Four years ago, Ruby Dee Philippa was riding her scooter down the road in Austin, TX. She was a singer. Her band, Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, was just about to release a new album. She was careful on her ride. She wore a motorcycle jacket, hefty pants, and a full helmet. Ruby tells the story: “I was driving down the street, and the driver of a car didn’t see me. I’m guessing–the more I try to piece it together, you know, years down the road–I think that they were backing out of their driveway and they didn’t see me.”
Ruby swerved to avoid being hit by the car. Her scooter hit a pothole in the street, and it went wheels over in. “The scooter was fine. I landed on my head and woke up five hours later in the hospital,” she says.
Luckily, a doctor had been in the car behind Ruby. “She saw me swerve, hit the hole and go flying,” Ruby recalls. “She pulled over and knew what to do. She had a blanket, cleared my airways, because I bit through my tongue. I would have choked on my own blood.”
At the hospital, the doctors had to keep repeating things to Ruby: “You’ve been in an accident. You’ve had a head injury. You’re going to be fine.” Her then-boyfriend (now husband) picked her up and took her home. Ruby suffered from intense vertigo, splitting headaches, and was having a difficult time focusing or putting sentences together. She was bruised, the orbital disc on the left side of her face had been broken, the sunglasses she had been wearing under her helmet had embedded into her forehead and had to be surgically removed. Still, Ruby wanted to perform. She asked the doctor if she could sing at the CD release party that weekend, as scheduled. Surprisingly, the doctor agreed. They said, “As long as you don’t overdo it, singing is really good for you . . . Go for it. It’ll keep you positive-minded. It’ll help you with memory.”
Ruby performed, sitting on stage on a stool. She needed lyric sheets because she couldn’t remember the words to songs that she had written. In the following months, she began to get anxious. “A lot of women in the world base their self esteem on how they look. I always based mine on my brains,” Ruby says. When she realized her brain wasn’t working the way it used to, she became really sad, depressed. “That was about a year of depression around that. I was working, doing puzzles and whatever cognitive exercises I could do, but a brain injury is a brain injury,” Ruby states. “There’s only so far you can go to get back to where you were before the injury.”
Before the accident, Ruby had not just been a singer. She had been a businesswoman who owned three successful restaurants in Seattle, WA. She had been featured on the Food Network for having one of America’s top five desserts of all time. She had always loved food, growing up in a family of two great food cultures: Southern cooking and Jewish cooking. When Ruby grew up and hit the road, she started getting curious about food all across America. Something she realized in a French cooking class in junior high stuck with her: “Everything we made, we got to share with our classmates, and I started recognizing this glint in people’s eyes like, ‘Ooh, here she comes with something good!’ I realized that if you want people to be nice to you, cook them something yummy and they will flock around you.”
Now that Ruby was struggling with short-term memory loss, she was looking for ways to exercise her brain. Aside from crossword puzzles and playing Scrabble, she started writing stories. “That was good to exercise my brain, but I was cheating a little bit,” she admits. “If I was looking for a word, I could fake my way to another word or use a thesaurus.” That is when she began writing down the recipes friends and family had been asking her to share for years. “With recipes they’re pretty specific. A carrot is a carrot. A drumstick is a drumstick. You know, you can’t fake your way around what you’re cooking with.”
Ruby took her time. It would sometimes take two hours to write one recipe. She recalls, “I had to sit in my room with the quiet–without the phone, without distractions–and concentrate on the word. I could see it, I could see the thing in my mind, but I couldn’t think of what it was called.” She worked through the frustration and realized that this is the way it was going to be. Writing recipes became a healing process, as well as cognitively therapeutic.
As Ruby wrote, it began to dawn on her that she had a book. She wrote for the better part of a year. There are now 120 recipes in Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cookbook, which was published in January 2012. She also wrote little stories to go with each recipe and included a CD of the Grammy-nominated Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers performing lively Americana tunes.
Things seem to be going well for Ruby Dee, but as she points out, “I don’t have the vertigo anymore, but I do have the memory loss. I have little tricks that I use, like I pause in my sentences if I can’t find the exact word I’m looking for and find a word that’s close enough. I still get distracted really easily, which is interesting on stage because I can’t look people in the eyes when I’m singing. The lights can’t be flashing or I’ll forget where I am.”
Still, Ruby has an important message to share with those who might be facing a similar situation as she did with her accident: “Don’t give up. Do not give up, because things may very well be changing for you, as they did for me. I do not have the same cognitive ability that I had before the accident. I just don’t. But rather than be stressed out or freaked out or depressed about it, I recognize that this is who I am now. This is what I’m still able to do and what I’m still capable of doing and being now. The accident didn’t take away everything. In fact I’m incredibly grateful for what I have left. In a way–not that I’m grateful for the accident–but it made me realize what’s important and who is important. The biggest message is don’t give up, because there’s always going to be something else worth living for.”