Can you identify this plant for me?” the lady asked as she took a seat beside me. We were on a bus tour of Texas herb businesses, winding our way through the Texas hill country to see herb farms and greenhouses. We were eager to learn what each business made or grew.
“I hope you don’t mind my sitting here,” the lady said. “I have a photo of a plant that I hope you might help me identify. I understand that we know each other.”
Gem, an acquaintance from several years earlier, continued her conversation by telling me that she was aware that we knew each other, but she hoped I would be forgiving if she didn’t recall just how we were acquainted. “You see,” she said, “I had surgery for a brain tumor two years ago and it left me without my memories. I’m slowly putting together new ones day to day.”
Gem told me that doctors initially believed she was suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s disease because her short-term memory had disappeared rapidly. Eventual testing revealed a large benign tumor and surgery was of high risk. The medical team warned her that she had only about a 50 percent chance of surviving the surgery, but there were no other reasonable options for treatment. Fortunately, Gem survived the surgery.
“But when I woke up,” she said, “large areas of my memories were no longer there. They had taken away nearly 25 percent of the volume of my brain.” In the weeks after surgery, Gem didn’t recognize her husband or other family members. She could speak a few words but had no idea what the words meant. Even stranger, she occasionally slipped back into speaking Spanish, a language she had learned when living in South America but no longer used.
She didn’t recognize everyday objects. She had completely lost her ability to walk. Gem explained that she began therapy immediately, mostly aimed at helping her brain compensate by learning to store memory in the areas not affected by the tumor and its removal.
“My family and church life and my writing all revolved around my garden,” she said. “But after the surgery I didn’t even recognize any of those dearest parts of my life.” Her husband helped her with everything, patiently assisting in the therapy, not showing his frustration at how slow and minimal Gem’s progress was. One day he simply wheeled her out to her old garden. “He just sat me down on the ground in the middle of my herbs, hoping some glimmer of memory would reappear. He was at a loss of what else to do,” she said.
She began weeding—not by recognizing which plants were weeds and which weren’t, but by leaving the plants that smelled good or familiar. She pulled and smelled and tasted the plants in her garden. She explained that she had no knowledge stored up of which plants had been favorites or what plants had been unwanted weeds.
“The memories of fragrances seemed to come from some other part of my brain than where reason and standard memory were stored,” she observed. Things that smelled important or useful were left. Plants that evoked no reaction were yanked from the ground and put in a pile to be hauled away. Over the months, she came to know her garden again.
Before the operation, Gem had been a lecturer and writer. Her business, Herbal Gems, had produced fresh-cut herbs for restaurants. Little by little, the forgotten memories seemed to be tied to the still-familiar smells of the herbs she once loved. Therapy taught her to walk all over again. More therapy and considerable determination helped her read and write again. Patient friends and loving family encouraged, taught, and helped Gem find who she was before surgery. Renewed faith guided her.
“I can’t express strongly enough how important that time in the garden was for me,” she said. “Smells helped me to identify those plants that I loved, and had planted earlier. The smells of the herbs were reassuring to me and even though I had no comprehension of why or how, the time I spent in my garden each day gave me profound hope.”
The fragrances and flavors of herbs have a primal connection to our humanity, I believe. Gem Rigsby’s struggle to regain her personality and her life were helped by those ancient connections we all have within us. Who knows what amazing therapies await us each day in our own garden?
Jim Long welcomes readers’ questions or comments; you may e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tour his gardens at www.longcreekherbs.com.