An excerpt from Abby Maslin's book, Love You Hard: A Memoir of Marriage, Brain Injury and Reinventing Love
Outside the set of glass doors opposite the bed, I watch as the wind rustles the leaves on the lawn. Steady waves beat against the wooden pilings of the dock, yards from our bedroom window, as I gaze out at the open bay. The water is a fixture of life here in Southern Maryland, where it surrounds you on nearly every side until it no longer seems notable. But I’ve missed it in the city and can’t help but marvel at the fact that I can nearly touch it without even rising from bed. As I tighten the covers around my shoulders, I take in the gray fog that looms beyond the shore and the gentle chirping of birds.
For a moment, the serenity is enough to make me forget the trauma of the past few months, despite the reminder that sleeps to my right.
My dream about Charlottesville has dragged me back in time. That week before TC’s assault blurs in my memory. My birthday. Then the anniversary trip. How is it possible everything changed in a matter of days? No longer are TC and I laughing in the car, sharing easy conversations. There are no indulgent dreams about France to entertain. TC received the formal invitation to interview in Paris just days after his assault.
I’m sorry, but you’ll have to remove him from your list of consideration, I responded in a brief and wistful e‑mail.
In his slumber, TC is silent, practically corpselike. The brace protecting his weak right hand and forearm makes it awkward to sleep, so he rests flat on his back, his head tilted to one side of the pillow. His body now falls into a state of slumber with such intensity and depth that I don’t believe I’ve observed a single movement from him during the night. For the few days we’ve lived here, I’ve gotten into the routine of putting Jack and TC to bed at the same time, around 8:00 p.m. When I join him hours later, TC cannot be roused. Eyes closed, arms positioned stiffly at his sides, he remains completely undisturbed by the quiet movement of my undressing. And when I awake, usually around 7:00 a.m., he is equally far gone—sleep occupying every cell and neuron of his healing body.
I continue to breathe in the splendor of the scene outside our window as Spencer scratches at the glass door, waiting to be let out. I listen with one ear for the first sounds that Jack is awake. There is no rush to our day‑to‑day existence anymore. No Washington traffic to fight as I make my way to TC’s hospital room each morning. When I step outside our door, there will be no neighbors to nod at or nurses to flag down. Sixty‑five miles north of here, they are carrying on with their lives, while ours have become seemingly frozen in the magnificent isolation of this beach cottage.
To the right of the bed stands TC’s quad cane, positioned at a careful distance to assist in any late‑night bathroom trips or emergencies. Unknowingly, we have switched sides of the bed. For as long as we’ve cohabitated, I’ve slept on the right, TC on the left. Back at the apartment, this arrangement allowed me to slip out of bed easily, tending to Jack during the months in which he was still nursing. Now TC is the one who must be settled closest to the doorway, his bathroom needs still unpredictable.
It’s a small change—learning to sleep on one side of the bed over the other—but it’s just as unwelcome as all the other changes in our lives. Climbing into bed just after midnight, my body becomes restless, unable to conform to this new setting: the unfamiliar bedroom, the slightly firmer mattress, and the absolute silence of the countryside. Once Jack is tucked in and I’ve said good night to TC, there is no one to talk to—only a daunting stretch of hours until it feels appropriate to try to sleep. So I read. Or write. The blog I started back in August continues to be my most reliable therapy. At first, I intended to use it only to update family and friends about TC’s condition. But it quickly turned into something else—an attempt to unzip and decode the noise reverberating inside my own brain.
I am biding time, learning how to be alone, to sleep on the left side of the bed, to live in the foreign and overwhelming solitude of the country. And trying very hard not to think beyond the day in front of me.
And while I’m grateful TC is home now and within my line of vision, where I know he is safe, his presence is ghostlike—without solidity or force. Jumbled and clumsy as they are, there is an airiness to his movement and speech now. His gaunt frame, forty pounds lighter than the day he was admitted to the ICU, only adds to my strange fear that he’ll disappear at any moment.
Softly, I hear him release a moan of consciousness next to me. I turn over and smile. “Good morning.”
TC is still opening his eyes, deciding what to fix his gaze upon, trying to figure out where he is and how he arrived in this unfamiliar setting. “Hi,” he mumbles.
And the day begins.
For someone as ambivalent about the country as I am, it’s surprising that my mind chooses always to escape here. I’ve spent years rolling my eyes at provincial St. Mary’s County, where I was transplanted as a teenager after my dad accepted a job as the director of Historic St. Mary’s City, a living‑history museum commemorating Maryland’s colonial history. How dull Maryland felt compared to my precious Arizona, where life may not have been perfect but was always filled with abundant distractions. Sprawling shopping malls. Glorious hiking. Exciting new restaurants. And, most of all, friends.
But meeting Claire, and then TC, had transformed my view. And now I’ve returned home, completely of my own volition.
