Best friends

She can’t walk. He can’t see. Together, they help each other get around Brattleboro

It would be an immense pleasure if our local waterways were accessible for all of those inclined to enjoy perching on the riverbank, propping our fishing poles in the water and drowning a few worms. Especially for people who can't walk - like me.

I'm the chief sled dog for my friend Neil, whom I have already reduced to his knees once or twice by way of a low-hanging garage door and a likewise inclined tree branch.

I'd been dying to do some fishing now that I live so close to Whetstone Brook and the Connecticut River. I'd heard the brookies were practically throwing and filleting themselves on the local fishermen. Granted, these are some hooligans and shady characters who aren't above lying to me about everything, but I give them the benefit of the doubt, time and time again, and I love the idea of self-filleting fish.

So I called Neil up one late spring morning and said, “Hey, big fella, lets go do some fishing!”

I stuck a few poles in the bag that hangs from the back of my chair, grabbed the trout worms out of the fridge and saddled up the tackle bag packed full of brightly feathered lures.

Neil was in a dandy mood which is nothing new, but it always makes me happy to see him so chipper, and I couldn't wait to see the excitement on his face when the trout started throwing themselves at him.

He wouldn't know what hit him. Literally. He's blind.

He would not see it coming, and I expected to be thoroughly entertained when it happened. I had my Nikon in the holster and at the ready. When the first trout slapped him across the face with its slippery tail, I was going to snap my shutter and preserve the moment. Neil has an adorable throaty tenor, but he also has an interesting falsetto, especially when provoked.

I'd assumed once we reached the union of the brook and the river there would be a smooth path for us to meander down. Maybe an old folding chair left behind for Neil to rest uncomfortably on. You know what they say about assumptions.

The river was blocked by a 6-foot wrought-iron fence which was there, no doubt, to protect us from falling in. We sat on the concrete abutment beneath the fence and Neil fidgeted impatiently while I strung our poles.

I fashioned a lure on one and knotted a worm on the other then gave Neil the wormed pole and wove it through the rails. This was no way that Neil remembered fishing.

“Laura, what are we doing? Why is my pole braided through a fence?” he asked, his voice marked with bemusement and exasperation.

“Neil, we're fishing!”

I tried to explain the difficulty of getting down to the actual water and tried to explain obvious need to improvise.

He shook his head and mumbled something about my ineptness, my mystifying lack of obvious intelligence or some other insult to my character. I waved my hand dismissively, offered him some water and gum, and he shut up.

After I tossed my line in the water, we sat there in comfortable silence. I took a few surreptitious pictures of him with my Nikon and put my arm companionably around his shoulder. He immediately shrugged it off and told me to pay attention to my pole.

The brookies were not throwing themselves in our laps. In fact, no fish were biting, and within a few minutes it was raining. We sat there another few minutes and then packed up and headed home.

Neil's mood improved. On the way back, he boisterously sang “Rocky Raccoon” to me - the high point of my day. We weaved our way up High Street with Neil alternately singing and crowing his delight and myself laughing heartily and joining in on the chorus.

Soon his front porch was in sight. He let go of the handles on my wheelchair and started to step around me to jog up his front steps and make his escape.

Unfortunately, one of those brightly feathered, shiny lures was swaying in the breeze behind me. Neil caught it right in the meat of his left forearm.

Of course, he instinctively yanked his arm back, which only secured those hooks more deeply. He couldn't figure out what was sinking its teeth into his arm.

“What the hell are you doing to me, Laura!?' he shrieked in that high falsetto he reserves for such emergencies and such indignities.

I finally grabbed his arm, but I only managed to pull the line more taut and cause my dear friend more confusion, more pain, and a higher register in his profanity-laced voice.

Just then, a woman strolled down the sidewalk and waved a casual hello to us. I returned the wave, shot Neil a look of reproach (which was lost on him) and asked her if I could trouble her for a moment.

She walked over, and her bemused smile turned to horror when she beheld the fine catch on display at the end of my pole.

