he blocks her vision he shakes his butt like Chaplin and waddles, staying in stern character, creating the contrast of utter sanity and insanity all at once. She becomes hysterical and yells at him through her laughter, ‘git the hell outta’ the way!’, pretending to want him to stop. Still not looking at her, acting as if he’s alone in the room, he doubles back like a robot soldier and fidgets his legs and gallops by again with a blank look of total seriousness. He separates himself, never making eye contact, thus making himself the ultimate object of affection and humor. Thankfully, through Catherine’s words she carries forward Freddy’s affection, humor and the whole rest of his spirit at a time when he is no longer able to do so. Years from now when Freddy is gone, she alone will hold the true extent of his character and the unique spark that makes him so special.
“He’s also very generous”, she straightens herself and tips her head to show sincerity. “Probably overly generous with some. To the point where he would take our last dollar, while I’m sitting there wondering how the heck we’re gonna pay the bills, and he’d give it to somebody in trouble. One time, he’d just come in off the road. He had $5,000 cash in his pocket. A famous guy, I can’t mention his name for the sake of confidentiality, got in trouble with the law and needed $5,000 dollars right then and it was all the money we had and Freddy came and gave him $5,000 just like that, no questions asked. He’s one of those kinda’ people.”
Catherine is truly a gateway to his essence. While other friends and musicians know Fred well, she alone has melded with him and shared the most intimate moments with him over the course of decades; she knows the things only a wife and lover can know; she alone knows the window to Freddy’s most free and natural soul. Although she selflessly lifts his body and raises his spirits each day, she makes it very clear that she does not want unnecessary credit or dues: “I don’t want anybody calling and having me come and accept awards or do anything after he’s gone”, she says strongly through a trembling that wells up inside of her. “I want him to see it himself and be a part of it so if you got an award you wana’ give him or you got a story you wana’ tell about him, you get it done so he can see it. Otherwise, don’t call me back. I want him to stay and go on an on and live forever but I want him to be respected walking this earth”. With this blessing she solidifies Freddy, salutes him, closes the door on her own pride or reward and leaves Freddy all the glory he’s earned.
“I made a choice a long time ago”, she slows down and moves back in time, “I was in the studio and I gotta call to do the movie Strip Tease with Demi Moore. I auditioned for it and they called me and I had the part and I had to make a choice right then and there. Do I wana’ remain here in Austin and be the studio musician’s wife or do I wana go back to Reno and shoot a movie? I chose Freddy. Later I realized, the movie was so controversial, everyone moved on up, got interviewed, even the wrangler moved on up.” We chuckle. “Mighta’ been my movie and my foot in the door. I don’t regret it one bit though. I’m happy being his wife.” She is his best friend and the love of his life first and foremost and has been wholly dedicated to Freddy long before Parkinson’s disease ever became a thought in their life. Since then she has become all that and more: his spiritual and emotional support, she lifted him when depression set it. When the disease began deteriorating his movement and he lost his ability to play guitar and felt empty and felt stranded she breathed hope back into his eyes. She is his caretaker and provider, every day feeding and caring for him, sustaining his health and somehow doing it elegantly, smiling, and looking down at his face and cracking jokes to him. She is Fred’s muscle and like a chariot she swings the body he no longer can, moving him in and out of bed, place to place, city to city, Nashville, to Austin, to Flora-Bama, to Willie’s, to Merle’s and back home. Symbolically, she is the gatekeeper to Freddy’s soul and carries forward all the stories, personality and spirit that are whirling around in his heart and mind but bottled up by his new shell. Whatever pain and freeze the disease inflicts, Catherine soothes and thaws with equal proportion. This is a woman who can walk a man aboard her two feet, who can feed him through a tube and muster up a joke about it at the same time, who can battle the grips of Parkinson’s disease, defy it and on some days arrest it, purely with love.
My tribute song to Freddy Powers:
Lyrics to the song are posted here if anyone would like to follow along.