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Paralyzed by illness, Anthony Weller, 63, wrote sonnets a letter at a time

Anthony Weller, outside his one-room cabin where he wrote in the Annisquam section of Gloucester.
Anthony Weller, outside his one-room cabin where he wrote in the Annisquam section of Gloucester.John Blanding/Globe Staff/File 2004

As illness reduced Anthony Weller to typing with a single finger, then whispering words, then blinking an eye, he kept writing, letter by letter.

Lying awake at night, paralyzed from the neck down, he wrote in his mind and memorized the words he’d dictate, sometimes taking hours the next day to blink out a single line as he worked with a typist whose hand flitted across an alphabet divided into quadrants on a board held where he could see it.

He published his first collection of poems, “Sonnets of Death and Love,” a few months before he died. The first begins with a nod to the sustaining power of his marriage:

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A year back I doubted I’d last this long;

Love’s capacities get underrated.

A few lines later he added: “It hurts me to say goodbye to the world.”

An accomplished jazz and classical guitarist and a widely published writer before primary progressive multiple sclerosis stilled his body, Mr. Weller was 63 when he died in his Gloucester home June 3 from complications of the illness.

Prior to the diagnosis, he also was widely traveled, initially making his mark writing for publications such as National Geographic and The New York Times about distant places he visited.

Confining his body, multiple sclerosis offered a passport to a locale that was limited geographically, but not imaginatively. Mr. Weller captured this new terrain as precisely as he had chronicled the world.

“The first thing you have to get used to is total helplessness,” he wrote several years ago in an essay on his website that The Wall Street Journal published. “You’re dependent on somebody else for everything. If you want your ear scratched, you have to ask. You soon learn that you can’t just ask every time the problem arises, or you’d be asking the whole day.”

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Mr. Weller initially used voice-recognition software when he was unable to type. When the software no longer recognized his fading voice, good old-fashioned human assistance intervened.

“He would just stay on the course,” said his wife, Kylée Smith. “He was so dedicated to the art. He was so dedicated to working. It was an extraordinary act of herculean effort.”

In his Wall Street Journal essay, posted in a preedited version on his blog, Mr. Well recalled that “when I was a smartass teenager in the 1970s, I made the usual jokes about people ‘paralyzed from the neck down.’ You never suspect that’s you, half a lifetime on.”

That wasn’t the only lesson he learned when illness came to call. Speaking about his marriage, he wrote:

For I’ve learned one thing in sixty-odd years:

Another person can keep you alive

Not just by transforming hope out of fears,

But through the magic protection of love.

Born in Macon, Ga., on Sept. 18, 1957, Anthony Weller was the only child of Gladys Lasky, a British ballet scholar and teacher, and George Weller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent.

Mr. Weller’s parents never married. He told the Globe that when he was born, his father was married to someone else — a writer who was disabled by mental illness and often lived in institutions.

While growing up, Mr. Weller usually saw his father for only a couple of weeks a year. He eventually followed him into the reporting trade, his travel writing journeys an echo of George’s life on the road as a foreign correspondent.

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Among George’s accomplishments, largely unheralded in his lifetime, was being the first Western reporter in Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb dropped by the United States devastated the city.

The US military censor wouldn’t allow George’s dispatches to be published, and he thought he had lost the original carbon copies. Discovering the carbons in his father’s home in Italy after George died in 2002, Anthony edited and published that work in 2006 as “First into Nagasaki.” Three years later, he edited and published “Weller’s War,” a collection of his father’s World War II writing.

Mr. Weller’s own books include the travel memoir “Days and Nights on the Grand Trunk Road: Calcutta to Khyber,” and novels such as 2004′s “The Siege of Salt Cove,” set in a fictionalized version of Cape Ann.

As a boy, he had spent summers in Gloucester, where his father’s mother had purchased a cottage. In his fiction and travel writing, Mr. Weller wrote about Cape Ann and its people with the fierce loyalty of a local.

“We know our cape in detail and claim you can never truly know more than a smidgen of it,” he wrote in The New York Times Style Magazine in 1998. “We go to Boston, 36 miles away, as reluctantly as possible.”

Drawn to the guitar as a boy, Mr. Weller first studied piano for five years at his mother’s insistence, so that he would be grounded in theory.

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Then he concentrated on guitar as he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and from Yale University, with a bachelor’s degree in music.

Principally a jazz guitarist, Mr. Weller also recorded a couple of classical albums along with his many jazz CDs.

Just as his writing took him to faraway locales, he played nationally and internationally. And in the years before his diagnosis, he performed and recorded with legendary jazz trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, who like Mr. Weller lived in Gloucester.

“He was an extremely warm, concise man, and so his solos tended to be warm and poetic and audacious,” Mr. Weller told the Globe when Pomeroy died in 2007.

Mr. Weller also taught guitar and continued to do so with advanced students when he could no longer perform.

“I was diagnosed in 2006 and I walked until 2010. It seems like another lifetime ago,” Mr. Weller told WickedLocal in 2015.

“You say goodbye to bits and pieces,” he added. “The last time you went for a walk with your wife . . . the last time you stood at the sink and did the dishes . . . the last time you stood up in the shower . . . the last time you turned the pages of a book.”

At the end of his playing, Mr. Weller could only use two fingers on his guitar’s fretboard, rather than four. His wife likened it to a kind of musical haiku.

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“In jazz you improvise — you work around your limitations,” Mr. Weller told WickedLocal. “I didn’t leave something out, I just wasn’t putting something in, which was different.”

His first marriage, to Valérie Moniez, ended in divorce.

In the early 1990s, he met Kylée Smith, who has taught yoga and Qigong. They married in 1997.

In a sonnet, he wrote:

Our achievement is what we’ve learned of love.

That’s what we inherit, what we bequeath

She is Mr. Weller’s only immediate survivor. A memorial gathering to celebrate his life will be announced.

“If you’re not thoughtful by nature, you certainly become thoughtful,” Mr. Weller wrote of what it was like to be paralyzed. “There isn’t much else to do. You find yourself reflecting on what it means to be human.”

He added that “you find yourself, unavoidably, living in the past. Happiness isn’t is, but was. You try not to contemplate the future too much.”

Writing poetry kept him present and alive:

Awake, I compose these sonnets to keep

From falling headfirst into lonely sleep.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.