We haven't been back to try our angling skills again. Neil put his foot down and said he wasn't going back until I found a better spot. To date, I have yet to find one, despite the Whetstone weaving its way through the lower part of Brattleboro, despite the murky Connecticut maintaining its promise of self-sacrificing brookies and lazy bass. It is an exercise in futility finding a place where we can easily and safely enjoy an evening at the water's edge.

If we do, Neil and I will be ready with our tackle box full of brightly festooned lures, and I will dreamily fade away to the lull of his honeysuckle tenor singing “Rocky Raccoon.”

I am blessed. Neil is blessed too.

* * *

Neil's dizzying fall was from 20/20 vision into complete and sudden blindness. Can you stand to imagine that? Close your eyes, and close them thinking you will never be able to open them again. Oh, close them being only 28 years old. Close them being an accomplished and committed athlete and close them brimming with an effusive passion and desire to explore the world, to climb mountains, to bike relentlessly, to ski, to surf and swim, to play lacrosse, to run like the wind, to make love, to admire art, to see your parents' love for you reflected in their faces. And to do all of this and more with a ferocious appetite for the beauty the world holds in store.

Are they closed yet?

If you're like me you can't open them back up fast enough.

A few months ago Neil was standing out on the balcony of my sixth-floor apartment enjoying the feel of the warm, new, spring sunshine on his face. His hands held the railing in front of him, his long legs moving to some internal beat, his feet splayed like anchors.

Neil's face is so often found in repose, tilted to what light shines from above; a beatific smile, sometimes wistful and lacking in any pretense, graces his face. A smile that reveals little yet reveals so very much.

I don't know what that smile represents. I don't know why it so often claims his face. I do know that he has never seen it for himself. He does not know how beautiful and captivating it is, nor does he know how revealing it is of the man behind it.

There is a quiet peacefulness deep within Neil. I relax in his company, and something about him makes me feel comforted in spirit and mind. His stature and his impressive physical form make me feel secure as well.

He lends his internal strength effortlessly and without thought. And he has a tremendous amount of it. I've yet to see his strength tested.

“There is nothing I would not try or do if I could do it with Neil,” I often say to my friends. That is no small statement. I'm kind of a wuss, often trapped in a ubiquitous cloud of free-floating anxiety. Neil is one of the most self-possessed people I know. He has an enormous presence, supremely magnetic, one of those larger-than-life personalities.

How does he contain himself and all that he is behind those dark shades, which I have come to think of as his calling card?

Neil is probably the most tenacious person I could ever hope to meet. He's extremely bright, both a linear and an abstract thinker, passionate, and remarkably open. He has a thirst for knowledge, is blessed with an affinity and love for language, and he takes great delight in learning.

And he's drop dead funny. Sardonic, quick as hell, theatrical, a no-holds-barred and take-no-prisoners sense of humor.

I have never seen him come up against a brick wall. Not yet. Yes, there are plenty of brick walls in front of him, but Neil senses them ahead, looming large, either in his direct path or in his life and equally intuitively he gracefully swerves and sweeps around them.

Often the alternate path is long, arduous, even formidable. It requires immense amounts of patience and effort, but that is not what Neil focuses on. Quietly, yet like a dog with a bone, he works his way toward the goal with a remarkable, a truly remarkable, success rate.

What defines Neil Taylor? The obvious - blindness with a capital B - most certainly does, but Neil is no ordinary man and so, by extension, he is no ordinary blind man.

* * *

I give myself a pat on the back and a thank you to the gods that be for my own strengths and abilities. McNeil's has those steps that impede me, but Kipling's doesn't, and cheap beer tastes the same everywhere, so no angst there.

It's more about the company you keep and much less about where you keep it.

Since I generally do my stepping out with Neil and since I know no finer companion, I'm quite content with the places we can go and less concerned with what's off limits.

Neil prefers to sit at the bar, which makes me feel like a little kid, but I'm used to feeling that way. Last time we bellied up to the bar, I put my foot down, in a manner of speaking, and he promised we'd park ourselves at a table in the future.

He either forgets I'm way down there or can't quite comprehend it, and when he turns to talk to me, he literally talks right over my head and into the ear of the person to my left if anybody's sitting there to enjoy his caustic wit and hilarious observations.

