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In the early days of his diagnosis with Myasthenia Gravis, Cass Norman would have conversations about life with his younger sister.
Talk would inevitably shift to the neuromuscular disease that robbed him of lateral eye movement, causing his eyelids to slowly close as the muscles grew weaker.
Norman’s sister was taken off guard by her brother’s upbeat attitude about the fight before him. Her friend was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and had the same attitude.
She wondered how these two people in her life — who had the least to be happy about — could be the most upbeat. Norman would tell her something simple.
“That is because we are sick and we can still tell people about it and laugh,” said Norman. “There are people who get sick and fade away, but we don’t.
“You can’t let it beat you down, right?”
Finding the bike
Norman's diagnosis at age 30 meant a monumental shift in how he moved through life. He had to relearn how to sleep, often pushing his eyelids together until he drifted into slumber. He still gets headaches, for which he takes medication, and his eyes water uncontrollably at times.
After his diagnosis left him unable to drive, biking was his only mode of transportation for himself and, at times, his children.
But he biked for good reason.
A doctor at McMaster University Medical Centre recommended he take up cycling as a way to train and strengthen the muscles around his eyes.
He had always been a mountain biker, but had to stop because he found it hard to focus on the trail.
I have kids and as a dad you want to leave a legacy. You don’t want your kids to think, ‘my dada had a disability and just stopped.’
No matter what season, Norman swiftly became known as the guy on the bike in his Ontario town.
He pedalled everywhere, kids in tow in a small bike trailer.
On grocery days, items joined the children.
“Biking has always been a thing. That is your freedom,” said Norman. “I just love it.”
Biking filtered into other parts of his life.
A boy in his Alliston neighbourhood had to share a bike with his sister. When Norman’s daughter outgrew her bike he gifted it to the boy.
The gesture started him on a path that continued when he moved back to Gander several years ago.
He and his girlfriend started a Facebook group called Gander Bike Angels. He repairs old bikes for children in the community.
“I said there was no kid who shouldn’t have access to a bike,” said Norman.
Sitting in the kitchen of his Gander home, Norman’s infectious upbeat attitude is on full display.
He’s animated with his hands and never stops smiling, even as he tells of a time when he didn’t have a lot to smile about.
When he started having problems with his eyes, his doctor told him it could be multiple sclerosis.
With a small child and another baby on the way, it wasn’t the news Norman wanted to hear.
It triggered a series of visits to eye specialists around Ontario in an attempt to find out what was going on.
All the while, his marriage was falling apart.
He fought depression and eventually made the decision to pull himself out of using a unique method.
Using a set of resistance bands and driven by the beats of pop princess Britney Spears and rapper Eminem, Norman used fitness to find a positive mind space.
“You battle demons in any disability or sickness that you have, but there’s got to be a silver lining, so you find it,” he said. “I guess mine is being able to do woodwork and give up some of myself.
“I have kids and as a dad you want to leave a legacy. You don’t want your kids to think, ‘my dada had a disability and just stopped.’”
Norman labels himself a creator.
Along with fixing bicycles for children in his community, he has a solid hand at carpentry and various types of woodworking.
Norman has built bird houses for people in his neighbourhood and recently restored an old canoe he was given by a friend.
When he lived in Ontario, he built and sold six jersey boxes to former NHLer Adam Oates. After that, he built 10 more for Hall of Famer Dave Andreychuk.
He has plans to create a rocking bull for a nephew of his, inspired by the time he spent as a bull rider years earlier.
“It keeps me focused,” said Norman of his love of carpentry and bike repair.
In his workshop, a set of unfinished shelves rest on a table in the corner.
On the wall next to it, is a dartboard made from pieces of an old deck. On the far wall is his workbench. It's where he will prop a bike up on a makeshift jack and make his repairs, or craft a jersey box like the one he gave to the family of Matthew Sargent after he died in 2017.
His work is what carried him through the last 14 years of his life after the muscles in his eyes failed him and he needed a push.
In a way, Norman believes he was given his disability for a reason. That reason is to help his fellow man as best he can.
“If I have the ability to come help you build a deck, why not?” said Norman. “That is why I feel I have it because it hasn’t really slowed me down."