To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed
Two a.m. When you are young, this is the time that bars close, new love springs unbidden in doorways, and entire dramas are played out in the time it takes a traffic light to change. When you are older, with marriage and children under your belt, it is the hour at which a ringing phone wakes you in terror, not annoyance; when a voice in the darkness signals illness, not invitation; when awakening in a strangely empty bed, one will know that something has gone awfully wrong with the person whose warmth still lingers in the covers. It is that hour which opens To Love What Is.
At 2 a.m. Alix awakens and realizes her husband is no longer in bed with her. Instead, he is on the floor some nine feet below their loft bed, utterly still and grievously injured. While this would be sufficient trauma to begin any proper memoir, we are then informed that Alix’s husband is seventy-five years old, and no ambulance is cutting a wailing path to his aid. Their seaside cabin was chosen for the very qualities which now jeopardize her husband’s life: no running water, no electricity, no neighbors for miles, and a road that is cut off by the tide. Alix’s husband Scott survives, but is irrevocably changed by the traumatic brain injury he sustains in the fall.
The story evolves as we see Scott’s physical injuries resolve while his mental condition does not improve. Scott recovers enough to leave the institutionalized world of hospital care, but is in no way mentally capable to resume his former life as an artist. The accident changes the course of two lives; as Scott is enveloped in a mental twilight, his wife is left to become his caretaker, his guide, his translator, and his advocate.
The poignant center to this book is a decision. Alix Kates Shulman, an accomplished writer and avowed feminist, was accustomed to her independence. She was used to having time on her own, a place to write, a life separate from that shared with her husband. Indeed, her marriage was founded on the preservation of these ideas. As it becomes clear that her husband’s mind will never fully recover, that he will need her constant care for the balance of his life, Alix’s friends advise her to place him into attended care, to continue her life alone for the sake of her art. Alix’s choice is not made lightly, nor does her decision resolve the issues at hand. She chooses love and honors her vow of commitment to her husband, all the while trying valiantly to hold on to her sense of self. She does not allow the role of caretaker to subsume her; instead, she remakes the role to fit her.
When she cannot make enough time to write alone, she begins to write about the ordeal of caretaking and, in doing so, finds a way to reconnect with her husband. In Scott’s lucid moments, she reads him the passages she has completed, and their shared memories form a dialogue running throughout. We see the couple as college students in the first blush of love, see them separated by circumstance, and see them come together again decades later, marrying only after each has lived a life apart.
It is the choice that faced Shulman that resonates with me. How many of us, when embarking on a committed relationship, have not contemplated those same presumably far away what-ifs? Richer, poorer, sickness, health… questions we hope not to have to answer before death does part us. When pressed, how far would our vows carry us? Alix rises to the challenge, caring for her husband while tending to herself, and maintaining her voice throughout. We see the darkest hours, when Alix fears the husband she knew has been lost forever, and the beautiful hours when he emerges from the shadows of his mind and enlivens the page, showing us the person Alix treasures.
As the book moves backward and forward in time, we fall in love with Scott just as Alix did, and we see in the end that there was never a choice to be made, only a new twist in the path to be navigated. The book closes not with Scott’s demise, as I had feared, but simply with the couple looking into the future (albeit one reshaped as neither could have expected), with their love altered, but not diminished.
I read this book straight through, morbidly convinced that nothing would come out well in the end. I feared along with Alix that the husband she knew was gone forever as surely as he sat breathing before her, and I cheered when she found ways to connect with him again after all. This book was oddly comforting, showing that even if the worst thing imaginable does occur, there can still be joy, laughter, and as Scott terms it, fucky-fucky. I loved this book and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone, married or not.