BRATTLEBORO—When self-described “Blind Masseur” Neil Taylor recently published the memoir, The Life We Got: Losing Sight and Gaining Vision, the 38-year-old wondered if he had aged enough to warrant an autobiography.
“Having lost nearly everything that I took for granted — that the majority of young people can and do and probably should take for granted,” he went on to reason in the preface, “well, maybe I’ve earned a sort of cosmic permission to share the story of my life so far.”
Taylor didn’t know a sudden relapse of brain cancer would, this past Sunday, bring it all to an end.
Instead, the Brattleboro man sat before a hometown crowd last spring to explain how — after moments of tunnel vision, hours of surgery to remove a cerebral tumor, weeks of subsequent unconsciousness and sedation, and months of physical therapy to relearn how to function head to toe — his mind had bounced between two thoughts.
The first: “I can’t see.”
The second: “I should be writing about this.”
His mother, Alison, understood. Reeling from the trauma of witnessing her tall, strong son battle tiny cancer cells that stole his eyesight at age 28, she nonetheless believed “writing can serve as a therapeutic tool to process, to make peace with, and to ‘own’ the unbearable.”
And so they scrolled back to the beginning, back to when Taylor, born March 11, 1979, attended the two-room Westminster West schoolhouse where his mother would teach and The Putney School where his father, Jim, worked as plant manager.
Turning 18, Taylor surfed six months in Costa Rica, played lacrosse at the University of Vermont, earned a degree in sociology at the University of Redlands in California, skied a year in Utah and returned home to work as a carpenter and stonemason before settling at Putney’s Greenwood School to teach boys with dyslexia and other learning differences.
Ten years ago in the fall of 2007, Taylor noticed his own visual challenge: Twice a day for six or seven seconds, his left eye seemingly went dark. Taylor figured he needed more sleep. But a friend who was a nurse directed him to a doctor, who, in turn, sent him for an MRI in the winter of 2008.
That’s when Taylor learned he had a tumor the size of an orange embedded in his brain.
Doctors couldn’t believe the Vermonter was able to walk or talk, as they estimated the growth had festered a half-dozen years. Staffers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., scheduled an operation. But the day before, Taylor began to convulse, then collapse from massive seizures.
Unconscious, he was wheeled into surgery upon first light Feb. 7, 2008.
Waking in darkness, Taylor figured physicians had removed the tumor sometime before sundown.
He didn’t realize he had been unconscious and then heavily sedated for weeks.
His parents, sister Jessica, and twin brother Jackson tearfully rejoiced. No one yet knew the tumor had squeezed the optic nerve that transmits images to his brain and didn’t survive the sudden release in pressure after surgery.
Taylor was the first to surmise a problem. Handed a marker and whiteboard, he scrawled a message: “IcantseeIamsosad.”
His mother saw the jumble of letters and felt her heart shatter.
“How much more can we take?” she cried to her husband.
“As much as they dish out,” he answered.
And so it went as Taylor endured outpatient radiation treatment every day for six weeks, then chemotherapy for a year, then a second round of everything when cancer returned in 2012.
Taylor nevertheless slowly built a new life as he trained in massage therapy, hung a “Blind Masseur” sign outside a Brattleboro office and met a neighbor, Katy Keenan, who became the love of his life.
This summer, sunglasses and a scar over his left eye were the only outer hints of his ordeal. Inside was another story.
By fall, Taylor was having trouble finding words. A month ago, tests showed what could have been the result of inflammation — or, it turned out, another relapse.
Taylor kept rock climbing and scheduling massages. Two weekends ago, he had to stop working. On Oct. 29, surrounded by family and friends, he died at home.
Taylor will be remembered at a public program Nov. 12 at 1 p.m. at the Putney School’s Currier Center. He also will live on through his memoir, co-authored and self-published with his mother and available through Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro.
“In sharing my journey my hope is that someone out there is helped and sustained in dealing with his or her own life challenge,” Taylor concluded in it. “Despite overwhelming odds — a devastating loss and what will likely be lifelong limitations — I wake up every morning still here in this crazy, beautiful world, knowing that each day is one more gift.”