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Living for Justice

I lost my memory in the accident, my sense of self. Then came a startling suggestion…

Mary Deets and guide dogs

People tell me I’ve always been a shy person. They also tell me I used to manage a medical office in southern California and bicycle long distances in my spare time.

They say I was fond of dogs, was an accomplished woodworker, went hiking and white-water rafting, and enjoyed life as a single woman with a close circle of friends.

They tell me I grew up the oldest of 10 children in a small Pennsylvania town and settled in California where the weather was great for bike riding. They tell me I had a strong faith.

I say people tell me these things because I wouldn’t know myself. In fact, without the memories of my friends and family I wouldn’t know a thing about the first two-thirds of my life.

That’s because right after my fiftieth birthday I suffered a severe head injury in a bicycle accident and lost all of my memory. I mean all. I awoke from a coma unable to walk, talk or eat. I had to relearn those things.

What I couldn’t relearn was my self. Who was I? What did I like, dislike? Why was I here? I couldn’t answer those questions. I needed help. And for several long years it seemed that help might never come.

I don’t remember the accident but I do have newspaper articles and a few photographs taken by a bystander. It was June in the small town of Cortez, Colorado.

For my fiftieth birthday I’d decided to take several weeks and bicycle solo across the country to Downingtown, Pennsylvania, where I was born. I spent two years training and sometimes rode 150 miles on weekend charity bike rides.

I was passing through Cortez on U.S. Route 160 when a car parked on the shoulder suddenly veered into traffic and was struck by a van. Both vehicles spun across the road. The car hit me, throwing me from my bike and straight into the windshield of the van.

Photos show the car smashed and the van plunged into a ditch. My bicycle lies bent in a patch of roadside grass.

I was flown to a trauma hospital about 50 miles away, then to another hospital in Pasadena, closer to home. I was in the hospital five weeks. My right knee was battered, I had trouble moving my left side and blood pooled dangerously between my brain and my skull.

Friends and family visited but I recognized no one.

I was transferred to a rehabilitation center where I began to relearn all the basic skills I’d lost. I took tentative first steps, learned how to use a spoon and fork, worked on simple speech and reading, and tried to remember the names of all the people who kept coming to my room swearing that they knew me and loved me.

I picked up my Bible again and gradually pieced together the faith that had once been second nature.

It wasn’t until I returned home two months later that I finally grasped what had happened to me. I was under near constant supervision by therapists, friends and family. One morning I happened to be by myself. I was at the kitchen sink when all of a sudden I asked myself why I wasn’t at work.

Maybe some key synapses in my brain healed, or maybe some trickle of memory bubbled up. Whatever it was, I knew something was wrong. What’s going on? I thought. I had enough presence of mind to call Gayle Taylor, one of my therapists.

Gayle told me to stay put, she’d be there in 20 minutes. When she arrived we sat down and she told me all about the accident. I bombarded her with questions. She told me about my job. The bike rides. The rafting. Friends. Family. And that’s all gone now.

Before she left Gayle said, “Mary, I know how hard this is. If you start feeling depressed, if you think about not wanting to live like this anymore, promise you’ll call me. Okay?”

I promised, but in the weeks that followed I almost wished I hadn’t. My short-term memory was rapidly improving. Not enough to recapture my former life but enough to make me ever more aware of what I’d lost.

Everything in my house–T-shirts from charity rides, rafting and hiking photos, woodworking equipment–was a haunting remnant of a vanished life. I could ride a bike and drive but I was still working on my speech and balance.

Talking with strangers was excruciating. No way could I go back to work. I didn’t even want to venture outside my own house. I felt useless. The Bible tells us God knows every one of us intimately, down to each hair on our heads. Well, there wasn’t much of me to know.

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One day I loaded my bike in the car and drove up to one of my favorite trails in the mountains near my house. (Since I couldn’t remember the accident I had no fear of riding.) I left my helmet in the car and set off down a trail where I knew there was a steep cliff.

I was just picturing riding off that cliff and putting an end to my misery when I remembered my promise to Gayle. I braked and the bike came to a stop. Around me the mountains were quiet. The sun beat down. There was no reassuring presence, no sudden answer.

But a promise was a promise. Wearily I walked back up the hill.

I told Gayle about what had happened on the mountain. “Mary,” she said, “I think I might have found something for you.”

“Sure,” I said absently.

“No, I mean it,” she said. “I just saw an article about someone who raises puppies for the Guide Dogs of America program. You’d be great at that. You love dogs and you’re very thorough.”

“You mean I used to be those things.”

“I think you can do this. Why don’t I call them and set up a meeting?”

I was unsure but I agreed. The meeting was actually an interview and I was glad Gayle could accompany me. My speech still wasn’t perfect. The interviewer didn’t seem to mind.

What mattered more was that I’d had dogs before (two Springer Spaniels) and I was willing to do what’s required of guide-dog raisers–help the dogs socialize, expose them to different environments, keep them healthy and groomed, and teach basic commands.

I had to admit I could probably do all that. I signed up.

I picked up my first puppy, Justice, at a Guide Dogs facility an hour’s drive away. Justice was a roly-poly yellow Labrador, two months old. When I got him home I realized letting him run around in the yard wouldn’t come close to exercising him properly.

I’d have to walk him. Which meant I’d have to venture out into the neighborhood. By myself.

I leashed Justice up and we set off. He pulled me every which way. Trying to keep up with a bounding puppy made my balance even worse. Justice soon tired of walking in circles and before I knew it he was leading me in a straight line.

The same thing happened the next day. And the day after that. Soon we were taking proper walks and I was teaching Justice to stay, sit and stand up.

Justice seemed to sense my difficulties and I found that holding his leash steadied me. Once, we ran into a neighbor and I found myself talking less hesitantly–about Justice. He got all the attention, taking the pressure off me.

Caring for Justice steadied me in other ways too. Life became a routine. Up in time to feed and walk my boy, devotions, excursions to stores and other places Justice needed to get used to, visits with other guide-dog raisers to socialize the dogs.

My life hadn’t been so active since the accident. I hardly had time to feel sorry for myself. And all the talking! Everyone wanted to stop and pet this handsome boy with the bright yellow Guide Dog jacket. Everyone wanted to hear his story. Our story.

One morning, sitting in the living room, I put down my Bible and closed my eyes to pray. All the typical things to be thankful for floated through my mind. Then came something new. Thank you, God, for Justice, for the way he gives me confidence.

I opened my eyes. There he lay on the carpet, his nose resting on his fuzzy front paws. Above him, resting atop a bookshelf, sat a dusty black-and-white bicycle helmet. It was the one I’d worn in the accident. The helmet that probably saved my life.

I couldn’t remember anymore why I’d decided to keep it. I looked back at Justice. Yes, I thought, I lost so much in the accident. But look at what I’ve gained. Look at who I’ve become.

As it turned out, Justice never became a guide dog. He didn’t make the cut during training, and as his puppy raiser I had first dibs on adoption. I took him in as a veteran to help me socialize all the other dogs I’ve since raised–11 more, including my current pup, Dakota.

Two of my dogs have become full-fledged guide dogs, three became search-and-rescue dogs and the others now do therapy work in hospitals and convalescent homes. Technically I raise these dogs to serve others. But I know who they also serve.

With their help I see something I once feared I’d lost forever–my self.   

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