PORTLAND – On the evening of Jan. 24, noted flute player Phil James and his wife, Lara Schneider, departed the Grand Canyon on a small, rural highway. They were wrapping up a brief winter vacation, a final getaway with just the two of them before the birth of their son.

Schneider was seven months pregnant at the time.

They enjoyed a beautiful Grand Canyon sunset, and embarked down an icy highway toward Sedona before flying back to their home in Portland.

Somewhere outside the park, James had a stroke. The right side of his body became paralyzed, and his leg locked in a thrust-forward position, forcing the car to careen out of control.

“I didn’t know what was happening. Phil was losing control of the car, but he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t tell me what was going on,” Schneider said.

With a burst of adrenaline, Schneider managed to thrust herself on top of her husband and gain control of the car. She threw the gear shift into park and brought the vehicle to a lurching, sudden stop.

And then the panic set in.

It was a cold, dark night on a country road in the wilds of Arizona. Schneider had no cell phone reception. Her husband sat motionless in the driver’s seat, hovering somewhere between life and death. Near as she could tell, her unborn baby was fine. But Schneider was singularly alone.

Over the course of 20 minutes, she moved her husband from the driver’s seat to the passenger seat, strapped herself in behind the wheel and found her way to the nearest town, where she finally was able to call 911.

Emergency workers came to Schneider, and quickly transported James to Scottsdale. She drove herself, unknowing when she got there if she would find him alive or dead.

James — a poet, writer and musician — survived the stroke, and has begun a long process of recovery. In April, Schneider gave birth to a baby boy, Julian.

On Saturday, Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland will host a concert to benefit the couple and to celebrate James’ recovery. Saturday’s concert marks his first public performance since the stroke.

James will appear with a group of friends that includes Carl Dimow on flute, Nathan Kolosko on classical guitar, Danielle Langord on celtic harp, Nicole Rabata on celtic flute and Mark Tipton on trumpet. Marita Kennedy-Castro will complement the music with original dance.

In Japanese music circles, James is an important, influential figure. He plays a flute known as the shakuhachi, and is considered a master.

James is also a pianist and a composer, and is sought-after as a teacher. He’s recorded several CDs, and composed many pieces for the flute in a variety of musical settings.

In an interview at the couple’s Munjoy Hill apartment, James said that music has helped his recovery. The stroke stripped him of his cognitive ability to put words together for effective communication, which means he cannot teach. But he never lost his ability to play music, he said.

He suffered damage to the left side of his brain, where language skills are centered. But the right side of his brain remained strong.

“Neurologically speaking, they thought that because Phil had such a strong right side of his brain, it actually helped protect his life side. It helped keep him alive,” Schneider said.

Saturday’s concert can be rightly viewed as a triumph of life over death. James and Scheider survived their crisis, brought a son into the world and returned to their community, where support from family and friends has been overwhelming.

Schneider sometimes feels overwhelmed with everything she has been through and all that lies ahead. But she is ever hopeful and optimistic.

“There was this one- to- two-month period of being at the center of life and death, with Phil on one hand and the birth of Julian on the other. Why I’ve been put in this position, I don’t know. But I can say it’s been the most intense period of my life,” she said.

“I’ve had to dig into the deepest personal resources ever.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]