Transformed by Brain Injury: How I Became a New Wife to a New Husband
On the morning before my 29-year-old husband went missing, he laced up his sneakers and went for a long run around the Tidal Basin, a few miles from our home in Washington, D.C. When he returned, I watched as he stood glistening with sweat and catching his breath in front of the bathroom mirror.
It’s an image forever burned into my brain: my husband, TC, healthy. Full of energy. Radiating with life. I was as in love with him that morning as I was the night we met, back when I was a 22-year-old who believed good men were an urban myth and that there was surely no one in this world who could love me as big and fiercely as I was ready to love in return.
I was wrong. TC was every bit of the man I’d dreamed of meeting – handsome, ambitious, curious, and extraordinarily kind. Four years later we stood under a pear tree and took our vows as husband and wife. We promised to grow with each other, to stick together in sickness and in health, in failure and in triumph. A year after that we became parents to our son Jack and it seemed impossible that the words “sickness” and “failure” could ever apply to our blessed family.
And then, three days after our third wedding anniversary, I awoke to a nightmare. TC was gone. My husband, an unfailingly responsible man (the kind of guy who rarely went out or drank too much), went to a baseball game with friends, and never returned home. And for the first time in my life, I found myself praying for his irresponsibility. Please let him be drunk on someone’s couch. Please let him be passed out next to another woman. These were the most promising scenarios I could think of. Anything else was inconceivably, irreversibly awful.
I told myself the words any ordinary person reassures themselves of when life’s playbook takes an unexpected and potentially shocking direction: this cannot be happening. But it was. Seven blocks from my front stoop, where I stood with a police officer filing a missing person report, my husband, Jack’s father, was being resuscitated after eight harrowing hours on the street. What had happened to TC was worse than anything I’d imagined: he’d been robbed, beat on the head with a baseball bat, and left to die.
Without permission, without notice, the first act of our marriage ended and the curtain rose on a new act, one that would revolve around three life-altering words – traumatic brain injury.
For 84 days, I sat by TC’s hospital bedside as he recovered from a series of major surgeries. Among them, a craniectomy in which part of his skull was removed to depressurize his bleeding brain, a tracheostomy to get him through a near-fatal case of pneumonia, and optic surgery to try and save the vision in his right eye.
I was swallowed up so entirely by each moment-to-moment crisis that I hardly had the capability to imagine the life waiting for us down the pipeline. And yet I was being warned at every turn. “If your husband survives,” one doctor grimly conveyed, “you need to prepare yourself. He will not be the same person you remember.”
As TC slowly woke from the fog of coma, the doctor’s words rang true: this was not the man I married. There were the obvious and catastrophic changes; the cross-wiring of the brain had weakened his entire right side, leaving him with little mobility in his right extremities. Likewise, his right vision was seriously impaired, nearly gone. The most devastating impact of his injury, however, was in the part of the brain that controls language. TC could no longer speak or even understand the words that were being spoken to him. It is a condition known as aphasia, the inability to express or receive language.
There were also subtle changes. It was like TC had been transformed down to his very cellular makeup. He no longer smelled the way I remembered: gone was the musky, wooded scent that reminded me of the fresh mountain air he had been born into nearly three decades earlier in rural West Virginia. Gone were the days of nuzzling myself in the crook of his arm just to soak up that comforting, delicious smell.
My new husband was a stranger – and a mute one at that – marked by the lingering odor of hospital disinfectant and an unruly beard that had been allowed to grow unbridled during the long months of his hospitalization.
“I’m so sorry your life got ruined,” remarked an acquaintance sympathetically, concern radiating from her wrinkled eyes.
“Thank you,” I remember mumbling in response, unsure what to make of this brutally worded sentiment and the possible truth in it. Had my life been ruined? Was TC’s brain injury the nail on the coffin of all our lives? And if so, what did this mean for our young son, to be the child of a disabled parent? What did it mean for the decades of marriage that lay ahead? Was I simply to sit in my misery for all that time – to accept the fate of a potentially joyless life?
I thought for a moment. NO, came the eventual answer from my hot-tempered soul. And again, NO. There was no one, no criminal, no doctor, no stranger, no injury that would determine if my life was ruined. That decision was in my hands alone. I would be the one to decide the outcome of my life.