Our hometown is not an easy place to describe, even to those who live in neighboring Washington. While it’s a relatively short drive from the city, it is also a foreign country of sorts, a place where the radio stations seem set on a looped playlist from the early 2000s (never enough Audioslave or 3 Doors Down to satisfy their listeners, evidently) and where giant Ford F‑150s command respect.
Because there is no “city” to speak of (aside from St. Mary’s City, the seventeenth‑century site of Maryland’s first capital, home to my alma mater, St. Mary’s College, and the living‑history museum my dad once directed), there is really no use in clarifying the name of the specific town where my parents live to anyone who is not local. To answer “Tall Timbers” is of little contextual value to an outsider and so, for the years I’ve been away from the place, I’ve simply learned to answer, “I’m from Southern Maryland.”
And while TC and I couldn’t help but gripe about our hometown on occasion, namely the remoteness of it, we’ve always surrendered to its eccentric charm and certainly to the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay landscape.
This place has never been more appealing than it is to me now, particularly after the invasion of privacy I’ve been dealing with in the city. I miss being unknown, leading a life of little interest to strangers. How violating it felt to arrive home at midnight, dead tired from a day at the hospital, to discover reporters had slipped their business cards through our mail slot. Or those occasions I accidentally stumbled upon vile internet threads containing cruel and horrific jokes about me and my broken‑bodied husband. If only TC had done this or that. If only we’d lived in the suburbs instead of the city. So many lectures, so many opinions. I couldn’t help but internalize some of the judgment.
There were a thousand what‑ifs. A thousand things we might have done differently. Did TC have it coming? is the silent question that underlies many of these unsolicited comments. Does anybody have it coming? I’d like to ask back. Were we yuppies, naive about the dangers of the city? Maybe. Were we naive about human beings? I don’t think so. Neither TC nor I would choose to spend our lives living in fear of those who might hurt us. Fear doesn’t keep people safe, we’ve always seemed to implicitly agree. It keeps them small and scared.
Every token of judgment momentarily blinded me to all the kindness we were also receiving. Every unwanted comment felt like one more violation on top of the gravest violation of all—the loss of our lives as we’d known them.
“I’m sorry your life got ruined,” a friend said with a sigh in a moment of genuine sympathy.
My blood went hot. I pursed my lips. “I appreciate that,” I remember replying grimly, appalled by her insinuation that the game was over and that we might as well pack up our equipment and trek back to the minivan for conciliatory hot cocoa.
My life was not ruined. Well, maybe it was. In either case, the only person allowed to make that call was me. I felt the conjuring of some of TC’s signature stubbornness. If there was any kind of lemonade to be salvaged from our current situation, I’d find a way to squeeze out every damn drop. Like hell would I call it a day.
But now that we’re here, in this secluded corner of the world, tucked away from people and the maddening aftershocks of TC’s assault, we are truly alone. And it is impossible to deny that my husband is now a stranger.
Despite everything we learned at the hospital, I don’t know how much to help TC and how much to get out of his way. Every morning, I wake up still a little bit shocked that doctors let me take him home at all. Who am I to be trusted with something so fragile? And who’s going to stop me from fucking this whole thing up? In the mornings, I set the pace for the day. I begin with dressing us all, first tending to Jack and then to myself. With TC, I find myself awkwardly unsure how to assist. We stand side by side in front of his chest of drawers.
“What do you think about these?” I ask this morning after he rises, holding up a set of bright‑blue Superman sweatpants.
TC’s wardrobe now consists of an unflattering collection of hospital‑friendly garments, mainly drawstring sweatpants and oversize Hanes T‑shirts. All of them reek of life as a patient. Digging through drawers, I am hit by the smell of TC’s room at the rehabilitation center and those unsavory meals delivered three times a day on plastic trays, to which he always stuck up his nose. Once a food snob, always a food snob, I suppose.
I select a gray, long‑sleeved shirt from the drawer and hold it up for his approval. “This good?”
TC nods, setting his quad cane beside him and extending his arms in front of him. He can no longer lift them over his head. I pull the shirt up his arms and use my fingers to widen the neck so I can pull it gently over his head.
“One second,” I request as he reaches for the cane once more.
The shirt is lopsided, and he looks disheveled. The seams of the armpits don’t quite match TC’s actual armpits. I tug the hem of the right side, pulling it center. “Better,” I contend.
Since he’s been home, I’ve noticed that TC smells different, and I’m hoping it’s only because he hasn’t had enough time to wash away the hospital experience from his body. A week before we moved into the cottage, he underwent a cranioplasty, the procedure in which his skull piece was removed from its careful storage pocket in his abdomen and reattached to his head. Dr. Kalhorn suggested the surgery might lessen the noticeable dent that now defines the left side of his forehead, but so far, he looks the same to me.
