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Two Internet pen pals, two countries apart, hold out hope that after 16 years of friendship they may actually one day meet face-to-face

Tribune photo by Ashley White Rose Hartwig reads a book written by her friend Gavin Hill. The two have have known each other for 16 years but have never met. They talk every day through their computer hookup. "Gavin and I are going to meet," Hartwig says. "I know there will be a day soon when I can look into his eyes and he can look into mine."

ose Hartwig and Gavin Hill have known each other for 16 years. They speak every day. Sometimes it's a quick e-mail, other times it's a four-hour phone call. They finish each other's sentences like they can read minds and laugh hysterically at jokes only the two of them would understand. They're best friends. Soulmates, they say.

They've just never met in person.

Hartwig and Hill found each other on the Internet after Hartwig became paralyzed in the stomach, forcing her to spend 24 hours a day hooked up to a feeding tube. She was bedridden for months, her strength quickly depleting as she lost so much weight she barely topped 70 pounds. She prepared herself to die.

At that point, Hartwig's counselor advised her to reach out to someone through the Internet. That's where she met Hill, a British author of poems, children's books and novels who now lives in Sweden. After chatting online with Hartwig and hearing her story, he decided to help her by writing her poems of support.

"When I first met Rosie, she really was dying," Hill said in an interview over Skype. "So I told her, 'I will send you a poem for every day of your life.'"

Eventually Hartwig got better and regained much of her strength, and she credits Hill with helping her through those tough times.

"Gavin being the writer he is, he wrote me poems that gave me encouragement," Hartwig said. "I still read them every day -- at least twice. That's how much encouragement he gave me."

And Hill, no stranger to hard times himself, sometimes needed a little encouragement of his own.

At the age of 5, Hill had lost his sight, his hearing and all feeling down the left side of his body. Although he eventually regained all his senses, he found himself years behind his classmates at school.

"While other kids were learning to read and write, I was learning my ABCs," Hill says. "I wouldn't say I was bullied, but I definitely didn't have it easy at school."

At age 15, Hill still couldn't read or write -- not even his own name. But he met a musician who believed in him and asked him to try writing song verses. Hill had to use a typewriter to put his ideas on paper, since no one could read his handwriting, but he quickly realized that he had a passion -- and a talent -- for writing.

"I thought maybe I could write more," Hill says. "Now, I have to write. I can't stop."

And he's found his biggest fan in Hartwig. She's the first person to read all of his novels -- 16 to date, although only two have been published so far. For years, Hill would write novel after novel, only to put them back on the shelf, too ashamed to show anyone else what he'd written. Now, even at his lowest points, Hartwig gives him the support he needs to keep writing.

"When you're brought up being told you're stupid, you think you are," Hill said. "You need someone to encourage you. Rosie convinces me to keep going."

This month, Hartwig and Hill were supposed to meet for the first time. They've been planning Hill's trip to Minnesota for months. Hartwig bought all his favorite foods, got him a pair of cowboy boots -- something very "American" that he's always wanted, she saids -- and made him a special gift: a book of verses and passages taken from his writings, accompanied by photographs she took herself to match his words.

Now, these items sit rejected in her bedroom, a cruel reminder of life's unfairness. Hill never made it to the United States: His passport, issued in Britain, was rejected twice by airport immigration officials who didn't know why Hill had a British passport when he lives in Sweden.

And Hartwig, who waited for him at the airport until the final pilot and crew members had stepped off the plane, still can't understand why this is happening to them.

"I've gone through life and death, but when (he) didn't come off that plane, it was the most traumatic moment of my life," she said, fighting back tears. "Until we meet, that pain is not going to go away."

During his time in Minnesota, Hill was scheduled to appear at several library functions to meet his fans and talk about his upcoming book, "The Changing," due out this January. When Hartwig realized that he wouldn't be coming, she decided to bring America to him by continuing to hold the functions through Skype, a free video calling service where people communicate face-to-face via webcams.

And for the first time, Skype also allowed these two friends to talk to each other and see each other at the same time.

"Rosie and I have spoken so many times on so many levels," Hill said. "To actually see her real image moving in real time, it's like being in the same room. It's not quite as good, but it's pretty fantastic."

Their story doesn't have a happy ending -- yet. But these two will not give up. They are already planning Hill's next trip, hopefully around Christmas.

"Gavin and I are going to meet," Hartwig said. "I know there will be a day soon when I can look into his eyes and he can look into mine."

And until then, they'll continue doing what they've always done: making each other smile.

As they blow each other kisses across cyberspace and say goodnight (it's only 4 p.m. in Litchfield, but 11 p.m. in Sweden), Hartwig reminds Hill -- and herself -- of a promise he made to her long ago, in some of his earliest poems.

"In those poems, he told me he would come one day," she said, now allowing the tears to fall.

"And he will."