How a big paralyzing problem found a tiny sculpted escape.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
I t took a long, anxious night spent lying face down on his lawn in the pouring rain before Dennis DeGray realized he would never move the same again.
On a wet October evening four years ago, the Pacific Grove resident made the innocuous decision to take out the trash before heading to bed. Eager to avoid getting soaked, he quickly emptied his bins and then darted back across the front yard to the dry warmth of indoors.
Suddenly, DeGray felt his feet slipping out from under him, his body falling through the air, his chin connecting with the damp grass. The impact separated his second and third vertebrae, leaving him immediately and permanently paralyzed from the neck down.
In an instant, his life had changed completely, but at that moment, DeGray was entirely unsure what had happened.
“I thought I was being robbed,” he says. “When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t move, so I thought I had been hit in the head and tied up.”
DeGray figured he could wait through the night and then try to attract assistance. But when his next-door neighbor heard his calls the next morning and came over to help, it proved a moment of grim realization.
“He said, ‘You’re not tied up,’” DeGray recalls. “All of a sudden, I understood what was going on. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
When the paramedics arrived, DeGray’s body temperature was down to just 88 degrees. He was eventually taken to San Jose for a skeleton-stabilizing surgery that would mark the beginning of seven months in a hospital bed for operations and rehabilitation.
These days, speaking from a motorized wheelchair that operates with simple voice commands, DeGray is candid and reflective about his fall.
He credits much of that openness to his relationship with Ray Magsalay, a local artist he met two years ago who began teaching him about bonsai, the ancient art of growing miniature trees.
Understanding and appreciating nature through these potted plants has become a therapeutic outlet for DeGray, and helped him to accept and adjust to aspects of his life in the chair. But at the time of his accident, he was not nearly so comfortable with his situation.
“It was like turning a page,” DeGray says. “Everything that had come before was unlike everything that came after.”
His limited physicality made DeGray feel out of place in his own body.
“The time that it’s worst for me is when I’m watching someone else manipulate my appendages,” he admits. “You know you should be feeling something, but you can’t feel anything. It’s like an out-of-body experience.”
DeGray also remembers the difficulty of figuring out how to relate socially.
“When you fall down, you have to relax and interact with people in a different position,” he says. “The complete dependence on strangers, trying to make an intellectual connection with people—all of a sudden, things that never would have bothered me before caused me great fear.”
A chance encounter with Magsalay at Monterey’s annual Cutting Day and Horticultural Fair in 2009 proved to be a turning point for DeGray. Though they talked only briefly, the meeting sparked DeGray’s interest in bonsai, sowing the seeds for their eventual friendship.
“When I saw Ray’s display at the cutting fair, I was just drawn to it,” he says. “Some of these trees are 30, 50, 100 years old and they’re still thriving.”
Knowing that DeGray was an avid former gardener, DeGray’s caregiver got him a consultation with Magsalay—who first took up bonsai while studying horticulture at the University of California Davis almost 50 years ago—for Christmas.
“I sat in bed with him and put the bonsai on a Lazy Susan,” Magsalay says. “It was an activity that we merged on.”
As the conversation developed from trees to other topics, DeGray and Magsalay discovered many shared interests—including common pasts as artists and servicemen—that provided the basis for a much deeper connection.
Through regular phone calls and visits, their friendship has since continued.
“The time that we spend talking plants, I’m not a quadriplegic,” he says. “I’m a gardener talking to another gardener, and it’s a complete escape.”
Magsalay is glad sharing his passion has allowed him to help. He sees bonsai as an emotional remedy.
“It’s strictly a visionary thing, to enhance peace and happiness,” Magsalay says. “You are creating illusions for all the states of consciousness so that you’ll have a place to retreat to.”
“When I can get lost in the little tree, it’s a mental vacation,” he says. “I can take a few minutes to just a observe a tree, and for those few minutes I’m away from my problems. Bonsai has given me a place to go in my mind.”