I can still smell the antiseptic emanating from the surgical staples that zigzag this latest incision. The hair around it is matted with grease and dandruff, begging to be washed, but it’s an area so delicate I’m afraid of touching it with any more vigor than a gentle dab of a washcloth.
His odor makes me think about pheromones, a subject I am familiar with from a Discovery Channel film called The Science of Sex Appeal that I once watched with half attention. These invisible little chemicals, secreted through the skin, must have been partly responsible for my initial and immediate attraction to TC. Certainly they played a role in our physical attraction to each other. Now those invisible chemicals are changed, altered by his many brain surgeries, transformed into some unfamiliar scent I can’t pretend to love.
And yet I’m the one who is supposed to love him the most. I can’t admit aloud that TC feels like a stranger to me, that I know him only as well as anyone who’s sat at his bedside over the past three months. I’m ashamed of my inexplicable attachment to his former smell and my selfish fear that I’ll never again experience that rush of longing that once flooded my senses as I breathed him in.
In order for me not to be completely wigged out by all this change, I need some part of TC to feel recognizable, so I make a mental note to hunt down all his former bathroom products: the Old Spice body wash and deodorant, his Suave shampoo, perhaps a cologne he once used. Anything that might restore his old, comforting scent.
On this particular morning, the first item on my agenda is to seek TC’s input on a grocery list. Now that he’s home, I try to remind myself to be conscientious about including him in the decision‑making again.
TC and I sit side by side in Jack’s bedroom, our large bodies overwhelming the miniature toddler bed that sits under the window. “Your parents are gonna come over this afternoon so I can go shopping,” I say aloud, scribbling down food items as TC watches Jack dig through a pile of plastic building blocks. “We need a lot of stuff.”
TC is hardly paying attention. His immobile right arm sits in its blue‑and‑white sling, resting on his right knee. Every one of his limbs is so thin I can barely stand to look at him. Hamburger meat, I jot down, picturing the large frozen packages they sell at warehouse stores like BJ’s. I gave up meat more than a year ago, but somewhere in the insanity of TC’s hospitalization, dietary fussiness fell low on the totem pole. You can hardly insist that the kind strangers who deliver food to your home daily also work around your self‑imposed dietary restrictions. It’s been ages since I’ve cooked a meal myself.
But that’s about to change. The most immediate way I can think to take control of our lives right now is to fatten TC up, and so if it means I must learn to cook meat, I will cook every bleeding steak I can get my hands on.
“Cereal, toilet paper, dish detergent,” I rattle on. TC opens his mouth and has a bewildered frown.
“Wha…? Why is this?” he asks.
I sigh. “Honey, I’m making a grocery list. We don’t have anything here.”
“No, we don’t n‑need…,” he stammers, trying to complete his sentence.
I give him a moment, but he continues to struggle. “I’m not sure I understand,” I interrupt gently. “But I promise you, we really have nothing to eat here. We need some essentials to stock the house.”
I’m puzzled by his concern. Is this long list making him worried about money? That’s the only thing I can imagine the old TC chiming in about. He’s always been insistent about “sticking to the list” when we go food shopping.
But as I return to my jotting, his agitation grows. He snatches the pen from my right hand and uses the tip to point furiously to each of the items I’ve written down.
“I still don’t understand.” I shake my head. Something about this simple task is clearly not translating.
We go back and forth for a few minutes, exchanging confused and inquisitive glances. I encourage him to keep the pen and write down whatever he wants to add to the list, but instead he jots the word week with a question mark next to it. I stand up for a moment and go grab the calendar from the kitchen.
“See, this is today.” I point. “November nineteenth.”
He sighs exasperatedly and points to each of the remaining days of the week. “When does, when we…and then go? Soon?”
I frown, still puzzled and trying to guess. “When do we go?”
TC nods enthusiastically. “Yes!”
“From here?” I ask.
He nods once more, and my chest sinks. It occurs to me that he hasn’t understood the many conversations we had in the days leading up to his discharge from the hospital. While I’ve been talking at him, pouring buckets of information down his throat in an effort to get him excited for this temporary stint in the country, he’s been nodding obliviously in return, unable to make sense of my words.
“No, honey. We’re not leaving the cottage soon,” I explain. “We’re renting this place for six months. Until we decide what to do next.”
Not to be misunderstood, I take back the pen and paper. Stay until May 2013, I write. I push the note back toward him.
I watch as this information is processed on his face, the shift of his mouth as he bares down on his top lip, the hybrid of recognition and disappointment now registering in his eyes.
He nods. “Oh.”
I pause and walk over to place Jack on my lap. “So, is there anything you want from the store?” I ask.
He shakes his head no.
About the Author: Abby Maslin
Abby Maslin is a writer and a public school teacher. Through her speaking and blogging, she is passionate about bringing awareness to the challenges of traumatic brain injury and caregiving. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and children.