Portrait of Two Friends
Greg Raymond and Patrick Leblanc are thankful
“Never shall I forget the time I spent with you. Please continue to be my friend, as you will always find me yours.” – Ludwig van Beethoven
Frank Methe Photographs
If it’s true what the cliché makers say about how “opposites attract,” then Greg Raymond and Patrick Leblanc have forged a friendship that will last the test of all time.
The 52-year-old Raymond, owner of a Kenner jewelry store, is a former offensive lineman for Louisiana State University under the tutelages of the iconic Charlie McClendon and for one year that of Jerry Stovall. Raymond is a massive man, towering into the sky, with arms like tree trunks and who walks with a slow gait that speaks of Tiger bravado.
The 58-year-old Leblanc doesn’t have the luxury of walking. He moves by pushing his body backward in the wheelchair that has been his “legs” all of his adult life. Leblanc was born with cerebral palsy and can neither walk nor communicate … or so it would seem.
“I’ve known Patrick for about a year,” Raymond says. “But in that short time it’s amazing how our bond as friends has grown. I had been attending Mass every day at St. Edward the Confessor Church in Metairie for a couple of years, and I would see him there every day. I’d say hello and he’d smile. I could never understand what he was saying.” He continues, “Then one day, I saw him at Jazz Fest. I hadn’t been there in maybe 20 years. But on this day, I saw Patrick and I still didn’t know his name so I just said, ‘Hey, my brother, how’re you doing?’ Well, that broke the ice. He came up to me every day to shake my hand and to tell me in the sign language he uses how things were going. Nothing dramatic, but I always made time for him and he made time for me. Then we started looking for each other every night at church. I offered to pick him up to bring him to Mass then to take him home after Mass. It was supposed to be a short-term thing, maybe a week or so. It’s been about a year now … and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel honored to be able to serve him even if just by being able to take him to and from church.”
And ‘church’ is the place Leblanc seemingly always is at peace. He attends Catholic Mass twice each day – in the mornings at St. Mary Magdalen and in the evenings at St. Edward.
“He comes in pushing himself backward around church in that wheelchair and he’s always smiling,” says one St. Edward parishioner. “He stops and shakes hands with as many people as he can and he wishes everybody well. Few people can understand him, but then again … I’m sure they do understand him. He says he’s in church to give thanks. You look at some people, they break a fingernail and they moan and whine for a week. Here’s a man who’s been in that wheelchair all his life, having to depend on others for everything … and he’s giving thanks.”
“I see him when he comes into church,” says Msgr. Robert Massett, pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Church. “He’ll stop at each statue and say a prayer. In that odd garbled sound he makes, he’s praying. He knows the saints and God understand. I know he’s in pain and I often wonder how incredibly frustrating it must be to live the way he does. But he never complains. To tell the truth, Patrick is my idol.”
Leblanc was born the second child of twins. His sister was born with no complications. But at some point, those complications did happen to Patrick and consigned him to a painful life.
“Patrick suffers terribly with his back,” says his mother Marion Leblanc. “Right now his health is not good. We have to take him to the doctor about every six months for an epidural. I know it’s painful, but he never complains. Sometimes at night, when he can’t sleep, he’ll spend the entire night praying. All he wants to do is pray and give thanks.”
It is a cold, windy night in Metairie. The temperature hovers in the mid-30s. In a flash, one of the massive doors at St. Edward’s Church flies open. Within seconds, Raymond is pushing the wheelchair holding his friend, Leblanc into the church. Raymond stops at the back of the church to allow Leblanc to wheel himself up to each of the statues of the saints where he says a few words with his mangled sounds. He points to a statue and smiles.
“Yes, they know what you’re saying,” says a man who has stopped to shake hands with Leblanc. But Leblanc already knows that.
Raymond sits in the first pew of the church and places his hands on the railing. Leblanc eventually rolls up to the railing and places one of his hands on Raymond’s huge wrists. Raymond gives a reassuring pat to Leblanc’s hand, which will stay on Raymond’s wrist throughout the Mass.
“Somebody once told me, ‘Greg, you’re so good for doing this … for taking care of Patrick the way you do.’ Taking care of Patrick? I am honored to be able to do this. He is so small in stature. He looks like a little child. And at times, I feel like God has entrusted me with the care of an angel. I am so deeply honored to be able to do this for him. He gives a lot more to me than I could ever give to him. Somebody said that because I’m such a big person, Patrick feels safe with me. I feel that when he puts his hand on mine or when he looks at me and gives that big smile of his. I am so blessed to be able to do this for him.”
The relationship between former football player and cerebral palsy victim has grown strong over the past year. Raymond says his wife Charlene “has fallen in love with Patrick. She thinks the absolute world of him.” “And,” Raymond says. “He always tells me he wants me to give her kisses from him. She doesn’t see him as much as I do, but when she does, he always hugs her and gives her a kiss on the cheek.”
Raymond calls Leblanc “a deeply spiritual person.” And in the rough sign language the two men have developed as a means of communication, Raymond will sometimes act as interpreter when the inevitable, “What is he saying?” comes up after Mass is finished and Leblanc is wheeled down the center aisle of the church, stopping only to “give encouragement” to this man whose son is waiting on a test result or that woman who is anxious about a job interview.”
“Patrick never thinks of himself,” Marion Leblanc says. “He always thinks of other people. The people out there in that world mean so much to him.”
“I’m one of those people,” Raymond says. “And I am so thankful, too. Thankful that Patrick Leblanc is my friend.”