Desert renewal

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Desert renewal

Following her husband's brain injury, Atlanta writer Echo Garrett and her family find their way back to each other over Thanksgiving in Arizona.

Following her husband's brain injury, Atlanta writer Echo Garrett and her family find their way back to each other over Thanksgiving in Arizona.

On Thanksgiving morning just after sunrise, my husband Kevin asked, “Is that sage I smell?”

“Yes,” I replied, happy that he remembered.

The fragrant, comforting scent of the herb all around us wasn’t coming from a turkey roasting in the oven. Kevin and I were hiking the easy trail up Pinnacle Peak in the Sonoran Desert where white sage grew wild amid the towering Saguaro cacti. Our two teenage sons, Caleb, 16, and Connor, 13, scrambled ahead of us, looking for ways to make the gently sloping trail that winds past gigantic granite boulders more challenging.

The year was 2005, and this holiday season we made the conscious choice to travel far from our home in Marietta and all that was familiar because the year earlier Kevin had suffered mild traumatic brain injury when a speeding motorist rear-ended him in a construction zone. I use the word “mild” only because that’s what the doctors called it. When it’s your husband and it’s the brain you fell in love with as a 19-year-old college sophomore, even a so-called mild injury sends shock waves that reverberate through your soul.

Our sons and I struggled to cope with a father and husband who overnight went from being a hard-charging, fun-loving adventurer, whom they’d playfully nicknamed James Bond, to a quiet, easily angered stranger, who often retreated to bed when his pain grew too intense.

The low point for me came a few months after the accident, just shy of our 24th anniversary — the night I realized life would never be the same again. I had been chopping root vegetables to roast for dinner. Kevin was leaning against the refrigerator, keeping me company, and we were laughing for what seemed like the first time in a long time. Then in that instant, he did not know my name and had no idea who I was.

After more than a quarter of a century of constant togetherness — running our own business together and sharing an office in our house — he could not remember my name. When I saw the look of puzzlement and pain flicker in his dark eyes as his mind searched his now flawed data banks, I rushed to help him.

“Echo, my name’s Echo,” I said gently.

“I know, I know, I just forgot,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and looking stricken.

Panic and fear stuck in my throat like in the nightmare when you try to scream but nothing comes out. Here was undeniable evidence that something was terribly wrong. I lamely cracked a joke about the Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler movie “50 First Dates.” Barrymore plays a car accident victim who Sandler’s character woos each day anew, because she can’t remember him.

Ironically, that was the last movie we saw together before Kevin’s accident. We’d gone for a weekend getaway to Amelia Island, Fla., with all these grand, activity-filled plans. Instead, we spent most of the weekend holed up in our hotel room, lounging in each other’s arms, watching action flicks and romantic comedies. How quickly our roles changed from two lovers to patient and caregiver.

A change of scenery

Now I harbored the dream that this Thanksgiving journey would bring a miraculous, healing balm to our family’s collective wounds. Miracles had happened in the desert for Moses and Jesus. With my mustard seed of faith, maybe a small one would come our way. At the least, I hoped that this trip to the desert would yield some happy new memories to anchor us while we learned to navigate uncharted waters. Some days threatened to drag us all down in a swirling vortex of darkness and grief.

I didn’t want a repeat of the previous year’s holiday season. That November, three weeks after the accident, we joined Kevin’s mom, stepfather, brothers’ and sister’s families for a long-planned traditional Thanksgiving in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The noise from all the kids, the inevitable stresses that arise at big family gatherings and Kevin’s constant pain all combined to make the holiday torturous for him. Worst of all, his memories were tangled like strands of carelessly stored Christmas lights. In his confused state, the death of his beloved father in November a decade earlier felt raw and new to him all over again.

That year our Christmas festivities made it even more apparent that Kevin was having problems with his memory and thought processes. He became lost on his way to a family dinner at my mom’s house. She lives four miles away. Kevin slid into his place at the table more than an hour late. He told me later that he was grateful that everyone acted like it was perfectly normal to lose your way to a place you’d been dozens of times before.

So when the holidays approached again, my anxiety rose. My heart told me that we all desperately needed a complete change of scenery — neutral territory in a sense — where we could begin the healing work of getting to know each other as a family again.

