Love endures after the body fails
TO LOVE WHAT IS:
A Marriage Transformed
By Alix Kates Shulman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
180 pp., $22
"Every couple who stays together long enough has intimations that a catastrophe is waiting," Alix Kates Shulman observes early in her remarkable new memoir, "To Love What Is."
For Shulman, the catastrophe came in the middle of a July night in 2004 when her 75-year-old husband, Scott York, fell nine feet from a sleeping loft in their Maine summer home. He survived, but sustained broken ribs, shattered feet, punctured lungs, and internal bleeding. Most devastatingly, Scott suffered traumatic brain injury, leaving him largely dependent on others, especially Shulman, the noted feminist and author of such books as "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen."
How York's permanent injury changed this marriage between two people once as fiercely committed to their independence as to each other is the weeping heart of this brave, elegiac work. Both hopeful and terrifying, it's a tale of love's resilience, but also its limits in conquering the sudden cruelties of life.
On the surface, Shulman's book is evocative of Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," her award-winning memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Yet Shulman's chronicle pierces deeper because her husband does not die. Instead, she is left to mourn his loss even though he's still with her day after day. He looks the same, can communicate though not with the same intellectual acuity, and holds fast to an abiding adoration for his wife. Still, while Shulman celebrates every small improvement, she knows the man she fell in love with is forever gone.
Shulman's loss is made palpable as she intersperses details of York's slow recovery with their improbable love story. They first dated in 1950 when Shulman was 17, and York was 20, until ambition pulled their lives in different directions. Thirty-four years, several children, and three failed marriages (two for Shulman) later, they found each other again.
At first, their relationship is ideal in ways particular to older couples who, relieved of the impatience of youth, can better appreciate what's important. Then, two years into their marriage, York suffered an aortic aneurysm. He recovered, but in retrospect, Shulman views those events as a kind of training for the more dire repercussions of her husband's later brain injury.
Refusing to consign York to a nursing home, Shulman is tireless and resolute looking after him. Of course, with memoirs such as this, one is tempted to crow too much about the author's selflessness, as if caring for an ailing loved one were a heroic act. Shulman's having none of it, even confessing that if this fate had befallen her previous husband, "I might have been tempted to bolt at the first exit." She's open about her occasional, but real frustrations with York. When he misplaces his glasses or wallet, she snaps at him, only to be crushed with regret moments later. She writes of missing not only the life she had with her husband, but the freedom she once had away from him, whether it was to spend time alone in their Manhattan loft writing or reading, or walking the city streets without a shuffling man-child whose presence now turns a stroll into a chore.
"To Love What Is" is a painful book. For some, it will be achingly familiar, mirroring their own difficult lives with an incapacitated spouse, parent, or child. Others may view it as an uncomfortable glimpse into an uncertain future that likely awaits us all, either as caretaker or the cared-for.
Yet it resonates most profoundly as a haunting meditation on a love more enduring than the body or mind, and as a potent reminder that even an irreparably altered life is still a life to be cherished.
As York sees it, "he's just getting old; in my version, he's gradually getting better," Shulman writes. "Neither is completely true, but we cling to what we must believe, feel whatever it is we feel, see what it suits us to see, depending on the circumstances, the time, our mood, our need. I, too, in a sense, keep making up our story moment by moment, out of hope, despair, anguish, optimism - and love."
Renee Graham is a freelance writer.