In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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There was a reason I was in a car that got hit, and the reason was love. My husband and I were headed for a certain destination.
There was a time, in the early part of the healing that followed, when I knew that this catastrophe was a wedding gift from the gods. It was surely bestowed with all the awe and terror that the gods can command.
Phil and I had met in the sunshine — a springtime of idealism, of health and youth and beauty, of lyrical talk in the literal sun of a Missouri maytime.
We wooed in the sunshine — the blaze of life and color that is Michigan’s midsummer countryside, the flaring ardor of two bodies well met, the sweet dapple of gathering wildflowers, and the white light of infatuation that blinds lovers to the equal and coming truth that this estate’s gonna change.
I think it is fortunate blindness — so few of us would marry if it were a matter of rationality. That dementia of love accords with the paradox of nature, embracing the reality that sex necessitates death, and death sex. We become foolhardy about the fact that birth pangs and death throes are the business of life. We are born knowing it, but our minds can’t conjure how that truth’s going to feel unfolding; the self-respecting, self-protecting mind, left to its own devices, would shy away from such a real future. Something larger than mind does the leaping, that blind nuptial leap of faith.
I, rightly, had no faith in what I might do in the situation of marriage, and hardly do now. It took a lot of power to effect our mating, next to none of it personal.
As soon as I had uprooted myself from California and come to Phil’s Michigan home, the sunlight was beclouded. It was as though we suddenly had discovered that we knew nothing about loving. The first flush of romance drained away and we were left with no idea of how to behave. It was an unhappy time, black with confusion and disappointment. In spite of that, less than a year later, we consummated our marriage. We did so with the solemnest vows available — the rite in the Book of Common Prayer, a deal which admits of no fudging. We swore to do it till death do us part and neither of us crossed our fingers. That, in itself, was rather a miracle. We were hardly speaking at the time. “I will” was a long conversation.
Nevertheless, everyone was exceedingly happy at our wedding, a bona fide love feast. We made a wedding picture embroidered into the fabric of our community and of our families. Not that we in particular were stars of the show, but that we were enacting, before a great many people whom we loved and who loved us, and in a very traditional fashion, one of the most archaic sacraments of human beings: the eternally hopeful conjoining of opposites.
All the people present were asked to support our union; all married people present were invited to renew their vows. It was a perfectly glorious day, an auspicious beginning to a marriage that is proving to be as fierce and troubling as it is right. It was all true and apt, that glory — it could not have been spawned by something inauthentic. But that authentic reality is so wildly different from the idealized expectation!
About a month after the wedding, I took a little fling at spouse battering. Late one morning I became unbearably frustrated by the emotional distance between us, furious at the absence of contact, and I flew at Phil, fists flailing. When I saw that pummelling his chest was causing him no pain, rage took me beyond symbolic action and I made a move to knee him in the groin. In an elegance of self-protection, he flipped me into the dirt, harmlessly. My attack did manage to get his attention and once my hysterical weeping was done we talked for a little while.
There are so many beginnings in this story. Immediately thereafter we hired somebody to teach us how to talk with each other. But it wasn’t for quite some time that Phil told me that my assault had surprised him. Funny. It seemed like my only recourse at the time.
The Relationship continued to be a consuming issue, and my chief preoccupation, while Phil went on about his business. He was at home and I was not, in any sense of the word. I was as yet a stranger in a strange land, amid the alien corn.
Phil would go to work and there he’d build things; he’d saw wood and sweat and joke and pick up new skills and figure out solutions to structural problems; he’d pound nails and deepen his friendship with Darryl, his sidekick and boss. Back at the house, I’d sit at Phil’s desk, staring at blank pieces of paper in the typewriter; I’d fool with the kitten, never giving it a moment’s peace; I’d write something good; I’d go weed in the garden, or go to my church in the woods to sit on a stump and be calmed by the spaciousness there, under a canopy of senior maples. We would see friends, go to movies; we’d sit around the house reading. Newlyweds. It all seemed strangely unsettled to me. It was damned arduous and quite unlike my imaginings. Phil thought, as he always has, that everything was going to be just fine. And that was how things stood when we were hit.
The driver of the other car in the head-on collision later told the police investigator that he had seen Phil glance over at me a second before the crash. Looking for me or looking at me? What was it we saw in that moment?
Then followed time out of sight of the sun, a venture through some hell, a time of dread and pain, an abject powerlessness. Suddenly his life was in danger; suddenly my body was seriously maimed. Death was a big presence; death had nicked us and made us bleed.
Did I go to Phil’s bedside for his sake or mine? It was for each and for both. I belonged with him, and the docs and the nurses and the orderlies did everything they could to ensure that we had our times together. There wasn’t a right way to visit. It was not a situation that allowed for masks. Neither of us had anything spare to prevaricate with. Which is not to say that I didn’t practice delusions. It was only my sense of participation in a larger, timeless pattern that redeemed the experience. There was much to be bitter about, but fortunately, it was not until later that I surveyed the scene with different eyes and beheld that different truth. At the time those redeeming delusions — mythic inflation — were a godsend. What could I be? Gilgamesh to Enkidu? Orpheus to Eurydice? Isis to this scattered Osiris?
