'The blind masseur'

Saturday June 16, 2012

Neil Taylor is 33 years old. He is tall, very handsome and very strong.

I remember Neil at 14. He weighed as much as a green bean then. His hair was a shock of blonde that whipped behind him as he ran across our high school campus, as he rode a mountain bike full speed between classroom buildings, as he tumbled into all-school assembly like an Australian shepherd puppy with his pack of friends, as he shot a lacrosse ball into the net and pumped his young, fierce fist to the sky.

Neil opens the door to his Brattleboro home and new massage therapy office. He's wearing sunglasses. He gives me a hug, though it has been almost two decades since our paths last came close to crossing, and he smiles, the right side of his face widening into a sunbeam.

"Welcome," he says. "I am so glad you're here. I'm so excited about my massage studio. Come this way, I'll show you."

He turns and stretches out his arms until his hands find the edge of the front staircase and the opposite wall. He walks forward with a curious lilt of hesitation and grace, his long hands always searching the air for the solid things inside it.

Neil is blind.


"Four years ago, I was a teacher at the Greenwood School in Putney."

Neil is settled in a chair in his large, open living room. "My stately leather chair," he jokes. Beautiful paintings decorate the walls, and several small, cheerful houseplants sit politely beneath the bright windows.

"It's a boarding school for boys with learning disabilities. I taught math, because I'd hated math as a kid, and I taught PE and coached soccer. I was a dorm parent, so I was a surrogate father for 45 boys. I loved it."

Neil played as hard as he worked. He loved mountain biking and backcountry skiing, anything that let him be outside moving his body. His body was a rocket and a redwood tree, and he gorged himself on adventure and beauty.

"Every once in a while, though, I'd have tunnel vision in my left eye," Neil says. "The blackness would close in and last for three or four seconds. I would have swept it under the rug and figured I was just tired, but my girlfriend at the time was a nurse and she insisted I get it checked out."

There was the moment before Neil slid into the narrow tube of the MRI machine, and then there was the moment he slid out. Those two moments would never, ever meet.

"The doctors found a tumor the size of a large orange in the left side of my brain." Neil has told this story many times, and yet his voice still carries a trace of disbelief. "My entire brain was squished into the right hemisphere. They had no idea how I was still walking and talking."

He was admitted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., immediately. His surgeons planned to remove 90 percent of the tumor, using a technique that required Neil to be conscious throughout the operation.

The night before the surgery, however, massive seizures caused by the tumor ripped through Neil. The doctors had no choice but to sedate him.

Neil takes off his brown cap and runs his hand over his curved craniotomy scar. "I owe my life to my then-girlfriend. If I'd had those seizures in the dorm, I would have died. But since I was knocked out, the surgeons could only get about 70 percent of the tumor."

When he woke up, everything was black.

"I didn't know if it was night or day. I just knew I was alone in a room. I tried to lift my hand to rub my eye, but my hands were tied, I was tied down, to keep me from pulling out my oxygen tube," he says.

Neil had been in the Intensive Care Unit for six weeks.

He'd lost 60 pounds. He couldn't swallow or breathe on his own. He couldn't talk. He was partially paralyzed. He suffered dangerous blood clots in his legs. He had a catheter and a feeding tube and eventually a shunt for the clots.

And the tumor had irrevocably damaged his optic nerve. Neil couldn't see.


Within a few weeks and with extraordinary work, Neil was strong enough transfer to the Farnum Rehabilitation Center in Keene, N.H.

"I learned how to walk with a cane, how to talk again, how to swallow. Then I went home," he says. "That was hard, because I had really valued my independence. But my appreciation for my parents ...."

He pauses to find the right words. "They were the strongest support, more than I could ever imagine."

Ten weeks of radiation and an exhausting year of chemotherapy shrank the tumor significantly, but the fact of his blindness cut him hard. He would never see nature again. He'd never be able to look at beautiful women again. He couldn't bike or ski. He couldn't drive. Whole parts of his life were turned to void.

"I used to skip and jump around," he says, his voice raw. "I used to love going to the aquarium. I used to love art. I lost so much."

The angry sorrow tightens and releases, and Neil exhales. Suddenly his stories begin to rise in bubbles and bursts, punctuated by his laughter and intensity. He talks about going solo kayaking with an organization called First Descents, which leads wilderness trips for adult cancer survivors.

He talks about his new house and his new nephew. He talks about working out on his elliptical machine and going on tandem bike rides. He talks about how he never used to read, and how he now loves audiobooks. He talks about the help that he received from the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

He talks about the loneliness at the edges of his life, about the friendships that withered when he lost his sight, about the friendships that deepened, about the difficult and frustrating terrain of dating as a blind person. He talks about his dreams. He can see in his dreams.

But mostly he talks about massage.


Four years ago, in the brief time between diagnosis and surgery, Neil waited in shock and fear in the hospital. His Aunt Janie thought a massage might help him, so she hired a massage therapist to come to his room.

Neil leans back in his leather chair and crosses his legs. "I pictured some beautiful Brazilian woman giving me a lustrous massage." He looks sly, then laughs loudly.

"I heard a knock, and there was this short, fat, hairy guy standing there. He said, ‘Did you order a massage?'"

Neil shakes his head. "Oh jeez. I said, ‘I guess so.' He set up his table, and then he gave me a massage that transcended anything I'd ever known about massage. It was a magical thing."

He remembered that day even through the ordeal of post-surgery recovery and chemo, even through rehab and his three months in the Independent Living Program at The Caroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass.

"I was in this new reality now, being blind, and the question was, what do I do?" he says. "I shared with my parents the memory of the massage, and how much it affected me, and they supported me in the idea to become a massage therapist."

Neil studied for three years, first as an intern at Sojourns Community Health Clinic in Westminster and then at the Pyramid Holistic Wellness Center in Rutland. He was the school's first blind student. He is now a certified and insured massage therapist specializing in Swedish and deep tissue massage.

"I am so grateful to that man in the hospital," he says. "I don't remember his name, but I want to thank him. He played such a huge part in my life, because I love massage. It's something I can do just as well as a sighted person. That is so, so empowering."

He points to a sign that reads "The Blind Masseur." "This is my sign! Will Parmalee from Putney made it! Soon I'll be hanging out my shingle! I believe that massage should be affordable to the working man and working woman, so my rates are really reasonable. I'm so excited!"

He stops for a moment. "You know, one thing blindness gives you is patience. You've really got no choice. So much of the time you have to wait."

Then his laughter claps and explodes. Neil is 14; he is 33. He is sighted; he is blind. He is a macho backcountry skier; he is a soulful, sensitive man.

"I am so excited to build my client base," he crows. "I'm so excited for my practice. I want it to be huge!"

Neil Taylor is alive.

To learn more about the Blind Masseur, call 802-451-9651 or visit theblindmasseur.com.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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