To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed

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9780374532055: To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed
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One day it happens: the dreaded event that will change your life forever. For Alix Kates Shulman, it happened in a remote seaside cabin on a coastal Maine island―where the very isolation that makes for a perfect artist's retreat can also put life at risk. Shulman woke to find that her beloved husband had fallen the nine feet from their sleeping loft and was lying on the floor below, deathly still. Though Scott would survive, he suffered an injury that left him seriously brain impaired. He was the same―but not the same.

In this elegant memoir, Shulman describes the ongoing anxieties and risks―and surprising rewards―she experiences as she reorganizes her world to care for her husband and discovers that what might have seemed a life sentence to some has evolved into something unexpectedly rich.

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About the Author:

Alix Kates Shulman is the author of four novels, including Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen; two previous memoirs, including the award-winning Drinking the Rain; and two books on the anarchist Emma Goldman.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

The Accident

On a moonless summer night my husband fell nine feet from a sleeping loft to the floor and did not die.

He did not die, though he was seventy-five years old and the accident happened in a remote seaside cabin inaccessible by road, on a Maine coastal island that has no doctor on call, much less a hospital.

He did not die, though X-rays taken several hours later showed that he had broken most of his ribs and both feet; punctured both lungs, causing perilous internal bleeding; and suffered so many blood clots in his brain that each CAT scan of that precious organ resembled an elaborate filigree.

He did not die, though my neighbor’s husband fell from a tree and died in a week, and my doctor’s father fell from his roof and died in a day.

How did it happen, that near-fatal fall which he somehow survived? What mysterious combination of mistakes and miracles? He can’t remember it, and I, no matter how indelibly the details of that night are branded on my mind, still can’t fathom it.

Like everyone over a certain age, I sensed that some dreadful thing was coming, the more ominous for not knowing what form it would take or when it would come or whether, when it finally arrived, I would rise to the challenge or succumb.

Every couple who stays together long enough has intimations that a catastrophe is waiting; it’s right there in the wedding vows: For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Having taken the oath, however cavalierly, you know that unless you separate, one of you is going to wind up taking care of the other, or one of you is going to wind up surviving the other. But which one it will be, when it will happen, how long it will last, and at what cost is unknown, though the odds predict that she will take care of him, then he will die, leaving her alone. But like a curse in a fairy tale, you don’t really believe it’s coming; you try to ignore it until it’s upon you. In the enchantment of life, you forget.

Middle of the night, July 22, 2004. Many hours earlier, we’d left the great island of Manhattan for the small island of Long in Casco Bay, Maine, where we have a summer place. In two backpacks and a wheeled suitcase we’d lugged some basic supplies and everything we’d need for a couple of months of work: I, my laptop and a draft of a short novel to polish; Scott, plans for a new set of sculptures.

After an all-day bus ride from Manhattan to Boston and from Boston on to Portland, then an hour’s ferry ride to the island, and, with our gear on our backs, a twenty-minute walk from where the road dead-ends at the ocean across a long beach to our house, we were pretty exhausted. Especially Scott, whose stamina has been waning for some time.

First mistake: to have taken the bus instead of flying.

By the time we reached the island, it was already late afternoon. Our nearest neighbors and closest island friends, Heather Lewis and Norm Fruchter, who, like us, live in New York in the winter, met our boat at the wharf and drove us in their truck to their house, which stands at the end of the road in front of the long beach that leads to our house. "Why don’t you come back here and have dinner with us? You don’t want to start cooking now," Heather said as we started across the beach with our gear. I couldn’t figure out which would be more tiring: to rustle up a makeshift meal at home or walk back across the beach to Heather and Norm’s. I said I’d call her later and let her know.

As Scott and I began to unpack and attend to the essential chores of opening our house for the summer—lighting the small propane fridge; priming the pump that draws water from the rain barrel beneath the deck; checking the propane powered gas lamps; sweeping away the winter’s mouse droppings; putting a roll of toilet paper out in the privy; and turning on the solar system I use to charge my laptop, printer, and cell phone in the separate studio Scott built for me—Heather’s invitation became increasingly attractive. When we took a break from our labors I called her on my cell phone to say we’d be over in an hour, and after washing up and changing clothes, we walked back across the long beach to their house.

Second mistake: we should have stayed home, eaten bread and peanut butter, and gone straight to bed instead.

