Love You Hard
by Abigail Maslin
I observe my husband closely as he struggles to balance his coffee cup while slamming the car door shut. I stretch my arm outward, prepared to catch the falling cup, but he surprises me by tucking it in the corner of his arm and methodically maintaining his balance. When he dresses in the morning, I stand nearby watching closely as he buttons his shirt and pulls on his sweater. As always, his button down shirt hangs awkwardly on the right side, the seam of his sleeve not quite matching the position of his armpit.
I deliberate silently about when to intervene and when to keep my mouth shut. Do I gently wipe the food from the right side of his face? Do I pull his shirt a smidgeon to the left, helping him to appear fractionally more composed? Do I turn the other way and pretend not to notice the trillion of subtle differences that mark this changed man from the independent, consummate professional he was before?
Every day my head rings with questions as I continue to walk the delicate tightrope that accompanies the dual roles of caregiver and wife. I’ve all but forgotten the feeling of not being needed. It strikes me as nearly inconceivable that a year ago my husband was capable of flying around the world giving presentations to bigwigs on the future of renewable energy. Life Part II is all about relearning the basics.
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Dan… Daniel,” he responds. The weakness in his right muscles has transformed his formerly strong voice. Every utterance in his new voice is marked by a slight slur, lisp, or change in tone.
“When is your birthday?” I prompt.
“September. September 3rd.” He gets this one correct.
I move on to the tough questions. “Where are you from?”
“September,” he answers quickly. He can tell from my expression that he is wrong. “Oh wait, that’s not right.”
He tries again. “September.”
I fail to conceal my wince.
“Uggh,” he groans in frustration. “Why do I keep saying that?”
And so begins the conversation that marks each and every day of our new life.
“Because you’re brain injured,” I respond. “And sometimes your brain needs extra time to process what it has just heard.”
“It makes me feel stupid,” he complains. “Like I’m mentally wrong.”
Mentally wrong. I like that expression. My husband’s broken language has introduced some of the most apropos phrases I’ve ever heard. I often think his healing brain is wiser than the minds trying to fix it. In many ways, his unusual thinking seems far more analytic and intuitive than it was in his days as a young analyst in the energy world.
My husband is only 30, yet he has worked harder in his life than most 85-year-olds. From modest upbringings, he pushed his way through college and grad school with a resourcefulness and drive so intense I often wonder how he ended up with a middle of the road, chronic procrastinator such as myself for a wife. Seven months ago when a group of young men struck him over the head and robbed him of his phone on his walk home, I wondered what kind of universe would ever require such a decent and hardworking man to pave his tough road to success twice.
My husband doesn’t think in these terms. He rarely resents the difficult path in front of him. He doesn’t dwell on the life we had before or his lost independence. He views the obstacles ahead as necessary challenges in becoming the best version of himself. In terms of anger, sadness, and resentment, he has let go.
For me, the task of letting go is tremendously painful. I don’t want to let go. In the late hours of the night, I pour over my laptop screen as I indulge in hundreds of old photos and home movies featuring my husband of before. I am a voyeur of my past life, relishing in minute details and savoring the sound of his old voice. In these moments, I must try to silence my own inner voice as it incessantly begs for one more chance to hear him speak, watch him walk, or laugh as he roughhouses on the floor with our son.
Letting go of our pre-assault, pre-injury life is like quitting any addictive habit. Once you’ve quit, you’re free. But you never stop mourning the addiction itself. I can’t truly grieve my husband because he is still alive. But I’ll never stop missing the man I married, the one who isn’t coming back. It is an ambiguous, torturous grief that I struggle to articulate. How can I reconcile my mixed feelings of gratitude and grief as I rebuild my life in the presence of a living ghost?
Each day my husband grows stronger and I learn to trust in the power of his recovery. I have witnessed the miracle of his rebirth: from a nearly dead, comatose state, past the progression of small milestones, to an emerging partial independence. I have hovered over him like a protective mother, fought in his defense like a warrior, and soothed his soul like a knowing healer.
As his eyes begin to shine brighter and the pace of his step quickens, I must learn to carry the weight of our family’s trauma and gradually step back into the role of wife. I must let him go. Back into the outside world, where young men equate a man’s life with the value of his cell phone, and where people often look unforgivingly upon the disabled, I must let my husband return. In his own time and with his own unique challenges, he will overcome this horrific chapter.
Until then, he kisses me intently and looks knowingly into my weary eyes.
“I love you so hard,” he proclaims.
I silence my correction and offer my most genuine smile.
“I love you too.”