But mostly it looks like he has an invisible friend that he's enjoying talking to and verbally jousting with (although not getting the better of, mind you).

And that really strikes me as funny so I sit there with my periscope up and drink my beer, and I occasionally grab his calf to remind him where I am and to give myself something to do by canoodling with his lower leg.

* * *

People often ask me what's hard about shopping or want to know what places of business are not accessible. They want to know about the inequity and unfairness of my life, of my disability.

I always consider their questions and answer them coherently but only halfheartedly. If I focused on all the difficulties I have in comparison to those with good working legs, I'd be less inclined to want to haul my ass out of bed on any given day.

And the fact is, we all have our unique difficulties and obstacles. Nobody skates through life without hardship and gut wrenching losses. Nobody.

What I consider the most difficult aspects of my life have absolutely nothing to do with where I can or cannot go or how I get myself there.

* * *

When I met Neil, we both lived in an apartment building on lower High Street. We were both experiencing personal crises of confidence, our illusions and dreams dashed on the rocks of our separate shores.

In each other we encountered eagerness, friendliness, compassion, and curiosity, and an excitement for our new, unfolding lives. We became fast and immediate friends.

We somehow have a shared gift for having inordinate amounts of fun together. I've witnessed Neil purchase a house and turn it into a home. He has hung his glorious shingle on the front porch, has incorporated his new Blind Masseur massage therapy practice into it, and is enjoying the fruit and peace of his labors.

Today, we climbed Union Hill twice and rather victoriously made our way back to his home after I was almost slammed out of my wheelchair by missing concrete in the sidewalk.

I yanked myself back at the same time that Neil's arm shot around the side of the chair to grab me before I kissed the sidewalk.

“Jesus! Your reflexes are sharp! You actually would have stopped me if I hadn't stopped myself!” I declared.

“Like a cat,” he replied evenly. “I'm like a cat.”

That remark sent me into gales of laughter and made me remember the last time the sidewalk threw me.

It was early summer coming down High Street to Main. I was hanging off the front end of my wheelchair drawing circles in the dusty sidewalk with my fingers while I tried to figure out how to get back up, and Neil was hanging onto the back of the chair.

“Laura, what just happened? Laura, where are you?” he pleaded.

Brattleboro's sidewalks are an exercise in planning and avoiding. I pretty much plan to avoid them whenever I can.

But when Neil is with me, I can't afford to be so careless (or carefree, whichever you prefer to call it).

The sidewalks are replete with cracks and crevices, mind-numbing depths, and precipices. A man could lose his dog in one of those sinkholes, and I've lost a fair amount of pocket change and lipstick.

But I don't want to lose Neil.

I don't carry enough rope or water on me to throw down to him while I call the first responders to the scene of his first descent. I don't really want to test the bounds of his vast store of equanimity and calm.

The sidewalks are blessed with nothing but gaps and lost pocket change, yet somehow they still provide some measure of safety and fodder for fun and laughter.

* * *

I've moved over the course of the year as well. I have a new apartment in a building that houses many of Brattleboro's elderly and handicapped. One of the requirements for tenancy seems to be having lived just long enough to expire at any given moment, and people do.

I think of my building as a hostel, and I treat it as such. My place is where I hang my hat to find sleep and where I get dressed in the morning, so it's mostly about a bed and tons of clothes all thrown about. I like it.

After a longstanding addiction to prescription medications, I am finally free of those chains and my head feels almost too clear. I'm usually cheerful if not dogged by the past and the losses my addictions cost me.

Sometimes, it's hard to bear the full weight of my losses, but I'm doing it. I know one day I will wake up and realize that instead of feeling monumental loss I will instead begin to see the gains I've made, too.

Neil gives his losses their due and respect but he doesn't stop to turn them over in his mind's eye and ruminate on them. He culls the best moments of any given day to reflect happily on before he falls asleep at night and inspires me to do the same.

I'm very lucky to have such a wonderful and loving friend. Neil's enduring companionship has helped heal my heart, and my gratitude is great.

I am blessed.

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