NAUGATUCK, Conn. — Bob Veillette’s right hand is curled over a colorful juggling ball, as if ready once again to demonstrate his mastery of flying balls, oranges and other orbs.
The big-screen TV is tuned to a channel playing big band and swing music, perfect for a man dedicated to the piano — Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Dave McKenna, Duke Ellington — who would play every benefit and fund-raiser that came his way, never making a nickel.
His head is abuzz with Shakespeare, all those paperbacks on the wall rummaging through that supple brain. “The world is still deceived with ornament,” he thinks often, quoting “The Merchant of Venice.”
Bob Veillette, 62, a father of three, was a pianist, a jogger and a newspaper editor in Connecticut.
But the hand on the ball doesn’t move. The pianist plays no notes. The words are summoned not by a single sound but by opened eyes responding to letters called out by his wife, Bonnie. It’s very unlikely any of that will ever change.
In “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” first a memoir, now a film, Jean-Dominique Bauby brought a distinctly Gallic sensibility to the unimaginable tragedy of what’s called locked-in syndrome, a catastrophic brain-stem injury from a stroke that leaves a person’s mental abilities intact and body virtually inert.
Both Mr. Veillette, 62, and Mr. Bauby, who died in 1997, days after his book was published, were journalists. Mr. Bauby was the editor of the French fashion magazine Elle, Mr. Veillette the managing editor of The Waterbury Republican-American. But like the American flag on his front porch set off by the pristine white carpet of Thursday’s snowfall, Mr. Veillette’s story seems as American in an almost ancestral way as Mr. Bauby’s was French.
He’s the Jimmy Stewart character who never left the town where he grew up, a fixture of his church and local charities who married his high school girlfriend, raised three kids, ran to keep healthy, and was the father figure everyone depended on at work.
He’s the guy who greeted co-workers with “How can I bring some joy into your life today?” and really meant it; prefaced bad news with the words “With malice toward none and for the good of the team...”; originated the newsroom “good deed in a naughty world” award (“The Merchant of Venice”); exhorted the troops by declaiming “The readiness is all” (“Hamlet”).
Two years ago, with the kids finally out of college, he figured he might even get to pay off some bills, travel, slow down a bit.
And then on Saturday, April 8, 2006, after he played a concert at a library in Waterbury, it all ended. Mr. Veillette began carrying his equipment out to his car, didn’t return for the rest of it and was found slumped in the front seat.
Later, he said, he remembered little besides trying to honk the horn for help. The diagnosis was swift and grim. It would be a miracle if he could learn at some point to move, say, a pinkie, to operate a wheelchair or a computer.
THUS began two odysseys, one soul-numbing, one like a Turner painting in dark and light. The first, a journey through the health care system, is a typically American nightmare. In an institution, his medical care would be covered through Medicaid. At home, very little is, so his co-workers have mounted two 5K runs and a benefit concert in his honor, friends and family help out at home, and the Web site www.bobveillette.com is being created to honor his life and provide information for those who want to help.
The second journey is as nuanced as Shakespeare or Job. What could be more unfair, friends think, than this fate for this man?
“He’s a writer, he’s a journalist, he’s a musician,” said Jonathan Kellogg, executive editor of the newspaper. “He’s spent his whole life expressing himself, and now he’s trapped.”
Indeed, his wife thinks what wracks him is the notion that after all those years of doing whatever needed to be done and then more, he is helpless, dependent on others.
“When he cries,” she said, “he’s crying for me, that this is now my life.”
So on one level, it seems hollow to look for rays of light in so cruel a picture. But people do look. Bonnie’s brother, Earle Sanford, one of the regular helpers, says there’s something truly transcendent in the tie between husband and wife, a tie deepened by his ordeal.
People might note that at least this burden was placed on a man of unshakable religious belief with a devoted family.
And someone with much more faith than most of us might say that for all the horror, this nightmare has made it possible for the wider world to view Bob Veillette’s admirable life, to reflect on its lessons, to come away with a renewed and enriched sense of life’s fragility, promise and responsibilities.
One who thinks there have been blessings in this nightmare, it turns out, is Bob Veillette.
The ordeal, he said, has brought his family closer together, has made him reflect on all the things he took for granted, has made him appreciate life. “I was hung up on material things,” he said, responding with raised eyes to his wife’s letters. “This stroke thing straightened me out.”
At night Bob Veillette dreams simply of walking and talking with his wife. He would give almost anything, just once more, to play “Here’s That Rainy Day.”
But when his son, Gregory, was married in September, Dad was there, after first making up a list of fatherly dictates (No. 1: No wheelchair dancing. No. 11: Girls can flirt with me.).
And the message he composed for Gregory a few months back might work for most of us.