I longed for a respite from my role as hyper-vigilant caregiver. Each night I barely dared to sleep, terrified that he’d suffer a seizure, which brain injury victims are prone to endure. I held his hand, conscious of his movements and breathing as he shifted restlessly on our now-too-small queen-sized bed.

When I cautiously broached the possibility of our family going away for the holidays, Kevin shocked me with a quick yes. In the wake of the accident, he often waffled on the simplest decisions. This time, he knew exactly where he wanted to go: the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. We’d been to Scottsdale a few times when the boys were younger and once to Sedona many years prior for a romantic getaway.

Kevin’s request made sense. People suffering from everything from respiratory problems to depression have long been drawn to the desert’s restful beauty, its mild winter temperatures, bright sunlight and open blue skies. It’s a place of rejuvenation and inspiration. Upon seeing the Sonoran Desert for the first time, Frank Lloyd Wright quoted Victor Hugo: “The desert is where God is and man is not.”

I was shocked a second time when I was easily able to cash in our frequent flyer miles for four tickets despite the holiday. Maybe this trip was meant to be.

I made few arrangements beyond a rental car and hotel. Part of our new life is rarely making any long-term plans, because everything revolves around Kevin’s pain levels.

Could I fall in love with my husband all over again? The question bounced around in my brain. I dared to nurture that thought as I watched the clock roll past 3 a.m. for yet another night. The boys needed to see their father laugh and enjoy himself. And Kevin deserved a safe space — far from the daily reminders of what he’d lost — to discover his new self.

A family trek in the desert

As we climbed the path wafting with the aroma of sage, Kevin was content to amble along beside me, holding my hand and occasionally commenting on the creatures that inhabited the desert. He pointed out the small, blue-tailed lizards and a cottontail bunny that zigzagged in front of us. Normally, with my shorter legs and more contemplative hiking style, I bring up the rear while Kevin races ahead with our sons, scoping out the best photo vantage points and competing to make it to the top first. But the new reality has slowed him down.

Our sons disappeared around a sharp bend. Kevin leaned over to look at a patch of dull-gray lichen clinging to the sunny side of an ancient granite boulder. “Watch this,” he said, pouring a few drops of his water bottle onto the lichen. He didn’t recall that we learned this trick on a guided tour hiking Camelback when Caleb and Connor were young several years earlier. It’s just one of those random bits of knowledge that remained embedded in his memory.

The moment the smallest amount of moisture reached the lichen, it sprang back to life, magically turning a beautiful shade of emerald green. I felt as though I’ve spent the last year like that lichen, shriveled, gray and dry, clinging to the harsh landscape of our new life. I thirstily drank in the stark beauty of our surroundings and digested the first scraps of what I could call a real conversation we’d had since his accident.

I stole a glance at Kevin and cataloged the many things for which I was grateful. He looked the same. He could still walk. His sense of humor was coming back. He was kind and loved me and our sons. His visual skills were unimpaired, so he could still do the work he loved as a professional photographer. And, most important … he was here.

Then my thoughts took a detour. My next door neighbor and two of my best friends were recent widows. Who was I to long so deeply for the person he used to be? Ingrate.

“Did you know the saguaro cactus takes years to regenerate one of its arms if it gets lopped off? Look at the nub on that one,” Kevin said, derailing my train of thought.

His doctor told us that the brain is one of the slowest organs in the body to heal. I surveyed the knob on the cactus where a graceful arm once reached toward the cloudless sky. I admired its resilience — the same characteristic I saw in my husband.

“My most determined, optimistic patient ever,” his neuropsychologist called him. “He’s ahead of the game, because he has you and a supportive network.”

Since our arrival, the quality of light had visibly brightened Kevin’s mood. And the caress of the desert heat had lessened the constant pain from the arthritis the accident activated at the base of his neck.

We failed to ascend to the top of the peak, pausing to rest in the shadow of a boulder. “Let’s just wait for the boys here,” Kevin said, surveying the landscape.

“Are you sure? We can make it,” I said.

“No, no, I’m good,” he said, turning his face toward the sun and flashing his familiar smile.

One of the things I liked about the new Kevin was that he didn’t push quite so hard, so fast all the time. He seemed happier to just let some things slide.