I was with him, with the greater part of my humanity set ranging loose in the realm of hero images, looking for meaning more than hope, and a way of being present, in every dimension, as I held his poor hand and watched him work at breathing.
For his part, Phil inhabited a place with no stories or causes, a void that was meaning in itself. During those days we existed in a time out of time, and much of its expanded quality stemmed from love. Our doctors and nurses acted out of love; our parents and friends came and called for the sake of love; even strangers were praying for us in a generality of love. Every kindness became a matter of love; those acts were myriad and sweet. Darryl brought Phil a hammer so his hand wouldn’t lose its calluses. Or his heart its humor or he his grip on life.
It was a gift to learn that I was but one among the many who wanted this man to live. Each of us had something to beckon him with, some manifestation of his life in ours, evidence of its worth and texture. So I became a member of the community, not first among equals in his affection. I had to understand that there was no survival for him in isolation with me. Hard truth for this lover.
Surrender came: I got to a point of loving him so intensely that I became willing to accept his dying, if that was his to do. I saw that love was not a ransom; he owed us nothing. Phil’s fate was in the province of freedom. Live or die I would have to love him with openness. There was an equanimity in that experience of loving.
Yet I clung to his person and I hated having to leave his sight, as though by watching over him I might protect him from the unknown. But that vigil just couldn’t be. There was an anguish in the letting go every time I was wheeled, or wheeled myself, away from his bedside. There was no telling if we’d ever meet again, and if we did, what the terms would be. These wrenching farewells have got me into the habit of telling my love, and not only to Phil. Believing in mortality in a way I never have before, I want my love to be clear in the beloved’s understanding. Let that be the last thing they hear every time we part, because there is no telling when the last time may be.
This spell in the intensive care unit was a marriage of heaven and hell: the fear, the physical suffering, the medical grotesquerie, the captivity, the absence of the sun all marked it as a forced sojourn in the underworld, hard times in a territory we try hard to shun all our lives. Yet it included the revelations of his courage, of transcendent giving, selfless love, and from these, a sense of clear eternity. The falling and rising were interpenetrating, confounding and sacred.
It was an experience beyond good, something given to us to be honored and pondered.
Do not imagine that, once it was clear that there would be a we to do the living, we lived happily ever after. Gratitude is perishingly short. The big lesson got stowed away for future reference and amnesiac recall. We segued from the deathbed to lifebed drama into disconnected convalescence, standing as apart on the landscape for a time as a couple of gutted buildings. He left the hospital, I stayed. There was nothing left to give, no shelter. Staying alive had taken all we had and reduced us to survival mode. We regressed to our earlier alienation. In him there was little to connect with, no succor, only endurance. He didn’t have time for my tears, didn’t want to hear or talk about it.
Our realities were as different as women and men, as bone and flesh, as weeping and silence, as moving and being stopped.
Our tart green marriage was put to the bite. Always looking for the gift of knowledge wrapped in pain, for a while I thought I might have learned a sense of proportion. Now surely I could discern matters of consequence and not sweat the small stuff. But no.
In the miserable narrowness of lingering invalidism which, given my badly broken leg, became my lot, small stuff is all there is, the small stuff in the three pounds of live tissue lurking in the skull. Nothing significant was within my power.
Once I was freed from the protection of the hospital, crossing the room became a big deal. Getting fed became a major project. Taking a bath became a perilous endeavor: my integrity was a shambles.
I loved the people who treated me kindly and hated and feared the people who refused to understand. For a while there, Phil seemed to be one of the latter. What I thought was denial of my needs was also resentment of my demands. He claimed he was acting on the principle that the less my infirmity was catered to, the stronger I would become. I found this about as convincing as the case for vivisection, and as cool.
The only way I could love him past that was to remember that he had damn near died, and the shock and trauma had narrowed his range of concern down to self as much as it had mine. He was only apparently recovered when he walked out of the hospital and, having been raised in stoicism, he could countenance my need for help little better than he could his own. Because of his look of wholeness, I could not accept his inability to nurture me. Another generation of wounds and another occasion of healing were the result.
Unacceptable behavior can’t be in a marriage — the partner who’s passing judgement can request change, learn to accept, or leave. Divorce is probably a healthy response to certain orders of unacceptable behavior. But I want marriage, not divorce, because it seems like such a rewarding way to learn acceptance, a very high spiritual attainment. Hence my characterizing of our accident and all its consequences as a wedding gift — perhaps from Mother Kali — to test our willingness to accept one another, to prove our ability to endure hardship singly and together. Phil and I are a proud and stubborn pair: sometimes the hardship is us; more often the hardship is existential solitude. We rejoice in each other’s strengths; someday we will practice compassion for each other’s weaknesses. There is earthly time for that now, not an infinity of time, but more time than there might have been, and no better thing to do with it.