Bobby Dees expertly steered his twin sister Emily's wheelchair to a table in the commons at East Lyme High School one recent morning and positioned the chair so that Emily could be part of the conversation.
Brother and sister sat side by side, smiling - a tall, brown-haired track athlete and a tiny, brown-haired chorus member whose lives have been inextricably and joyously linked from the beginning.
Eighteen years after they were born prematurely and spent the first months of their lives in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, the twins are getting ready to graduate from high school.
The Dees twins said they liked East Lyme High School. Bobby is an honors student who ran indoor and outdoor track. Emily, who was born with cerebral palsy and a rare genetic anomaly and is legally blind, is in a special education program. She sings in the chorus and has had classes and activities with mainstream students.
The school community has been impressed by the way Bobby takes care of Emily. He says he considers helping his sister, who has been gravely ill at times, a priority and a privilege.
"Having Emily is the best thing I could have asked for," Bobby said. "It teaches you every moment is valuable, because honestly, you don't have a lot of them."
"What I find most amazing about Bobby is that he never left her side when she was in the hospital," said Beth Provost, a special education teacher. His sister's needs might embarrass or overwhelm another teen, but Provost said Bobby is so secure in who he is that peer pressure is not an issue.
"When you grow up and spend most of your time taking care of somebody on a daily basis, you care about people more rather than just judging them," Bobby said.
His bedside vigil at Yale New-Haven Hospital last summer, while Emily fought for her life, was a no-brainer for Bobby. He said he wanted to be with his sister and to make her as comfortable as possible.
Bobby said he also sits with Emily each week to watch a certain TV show about a high school choir. " 'Glee' is not my favorite show, but I watch it with her anyway," he said.
His devotion seems endless, but Bobby concedes that he does have limitations when it comes to bonding with his sister. "I don't like to admit it, but I can't do as many things with Emily that a girl can," he said. "I can't try on rings. I can't try on earrings. I can't try on bracelets."
Bobby said he's grateful for the friends Emily has made in high school. She has been paired with other girls as part of the Best Buddies program and has been a cheerleader in unified basketball. Both programs partner special needs and mainstream students.
"It used to be my kids were by themselves," said Provost, Emily's teacher. "Now in the hall it's 'Hey, how are you, Emily?' "
When Emily received an award for biology at a June 4 ceremony at the high school, the audience responded with a standing ovation as the twins' older brother, Tristan Cole, carried her to the stage.
Bobby, an honors student, will be leaving in the fall for the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he plans to major in mechanical engineering. He received a partial scholarship to attend the SUNY school.
Emily will be working this summer at Cottage Gardens in Colchester and returning to the high school in the fall to take more classes. Special needs students may continue to take classes until they are 21.
Bobby said he worries about leaving his sister behind. He considered schools farther away, including one in California, but decided that Long Island was just the right distance. He wants to be able help his family both "financially and physically."
"If I'm able to have my own life and build my own lifestyle, I'll be able to help others," he said.
"She's had pretty much the best four years I could ask for," Bobby said of his sister, adding that she has taught him so many things, including patience. "Everyone has their own limitations and everyone has their own strengths," he said.
Emily is Bobby's number one fan, according to their mother, Anita Dees, who raised the children on a farm on Upper Pattagansett Road. "It's been the most wonderful thing to live with these children and see them grow up," she said.
Emily takes longer than others to process information, so it was difficult for her to answer a reporter's questions during a recent interview. She did respond quickly, however, when asked what she wants the world to know about her.
"I'm beautiful," she said.
Back in the classroom, Provost worked with Emily to answer written questions and sent them to The Day via email. Emily said Bobby is her hero, that he helps her get around the house, sings with her and plays video games.
Her favorite memory, growing up, was going to Disney World with her mother and Bobby, Emily said. She and Bobby loved to ride their horse, Blaze, who was very gentle.
"When we were little, Bobby and I would sing together," she said. "We would sing, 'Go to Sleep' and 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' and 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' '' she said.
"I love to dance with Bobby."