Looking back, I don’t think this woman will never know how much I both hated and needed those words. For that day she ignited something in me that I will always consider a great gift: my will to fight. If there was any way to make lemonade from this horrifically tragic collection of lemons, any way to save my little family and rebuild my marriage as I rebuilt my husband, I was determined to find it. I would accept it as the challenge of my lifetime.
Three months later, I took my new husband home from the hospital and the depth of my commitment was tested. TC was, as promised, unable to walk without a wheelchair or cane, unable to communicate anything more sophisticated than a few simple sentences, and severely limited in the use of his right arm.
We quickly fell into the role of silent roommates. Without language to connect our experiences, there was little glue left in the relationship. Interactions as simple as making a grocery list together were painful, confusing, and drawn out, making it nearly impossible to discuss anything as complex as the circumstances of TC’s assault or the loneliness that had pervaded our family dynamic.
For months, as TC participated in intense therapies to help him regain his speech and motor skills, I fell into a deep depression. I laid in bed at night talking to my best friend, my husband, as if he were dead and in heaven instead of passed out in slumber right beside me. I lingered in each phase of ambiguous grief, unsure how to explain my loneliness and the choking sense of loss I felt each day, even though my husband was still alive.
I missed him. With every fiber of my being, I tried to cling to happy memories of the life we once shared. And even though it hadn’t been a perfect life, full of its own minor struggles, I could no longer remember any of the challenges. My life before had been pure, and I innocent, a stranger to the black hole of grief and heartbreak so many of us stumble through during our lifetimes.
I looked at my new husband, fiercely determined to get well, even though simple tasks like setting the table or changing our son’s diaper fatigued him for hours, and I began to ask myself the hard questions about love – questions I had blown my way past as a 27-year-old skipping down the aisle.
Why do we love the people we love? Is it because of how they look? How they make us feel? The things they can do or the security they bring us? Or is it their intellect, their humor, the stuff we don’t have words for – a quality or set of qualities that transcend language?
I had promised to make lemonade out of lemons, but along the way, I had fallen victim to self-pity. I was so entrenched in my grief over everything I’d lost that I was ignoring what was right in front of me: a man so determined to get his life back I’d catch him doing leg lifts at the sink as he washed the dishes after dinner. A man who may not have had the words to say I love you but showed it in every small and important way that counted. Yes, he had been changed, but not by his own volition. And so I decided: the most loving, dedicated thing I could do to honor the great man TC once was and the great man he was striving to be in this new life was to change too. My new husband deserved a new wife.
Brain injury demands we abandon our former expectations and learn to look at life through an innovative lens. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my love for TC was not rooted in the way he looked, his successful career, or even his natural athleticism. I did not love him for the way he played guitar or the beautifully crafted love letters he wrote. I loved him for something that transcended all that – something that existed beyond his abilities and even his words. I loved him for his spirit. His determination to live. The spark of compassion and gentle humility that exists at the very core of his being. And brain injury had not broken that. It had only stripped everything else away, allowing me to meet my real husband for the very first time.
Six years have passed since TC’s assault and our “new normal” looks deceptively similar to the life we had before. We have a lovely home, two healthy children, and more blessings than I ever could have dared to hope for in those early days of brain injury. But an image alone does not tell the complete story.
It has taken extraordinary perseverance and a lot of help from others to rebuild our lives from the ground up. Through the frustration, the disappointment, and the setbacks, TC has fought relentlessly, filling me with endless pride and admiration. These days he is walking, speaking with clarity, and back at work. Our marriage has survived some dark, brutal days, but we are committed to one another, bound by a respect and appreciation for each other’s strength. It may not sound sexy or romantic, but if I’ve learned anything about marriage, it’s this: real love demands the best of us. If we’re willing to get in the trenches and roll up our sleeves, we may be surprised by the depth of love we experience in return.
This life will always be a fight. After all, disability does not just go away. TC’s injury has shaped our lives and transformed the dynamic of each and every interaction we have, leaving open the possibility of a very uncertain future. But it does not own us. And it certainly hasn’t ruined our lives. Instead, brain injury has been a teacher – guiding us into a life centered around the things that truly matter, growing our gratitude in every way, and reminding us to never take a moment of our time together for granted.
From LOVE YOU HARD: A Memoir of Marriage, Brain Injury, and Reinventing Love by Abby Maslin, published on March 12, 2019 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Abigail Maslin.
This essay was featured in the March 24th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.
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