FARMINGDALE — The dream was a frequent visitor to Neal Shephard. There he was, in the middle of the ocean, wondering how long he could keep his head above water and if someone would find him before his energy was sapped and he sank, slowly and quietly, into the abyss.

“I wasn’t afraid of sharks,” Shephard said. “I was afraid of no bottom. It was scary, but I was drawn to it.”

The ocean has been deep almost since Shephard’s birth. Blind since he was a few days old, Shephard had to learn to make his way in darkness. Music, which flowed out of him with ease and joy, has always been a refuge, a place where Shephard could run as wild and free as his fingers would let him.

But now, 62 years old and weeks removed from two massive strokes that threatened his life and continue to endanger his lifestyle, Shephard finds himself in deeper water than he has ever known. He is determined to tread water for as long as he can.

“When I would swim in the ocean, I’d swim out until I couldn’t touch to experience that lack of control,” Shephard said. “Even though it was the most scary thing that could happen to me, I jumped into it.”

The thrill, Shephard has learned, is always in the jump. He’s known it almost from the moment of his premature birth. Doctors, trying to keep him alive, put him in an incubator until his lungs grew enough to function on their own. The doctors gave Shephard too much oxygen and destroyed what had been healthy eyes.

When he was 8, Shephard’s parents, hoping to give their hyperactive child some focus, bought him a piano and signed him up with the only person willing to take on a blind student, an area nun. Two years later, a neighbor introduced the boy to jazz, and Shephard jumped again, headlong into the rhythm bubbling up from his soul. The nun, who scolded Shephard for playing boogie woogie, had to go.

“She said it was the devil’s music,” Shephard recalls. “I said, ‘This music makes me feel so good, it can’t be evil.'”

Music took him across the paths of some of the best musicians in the world, even as it led him away from his first wife and children, and eventually carried him to Maine, where he landed a regular job playing on the Scotia Prince as it shuttled passengers between Portland and Nova Scotia. The ship, Shephard reasoned, was the perfect place to exorcise, and exercise, that dream.

“I’ve definitely had a colorful life,” Shephard said. “I’m not afraid to try anything.”

Nashville, then Maine

That fearlessness led him beyond the ship, however. It landed him smack-dab in the life of his future wife, Julie Shephard. She was a manager at a local bank when Shephard came in one day and struggled to write a series of money orders. Julie asked if she could help. Next thing she knew, Shephard had given her his checkbook and was telling her to whom to write the checks and the amount.

“Most people I met in Maine I trusted,” Shephard said. “I just had a good feeling about people.”

Neal and Julie married 17 years ago and settled down in Farmingdale. The couple has one daughter, Leah, who is 6. Neal has two grown children, Sarah and Tamarah, from his first marriage.

Julie Shephard was captivated by Neal’s playing as they were getting to know each other. Now she delights in watching others experience that same wonder.

“Everybody is just amazed,” she said. “You know how sometimes, when people have practiced something for years, it can seem stiff. You don’t get that with him. You get an absolutely natural, pure sound.”

Neal Shephard said he went to Nashville in 1994 at the urging of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, who heard him play at an Idaho pub. He said he spent about a year before moving to Maine, making music and partying with the likes of Mark Chestnut and Tanya Tucker. Shephard said he even had a chance to talk to Ray Charles, whom he described as a perfectionist, and even opened for him.

“He’s got that soul,” Julie Shephard said. “You can play a song and he’ll play it back for you, no matter what it is. You get that pure music, and the interpretation is amazing. ‘Georgia’ is a staple. It’s even purer than what you used to get from Ray Charles.”

Neal Shephard has played off and on with the State Street Traditional Jazz Band of Portland since 1997. Susie Hodgdon Higgins, who has managed the band all of those years, said Julie Shephard’s comparison of Neal Shephard to Ray Charles is more than just spousal bias.

“He’s on that order,” Higgins said. “Only his voice is much better than that.”