Eating Heather’s delicious lasagna, catching up on island gossip, watching the sky take on the glow of sunset as we sipped wine (third mistake: allowing Scott half a glass, forbidden because it clashes with his meds)—I could have stayed for hours being cared for and amused at Heather’s table; it was a perfect transition from the dense throb of Manhattan to our quiet island life. Over dessert, Scott leaned across to me and whispered that it was time to go home. "But we haven’t finished our coffee," I said, and turned back to hear the end of a funny story.

Fourth mistake: I should have heeded the distress signal and left immediately.

At least another fifteen minutes passed before Scott, uncharacteristically, stood up, insisting that we leave at once, and I finally got the message.

We had barely started the trek across the beach toward home when he began to complain of feeling weak and cold— so cold that his teeth were actually chattering. I suggested that we return to our friends’ house, which unlike ours has all the traditional amenities and comforts, and take them up on their standing offer to spend the night. A fog was rolling in, and though it was mid-July, there was a chill in the air. Why push it? Ever since he’d survived an aortic aneurysm a dozen years before, I’d felt protective of him, taking seriously each odd symptom. But he refused to turn back, even after some urging, so I took his arm and we pressed on.

Fifth mistake: I should have insisted that we turn back instead of crossing the long beach for the third time that day.

By the time we got home, it was dark. Instead of unpacking, we decided to go to bed immediately. We left the house and walked down the path past the outhouse, with its one-hole privy, to the east-facing studio, where we often prefer to sleep in order to wake up to the exhilarating sight of sunrise and surf crashing on the rocks below. As is our habit, I preceded him up the ladder like stairs to the sleeping loft to light a gas lamp to illuminate his way up. When I had it lit, Scott locked the doors, turned off the downstairs lamp, and followed me up. We got into bed and talked a while before turning off the light. This was always our pleasure, talking over the highlights of the day, and tonight, having just arrived, admiring the studio Scott designed and built for me sixteen years before, with its steeply pitched roof forming the high ceiling of the single room, its asymmetrical fenestration, its lush mahogany floorboards of irregular width, the gift of a boat builder friend, which we laid and varnished together, and then our special game, identifying animals and faces, as varied as the patterns in passing clouds, in the knots of the pine boards that form the walls and ceiling.

Sixth mistake: knowing how tired he was, I should have turned off the light at once and let him sleep.

When I finally closed my eyes, I fell instantly into a deep sleep. Too deep to notice Scott leaving the bed or remember his crying out, though I must have heard him, because—

Suddenly I’m sitting bolt upright in bed, flooded with adrenaline. In that black night it’s almost too dark to see the empty place beside me, but I sense his absence. "Scott?"No answer. Louder: "Scott?" The studio where we sleep is a single room topped by the sleeping loft. If he doesn’t answer, where can he be? "Scott? Scott!" Maybe he’s gone off to the outhouse and can’t hear me call. But inside me I know the catastrophe has come.

On top of a bluff that protrudes into the ocean from the edge of the rocky coast like a small peninsula—a shore formation called a nubble—the studio of pine and glass usually gets more than enough moonlight and starlight to see by; in a lightning storm the entire nubble is lit in every direction. But by this hour of the night the moon has set, and whatever ambient light might normally glow is obscured by a dense fog. Gas lamps take time to light—to find a match, strike it, then, with one hand hold it an exact distance beneath the lamp’s delicate fiberglass mantle (any closer and the mantle would break), and with the other hand turn a difficult valve to allow the propane to flow into the lamp. Frantic for light, I instead grab the flashlight I keep next to the bed and shine it down over the low wall of the loft onto the floor below.

There he is, lying on the floor, curled up like a fetus. Naked and deathly still.

I dash down the steep stairs, shouting his name, then repeat it directly into his ear.

No response.

This can’t be happening. I can’t believe it’s happening. Maybe it’s not? All at once I recall the day, many years before, as the studio was being built, when I came inside to see Scott with hammer and nails high up on a tall ladder that leaned against the loft. Seconds later he and the ladder fell backward in a great arc to the floor, he landing on his back with the ladder on top of him. Although that fall was from almost the same height as tonight’s fall, after a moment he got up and brushed himself off, with only a fright, a few bruises, and the next day a sore back.

This time he is silent and immobile.

More light! I set down the flashlight and light the nearest gas lamp, then crouch down beside...

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