Creating new traditions

I did something I had only done one other time in my adult life. I made a restaurant reservation for our Thanksgiving meal. I needed to assuage my Southern guilt for not spending hours in the kitchen preparing traditional homemade treats for my family and friends. I also wanted to be certain the food was over-the-top delicious and the setting sufficiently celebratory to mark my husband’s survival.

I splurged and made a reservation at Talavera at the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, requesting the earliest seating. I asked for a quiet table, explaining that restaurant noise bothered my husband.

From our table we could see the brilliant colors of the sunset wash over Pinnacle Peak in the distance. Our meat-loving sons were focused on the cornucopia of the buffet — rosemary, honey glazed turkey with giblet gravy and cranberry-orange relish, olive-crusted rack of lamb with mint jus and roast prime rib from the carving station. They also eyed the artful display of desserts. Pumpkin pie provided the sole link to what our Thanksgiving at home would have been.

Kevin and I piled our plates with non-traditional selections such as crab-crusted wild salmon, Alaskan crab claws, oysters on the half shell and seared tuna sashimi with seaweed salad. For dessert, we selected a dish of plump blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.

All good brain food. Stop it, I thought. Just enjoy this moment.

“The ringing in my head hasn’t seemed quite so loud since we’ve been here,” said Kevin while the boys were busy heaping their plates for a second time. “It’s peaceful. There’s something symbolic about the big open spaces of the landscape that speaks to possibilities. Out here I feel like I have room to create something new.”

I nodded in agreement. He looked relaxed, less gray than when we arrived.

“At home, what’s hard is that I’m constantly running into people at church, at the grocery store, any number of places who unintentionally serve as reminders that I’m different. Some get upset that I don’t remember them,” he continued. “To me, I’m just me. When I travel nobody knows what I was like before. I’m on even ground with everybody else, because everything’s new when you’re a traveler.”

A profound observation and it makes so much sense.

Before I could reply, Kevin’s attention span had reached its limit and he jumped to a new topic. “Look at that,” he said.

I turned to see a jackrabbit with ears the size of a mule’s in the courtyard. We both laughed at our break with tradition. Instead of seeing wild turkeys in the pine barrens of South Georgia, we were looking at a jack rabbit while eating sushi in the Sonoran Desert.

Sensory memories

The time passed too quickly, and it was time to go home. I searched for a memento of our trip. Long ago when we visited the Enchantment Resort in Sedona in the red rock country north of Scottsdale, sage incense was burning in our casita upon check in. Kevin was entranced. Although I normally don’t like incense, I bought some of it, and over the next several years, I carefully parceled it out on special occasions, delighted with the memories it evoked.

This time when I inquired about sage, I learned that the Plains tribes prized it above all other herbs for its powerful healing properties. They lined the floors of their sweat lodges with branches of sage and burned it during purification ceremonies.

Now I was on a quest. Finally, I found it and bought two smudge sticks of white sage to burn upon our return.

My spirit stood ready for a new beginning. Besides, our senses are a funny thing. I knew that whenever Kevin smelled sage, no matter what gaps might remain in his memory, this heavenly scent would conjure up the deep knowledge that he was loved, wholeheartedly and always.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Echo Garrett began her career in journalism 30 years ago. Her work has appeared in 75 national publications, including “Parade,” “Business Week” and “Delta Sky.” Formerly editor-in-chief of “Atlanta Woman,” she has collaborated on several nonfiction books including “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change” (Crown Archetype 2012), which features photography by her husband, Kevin Garrett. Echo co-founded the Orange Duffel Bag Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which provides executive coaching to homeless youth and teens aging out of foster care.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Eight years ago, Kevin Garrett, an internationally award-winning photographer, was on his way to a job for Coastal Living magazine when his vehicle was rear-ended on I-75 near Valdosta. The accident turned the Garretts’ lives upside down. His wife, freelance writer Echo Garrett, had to quit her job as editor-in-chief of Atlanta Woman magazine to care for him. Since that time Kevin has made a remarkable recovery. He went back to work, traveling to Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Canada and the Middle East, and winning more awards for his work. He still has difficulty reading, due to short term memory issues, and deals with constant pain and continual ringing in his ears. Nevertheless, Echo says they feel tremendously blessed. This year they celebrated a traditional Thanksgiving with family.

Next Week: Devastated by the Great Recession, an Atlanta family slowly rebuilds.

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