BRATTLEBORO—The 26.2 miles of a marathon are known to be a test of human endurance, for those who have run the race as well as for those who have only imagined it.
On Feb. 17 in Austin, Texas, Dummerston native Jeremiah Cioffi and his wife Kim ran the Livestrong Marathon on behalf of Brattleboro resident Neil Taylor.
They did so to to honor Taylor’s battle with cancer as well as gain a new understanding of his ongoing struggle.
Jeremiah Cioffi, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Hood, is the son of Taylor’s close friend Laura Momaney, and it is because of Neil and Laura’s profound relationship that the newlyweds were inspired to undertake the grueling test.
About a year ago, both Taylor and Momaney were living in the Manley Apartments building on High Street, and their paths crossed at just the right time.
Taylor was rediscovering his independence after a malignant brain tumor affected his optic nerve approximately four years ago. Surgery to remove the tumor left him totally blind at age 28.
“I basically had to learn to live life again as a blind person,” he said. “It was a huge challenge, totally losing my independence.”
He couldn’t return to his previous job as a math teacher at the Greenwood School in Putney, but he reinvented himself as a massage therapist, eventually opening a practice as The Blind Masseur.
His time at the Manley building, where he first lived on his own after the surgery, brought a variety of ongoing struggles.
With his disability, “it’s scary even to go on the road,” Taylor said.
As for Momaney, who contracted polio at the age of 6 weeks and uses a wheelchair as a result of post-polio syndrome, she was going through her own difficulties regarding living independently when she met Taylor.
Momaney has written publicly and candidly about her struggles after becoming addicted to narcotic pain medication.
“I began a long descent into addiction and despair,” she wrote in a column that she and Taylor contribute to Vermont Views. “Hopelessness became my disability and it was crippling, a formidable opponent. Eventually, I lost all the things I owned and loved, I lost the people in my world, too, and I almost lost my liberty.”
“I lost myself,” she wrote. “Hopelessness is pernicious. It kills everything in its path. It is absolutely deadly.”
In the column, she credits Jeremiah for his “strength and his love and his immense hope.”
But Taylor has been her brick. “Our meeting was definitely at the right time,” Momaney says.
She and Taylor quickly formed a deep friendship as well as a mutual reliance.
“When you’re really limited with what you can do, you have to really enjoy the people you keep company with. There aren’t a lot of distractions,” she said.
“We have a very similar sense of humor, similar personalities, and an openness and willingness to engage with people. I have my own disabilities, so I can relate to him on that level as well. I know when he needs to be filled in and I recognize and understand his disability.”
“Laura gets it,” Taylor agreed. “She has become such a great friend, and we have a lot in common. You wouldn’t even know that I was blind when we walk around town, we just cruise around.”
The two often take “jaunts” through Brattleboro, Momaney wheeling ahead of Taylor, who follows by holding on to the handles of her wheelchair.
“It’s the one time in my life I don’t feel blind,” Taylor said.
Momaney assists Taylor as “chief security dog” in his practice, where she spends much of her time assisting clients, helping with payments, or doing some light housekeeping.
Since the practice at 160 High St. is also universally accessible — a fairly uncommon installation in a small practice — Taylor has treated an increasing number of patients in wheelchairs, largely as a result of Momaney’s influence.
“There’s always something to be doing, and when there’s not, just hanging out with Neil is great,” Laura said.
Rebuilding their worlds
Although Jeremiah Cioffi has not lived in the area for much of the time that his mother has known Taylor, Momaney’s frequent communications have reflected the positive change the friendship has brought to her life.
“My mom’s been through a lot, especially in the past few years,” Cioffi said. “Her world crumbled, and she’s been in the process of building it back up. It’s hard to see a family member go through something really difficult, and I saw Neil as a main catalyst in this process of her coming back up.”
Jeremiah and Kim Cioffi had wanted to run a marathon for several years, and after hearing about the Livestrong marathon in nearby Austin, the opportunity to honor Taylor seemed too good to pass up.
“I saw there was this real bond [that Laura and Neil] have and I wanted to do something,” Cioffi said. “I thought [running the marathon] was perfect; Neil loves the outdoors, and has been a blessing to my mom, and by default to my life too.”
“I just feel so honored that I mean that much to Jeremiah and his new wife, especially because she’s never run a marathon before,” Taylor said. “I have such love and gratitude for that.”
The couple kept Taylor updated throughout their training and, for race day, made t-shirts that read, “The Blind Masseur has my back.”
A deeper understanding of disability and friendship
Cioffi also sees new depth in his understanding of the difficulties Taylor faces daily.
“When I was running the marathon, there were a few times I imagined being blind,” Cioffi said. “I would try to run with my eyes closed. Obviously, I couldn’t do it for more than a few seconds.”
“But personally, I developed more of an understanding of what it’s like for him, putting more thought into his predicament and situation,” he continued. “Other than the physical challenges, what sorts of emotional problems exist as you relearn how to live?”
“You can’t do the same profession as in the past, your house has to be set up differently, you can’t walk down steps easily. I got more of a glimpse into Neil’s life. I got closer to him because I understand more,” Cioffi said.
And Cioffi sees the benefits in his relationship with his mother as well, as two of the people most important in her life have become closer to one another.
As for Taylor and Momaney, they continue to cook, spend time outdoors, and take jaunts around town, dealing with daily challenges with their mutually colorful sense of humor.
They are able to discuss some of the deeper issues at play in each of their disabilities.
Taylor admits that he’s sad that he can’t notice someone’s haircut or a new outfit. Momaney regrets that Taylor, who has so much physical strength, is physically limited due to his lack of sight. Both agree that they’re both the better for it.
“We have a very non-traditional relationship in many ways — our age difference, our disabilities, our non-sexual relationship,” she said. “But it’s been one of the most wonderful relationships of my life.”
Even though he’s not physically present to see their relationship grow, Cioffi knows that the two are even closer now than they were before.
“Their relationship has taken on a different dimension because I’m more involved with Neil,” Cioffi said. “I just really admire both of them. They’ve been through so much, and it doesn’t get easier.”
“They have to make a conscious effort to truck on,” he continued. “They have to have a positive attitude to enjoy and embrace life. I’m blessed to be in their lives.”
“With cancer, you never know if your battle with it is done,” Momaney said. “I pray that everything for Neil would be more in a straight line.”