After leaving the Scotia Prince, Neal Shephard promised himself he would spend the rest of his days playing only the music he wants to play, which primarily encompasses jazz, blues and rock. He played in pubs and establishments throughout the region, including The Wharf and Joyce’s in Hallowell. He had lined up regular appearances at The Old Goat in Richmond. All of that ended June 2.

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE

Shephard was in his native California visiting his ailing mother. He spent much of the day playing music with a high school friend before returning to his mother’s home for the evening. The first sign of trouble was an uncharacteristic fatigue and chill. He asked for a cup of hot tea and dropped it on himself. Puzzled, Shephard chalked it up to being tired and went to bed. Nobody saw him again until his mother tried to wake him the next morning.

Shephard had two strokes that plunged his body into septic shock. He fell into a coma that he recalls as a dream of something chasing him.

“It was just crazy stuff,” Shephard said.

Julie Shephard was grocery shopping on the other side of the country when a family member called to say her husband was in the hospital. She started toward home, believing her husband, a diabetic, was suffering a simple problem with his blood sugar. A doctor called a short time later to tell her what had really happened. In a short time, Neal Shephard’s systems had all shut down. His sister, a nurse, gave him less than a 50 percent chance of survival.

“They really thought I was bringing his ashes home,” Julie Shephard said.

The Shephards agree that Neal Shephard would have died if he had been at home instead of in California. The trauma hospital that treated Shephard had some of the top doctors and therapists in the world, Julie Shephard said. The hospital is close enough to see from the house where Shephard was staying. Most importantly, Neal Shephard had a do not resuscitate contract about which his mother was unaware. She approved the procedure to put her son on a ventilator, an act prohibited by the DNR. Julie Shephard said if she had been in California making the decision, she would have respected her husband’s wishes, and he would have died.

“If I had been on vacation with him, he would not be with us,” she said. “We’ve repeatedly said it happened where it should have happened.”

Since the incident, they’ve discussed recrafting his do not resuscitate contract to be more specific.

Shephard spent 60 days in the hospital and therapy. Other than struggles with balance, there is hardly a hint of the strokes that nearly killed him. The strokes affected the parts of the brain that control Shephard’s vision — a fact that they’ve even managed to chuckle about — and his speech and reasoning. The doctors prepared Julie Shephard for her husband to spend his life muted.

“They took the ventilator out at noon and he never stopped talking,” Julie Shepard said. “A lot of it didn’t make sense, but it never stopped. They were all absolutely shocked.”

The doctors who treated Shephard believe that his brain had already rewired itself due to his blindness and music.

“He can play thousands of songs and never miss a note, never miss a word, because he’s got that memory,” Julie Shephard said.

Neal Shephard’s physical therapy began the day he got out of the intensive care unit when a friend brought him a portable piano to play. Shephard, hampered by an index finger and thumb on his right hand that won’t respond to commands, is still unable to make music.

“We’re getting there,” Julie Shephard said. “Physically he’s about 75 percent there. Piano wise we’re not there. Vocal wise he’s spot on.”

Saturday celebration

Neal Shephard is in the ocean again, uncertain when or if he’ll ever be rescued, so he’s swimming.

“Until I get my piano back, I’m going to learn the words to a lot more songs,” he said. “I’ll continue with singing and telling my stories.”

Shephard is set to return to the stage Saturday night during a benefit concert being put on by the State Street band at the Merriconeag Grange at 529 Harpswell Neck Road in Harpswell. The concert begins at 7 p.m. Admission is a $10 donation, part of which will go to help the Shephards with medical costs. Julie Shephard said the concert is much more about celebrating than raising money. The grange, where Neal Shephard and the State Street band play every year, is the perfect spot for Neal Shephard to return to performing.

“It’s almost like coming home,” Julie Shephard said. “It’s a celebration of his life and the ground he has made in just three months.”

Neal Shephard plans to sing “All of Me” and his signature song, “Georgia.”

“I’ll be doing at least two songs if not three or four, if I can convince them,” Shephard said. “But, you know, I’m going to be there and we’re going to have fun.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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