Healing in the garden

Charles Roome has used his one-acre Talent garden to recover from a stroke
Charles Roome picks apples from a tree on his one-acre garden in Talent.Mail Tribune / Julia Moore

I knew the moment my husband woke me on Jan. 24, 2010, that he was having a stroke. The way he poked my arm was uncharacteristically rough. His words were slurred, so I could only just make out that he had been trying to have breakfast and feed the cat. But his usual greeting to her wouldn't come out. He choked on his toast.

Our excellent hospital was half a mile away, and I knew it was fully certified as a stroke center. So I broke a cardinal rule by not calling an ambulance — something everyone should do if they (or someone they know) experiences the telltale symptoms of stroke.

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I was grateful I didn't have to carry my 6-foot-3 husband to the car, as he was getting weaker by the minute and was very unsteady on his feet. Within minutes we were checking in at emergency. The next few hours were to determine the whole trajectory of our future.

Charles was too late for the clot-busting drug tPA, which has to be administered within four hours of the onset of stroke. We'd both assumed that his restless tossing and turning through the night had been due to the flu plus worries about an early-morning client call he'd been preparing for despite being ill. Few people jump to the conclusion they're having a stroke, though strokes are surprisingly common, even among the comparatively young and fit, so it's always wise to have a high index of suspicion and know the signs.

By the end of that day, Charles could not speak or swallow, and his right side was alarmingly weak. He was also in shock. Stroke is brain injury, and its effects take time to show up in all their complexity. When he was discharged from the hospital a few days later, he sat in our living room, deeply grateful to be home. Mercifully, his legs seemed strong enough, so he could get about. But the first time he tried to get up from a chair, he fell heavily over a marble-top table, breaking several ribs.

Weeks of therapy followed: speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy. Then came the moment to look frankly at the future and decide what should be done. Charles's Silicon Valley job required intensive interface with customers, talking, making detailed plans, budgeting. When he tried getting on to the computer, not only did the fingers of his right hand refuse to hit the right keys, he could not mentally access the words he needed and translate them into letters. He felt like a small kid, trying to learn letters and numbers again. Or like a toddler trying to find the right words and speak them aloud. It slowly became clear that returning to his job wasn't feasible.

Hopes of staying in our home were fading too. Without his salary, mortgage payments suddenly became a frightening prospect. We felt our current life chugging to a stop. So began the long process of clearing out the debris from three decades of family life and work, and putting our house on the market. Where next?

We'd begun visiting Ashland back in the 1980s, later bringing our sons to OSU plays, too. We'd always felt at home in the Rogue Valley. In October of 2010, when Charles regained his ability to drive, we ventured to the area several times, looking at properties. We found a house in Talent with skylights everywhere and a fruit orchard that reminded us both of our childhood gardens. We knew we were home.

We moved to Talent in July last year, and that was when Charles's rehabilitation really began. First he found a swimming pool at SOU, and started swimming three times a week. His blood pressure dropped. He lost weight, built up muscle. Then he joined me at a yoga class at Om Sweet Om in Talent, and found he liked it. The class helped him strengthen the core muscles needed for swimming, and brought with it a little attitude adjustment toward a calmer, more accepting outlook. Then he found a tai chi class, which helped not just fitness, but his balance, which had been affected by the stroke.

Above all, it was the garden that healed. Having equated gardening with the dreaded Saturday chore of mowing our suburban lawn back in California, Charles had no idea what riches an acre of land could bring — not just physically but mentally. We attended OSU Extension classes on grape-vine pruning, vegetable growing and soil cultivation. Soon, he was drawing plans for raised beds, buying wood and putting together structures to cultivate vegetables more intensively. He was handling saws and hammers again, learning the names of trees, finding out what plants thrive in this area.

Showing up for work in the morning — just outside the back door instead of via a hair-raising commute on congested highways — became a joy. The garden was constantly demanding, with new challenges daily, but always rewarding, especially when we started tasting our zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, and plums.

The frustration and sense of loss that still haunted him almost two years after the stroke was finally fading. He was noticing things as never before — the varied greens of summer trees, the dramatic way plants responded to light and training, the way the sun hit the trees when it crested the hill in the morning. He even started to draw and paint a little.

"I don't need to find my dream life anymore," he said. "I'm living it now."

The aftermath of the stroke still affects him in many ways that others wouldn't necessarily perceive. Dealing with numbers is a challenge, he still struggles to read a book, his speech slurs, especially when he's tired.

"I still get frustrated when I try to find a word and it won't come," he said. "The muscles of my mouth are slow, and I miss my chance to jump into a conversation."

But plants need no words. "I'm just so happy here every day," he said, still incredulous that a stroke could bring such luck.

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