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Fearing the Worst

May 21, 2009 By:
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The confessional mode and its possible pitfalls, which I discussed several weeks ago in the case of Anne Roiphe's memoir, Epilogue, get another workout in Alix Kates Shulman's new book. Also a tale of harrowing loss, it's titled To Love What Is, and is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux. Where Roiphe's book discussed the sadness and bewilderment caused by losing a beloved spouse after a long marriage -- along with the frightening and often humorous passage back into what's called "the dating scene" -- Shulman considers a dreadful accident and its consequences on another long, loving relationship.

The dreadful event occurred at 2 in the morning on July 22, 2004. Shulman and her husband, Scott, who was then 75, were sleeping in their seaside cabin on a coastal Maine island, a place that had given them untold hours of pleasure over the years, mostly because it was far from civilization, with no electricity or running water and no road in the near vicinity. But it was these very elements that wound up prolonging the tragedy.

The writer woke late that evening, the first the two were spending in the cabin that season, to find that her husband had fallen nine feet from the loft where they slept and was lying on the floor, naked and completely still. Scott does manage to survive, but his head injuries leave him significantly altered. To Love What Is is the tale of how Shulman struggled to cope once their lives had split irrevocably in two.

The book, which is not particularly long, is divided into nine chapters, and some of the most powerful writing comes in the first of them, when Shulman describes the accident and its immediate aftermath. What makes the event so gripping is the fact that the cabin's remote location means that the rescue crews seem to take forever to arrive and the suspense is often unbearable. Shulman treats the material, like any good writer, as a small-scale tragedy with major implications, and she's as skillful in this depiction of fear and the slow drip of time as any novelist. Shulman tailors her brief scenes with such perfect pacing that we are never altogether certain what this man's fate will be.

First, a single member of the rescue team bursts into the cabin; he is someone Shulman knows -- the island arborist -- and she is somewhat comforted. But before she can explain what she thinks has happened, there is pounding on the front door, "and three more men explode into the room, breathless, wired, filling the small studio with their bristling male energy and the crackling static of their radios. From every corner of the island, one by one, the heroic Long Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Team burst through the door, then report by radio to the fire chief. They include several lobstermen, a carpenter, the builder who put in our solar, the island gas man, a hospital orderly who commutes to Portland. Some I know, some I don't. The last to arrive is Tim Lambert, the EMT medic. Taking charge, Tim kneels down to Scott, while the rest of the men huddle around him in a closed circle that excludes me ... ."

In time, they get Scott ready to be transported, but they must take him all the way down the beach to where the road begins and the ambulance awaits them. They then take the fireboat from the island to Portland, a 20- or 25-minute ride, all of them uncertain whether Scott will withstand the wait until doctors can examine him.

At the hospital, it's determined that the severely injured man has lost much blood through internal bleeding. When Shulman is at last permitted to see him, she finds he's out like a "zombie" and "riddled with tubes."

"A breathing tube snakes from the computerized respirator down his windpipe to his lungs. A feeding tube runs through his nose down his throat to his stomach. From each side, chest tubes drain the fluid and air from the area around his lungs into large bloody containers on the floor beside the bed. An IV line enters an artery, a catheter in his penis drains his bladder, and cuffs that automatically inflate every few seconds to stimulate circulation encircle his ankles and lower calves. My darling who so recently expressed a tough, rational decision about his future has been replaced by someone completely inaccessible."

This, however, is probably the quietest moment Shulman and her husband experience while in the hospital. During the four weeks he spends in ICU, he withstands some terrible setbacks, so that it seems a true miracle when one day he's transferred, trades in his breathing tube and begins to speak. He first asks for Kleenex, and Shulman could not be happier. But immediately following this breakthrough, he appears to take a huge step back, "as out of his mouth pours a great torrent of words, some comprehensible, some not, a wild river of stories, mixing events I know about with some I never heard of in our 20 years together. Can they be true? As a writer, I know I should be taking down every word of this momentous event, but I'm too excited, amazed, and alarmed to do anything but listen."

A Turning Point?

When the hospital staff get wind of this development, they rush in to question Scott. The mad mixture of fact and wild conjecture continues.

"Who is this disconnected person, with his weird mixture of sense and incoherence, as irrational as he is imaginative. The dignified courtly man I love has emerged from his enforced silence a loquacious stranger -- sometimes a clown, full of wild flights of wordplay that keep ... me howling with laughter, sometimes a garrulous, nonsensical, even dirty old man hitting on the nurses. Fluent aphasia is the name the doctors give to this uncontrollable verbal pandemonium, a result of damage to the brain's speech centers, by which, in place of the elusive, sought-after words, the lips spew forth a circuitous approximation that usually sounds like babble but sometimes hints at wisdom. Are the myriad substitute words that emerge arbitrary or telling? Since aphasia, of both the fluent and non-fluent varieties, is caused by bodily injury or disease and often disappears with time, it would seem to be purely physical, not psychological. Yet overlaying my modest husband there appears to be another man with multiple alien personalities -- now outgoing and entertaining, now authoritative and managerial -- and all of them named Scott York. Can his injury have transformed his very self ... ? Or revealed a buried self I never knew?"

These are the questions that fill the remainder of the work and bedevil the author as she tries to cope with changes that turn their lives -- and her work schedule -- topsy-turvy. Sometimes, the effect is humorous; sometimes, it is grave, even tragic. And mixed in with all this forward motion, Shulman also moves back into the past to tell the captivating story of how Scott and she dated in their youth, drifted apart, then after divorces from others, found one another again and married, with all the passion that had marked their earlier relationship.

While Shulman never falters in her ability to describe and diagnose the medical problems that plague the couple, at moments she sometimes falls into the traps set by confessional writing. Periodically, we hear too much about her woes. I am not implying that they are trivial, just that when one ventures into such territory, bathos is always possible, and a writer has to keep a sharp eye on the tone that can invade her prose.

There are also moments when we hear too much about the glories of the couple's past lovemaking (along with Shulman's sexual needs in this dry spell, and her continuing allure as a woman); this, too, can be a matter of tone, but in certain instances, it's hearing too much about subjects -- even in the commendable search for truth -- that perhaps shouldn't have been broached.

Aside from these modest flaws, Shulman has given us one of the clearest, funniest, saddest and most invaluable portraits of what a brain injury does to a human being, as well as to all who surround and care for him. 

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