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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2002 > Need and Solitude
Philip E. Simmons, 45, died Saturday, July 27, at his home in Center Sandwich, NH, with family and friends by his side.

Autumn New England landscape, stone wall in foreground, mountains in distance.
"Who could have expected, after all, that in my early 40s I would be living a sort of gentleman's retirement in the country, with time to read philosophy, raise chickens, and supervise my children's piano practice? Each morning, I watch the sun rise, a little later and a little farther south yet filling my house with light. Hoar frost glitters in the fields. My wife makes coffee, my children make their beds. Who could complain? And yet these are hardly the terms under which I hoped to receive such a bounty. I'm in a chair with wheels. I can no longer raise my arms in joy."
— From Learning to Fall (2002), By Philip Simmons '80

Need and Solitude

By Paul Statt '78

In 1992, Philip Simmons, Ph.D. (University of Michigan), M.F.A. (Washington University) and A.B. (Amherst 1980), 35 years old, an English professor on the tenure track at Lake Forest College in Illinois, a published writer of short fiction and criticism, partner and husband of sculptor and painter Kathryn Field, and proud father of two healthy children, designed and built a house on land near his parents' former vacation home in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire.

To get to Simmons's place you drive past Squam Lake—where Henry Fonda filmed On Golden Pond, the Oscar-winning 1981 film about age and loss in the midst of idyllic scenery. You see one 18th-century center chimney Cape after another. The trim homes of the affluent "flatlanders" who came for summer, liked the lake and stayed, are starkly white in the December sunshine. People who were born here and never had the chance to leave live in ramshackle faded-to-gray Capes with chipped paint and rusting Toyotas and busted TV sets in the yards. The houses of the poor are handsome, their good lines intact. Midday, midweek, in December, you don't see many of the thousand or so people who live in this 600-acre town. A woman is walking a golden retriever.

In Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, his latest book, a collection of 12 personal essays about accepting loss, Simmons writes of Center Sandwich: "You feel as though you're driving into a museum." It's the simple life that appeals to so many of us, if we choose it. We forget that the people who built these simple white Capes had no choice. They built small because they had little, and the center chimney kept the place warm and moored against the winter winds off the nearby White Mountains. They did not choose the simple life; they were simply living.

The Simmons home is no Cape, but a contemporary post-and-beam—all exposed rafters and warm wooden floors with floor-to-ceiling windows to catch what little light December in New Hampshire offers. Kathryn built a barn-like studio spacious enough for a sculptor. Searching like many writers for that golden mean between loneliness and distraction, Philip constructed a snug, one-room retreat at the edge of the woods, where he could write within earshot of his home and within view of the mountains he climbed with his family.

"It had always been a childhood dream of mine to live here," Simmons says now. "We finished the house just before Christmas in '92. In May I built my cabin. In June I was diagnosed with ALS. There I was sitting in my cabin in the woods, thinking, you son of a bitch, you'd better get well."

He did not get well, and likely won't. ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a chronic, progressive disease marked by gradual degeneration of the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement. Once known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," it weakens the muscles until they atrophy and it usually results in death, no matter what an ironman you are.

Simmons, a handsome bearded man with sparkling blue eyes, sitting in a wheelchair he can control with a fingertip, speaks slowly, choosing words and images carefully. "The house was a commitment of passion and heart," he says, "but as it turned out this was the life raft we needed." You mark the cadence and breathiness of his speech; it forces you to pay attention, like the whisper of a clever schoolteacher that magically stills an unruly class. The disease is taking the wind out of his lungs. When we meet in the morning he's strong and cheerful. By lunchtime he's worn out. Every breath is an effort, and Simmons isn't wasting any.

Continued >>

Photo: Dan Habib

 
 

Online Extra

AUDIO

"The muscles waste away but the mind remains intact. It's been said that people with this illness have a front row seat at their own demise."
—Philip Simmons on
NPR's All Things Considered segment, "Team Care for the Chronically Ill." Hear the segment online at NPR.org.

RELATED STORIES

Amherst College awarded Philip Simmons an honorary doctorate of letters this year.

RELATED LINKS

Philip Simmons' Website, LearningtoFall.com

ALS Association's news story about Philip Simmons

World Federation of Neurology: ALS

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: ALS

MEDLINE Plus: ALS

 
     
     
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