Montel Williams, speaking on-air to Ann-Marie Rucker about her recently paralyzed husband, me: “When something like this happens, that’s where the rubber hits the road … all the garbage you came to believe — for better, for worse, in sickness and in health — hits you upside the head like a brick. Why did you not run?”
Ann-Marie: “I think, because we’d been together for a very long time. I think that really counts. We had a history … I certainly felt lonely, I’ll tell you that.”
— “The Montel Williams Show,”
June 12, 2007
To begin with, Ann-Marie and I got married in another era, it seems, way, way back in the 1960s. Despite the anarchy of the times, we both had one foot in the cultural axiom that you find someone to marry, marry them and get on with life. We got married three months after college graduation. I was a few weeks away from 22 and Ann was six months older. We were kids. What the hell did we know?
At the time I contracted transverse myelitis and became a T10 fellow traveler in 1996, we had been married for 29 years. We had lived in St. Louis; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Chicago; Palo Alto, Calif.; San Francisco and finally Los Angeles. We had split apart for only six months or so in that 29 years, but being so young when we started, we were pretty much making it up the whole time. We bought houses, had kids, had money, didn’t have money, went through one career change after another, and the day I became paralyzed, Ann’s 85-year-old Swedish-born mother had moved into our home.
The paralysis came at a bad time (as if there’s ever a good time), but this was awful timing, a perfect storm of shaky circumstances — the demands of two kids, one in college, one 8, the mother-in-law situation, a perpetually stressful, five-year-long lag in my career as a freelance writer in Hollywood, a house we couldn’t pay for … you get the picture. The event, as Montel deduced, hit our marriage like a brick. It was akin to getting kicked in the ribs while down and rolling around on the ground.
Our financial crisis was slowly mitigated, in time, by friends and family. And even work came back pretty quickly. But the almost hallucinogenic experience, for both of us, of staring at someone you had lived with half your life and seeing a complete stranger — that was an emotional shockwave that took more of a toll, frankly, than the paralysis itself.
At first our relationship was not an issue. We were in a daze and on autopilot to just get from Monday to Tuesday. My mission was to lie in a hospital bed and look blankly out the window. Ann’s job was to fend off chaos. She went home and did everything she had done the day before I was paralyzed, but now alone. We had a family Christmas day “celebration” in my hospital room. I wore a bicycle helmet that Ann had bought — I’d asked for it; I thought I was going to walk again — while the kids played video games on the hospital TV and Ann’s mother enjoyed the hospital food that I couldn’t stomach. It was all so surreal. Ann and I were both alone in the room at the same time.
In my utter self-absorption, I was only vaguely aware that other people were there, let alone aware of how they were dealing with this crisis. I had all the social radar of a newborn — feed me, change my britches, tell me I’ll be OK, and then let me go back to sleep. I put on a friendly, can-do face, but Ann, of all people, knew that I wasn’t even in the room. She says now that she felt the break the moment I was originally wheeled into the ER.
As I was alone in my own semi-psychotic world, she was alone in everyone else’s world. “Post-traumatic spousal shock disorder” is probably something they study in med school; if not, they should. She didn’t eat. At one point she went out to buy jeans to look nice for all the hospital visitors and found that she had dropped a whole size. We called it the Cedars-Sinai Trauma Diet. She still took kids to soccer games, but now she was liable to break down in front of a perfect stranger. We had a big house and I can picture her retiring to our oversized bedroom by herself and staring at the vaulted ceiling and wondering, “What’s going to happen now?” I was no help in that regard, either.
So she coped on her own, and I continued to live inside my head even after I returned home. And that’s when the trouble began. I felt abandoned by God; she felt abandoned by God and me. I moved to a small room on the ground floor of our home and had no intention of leaving. I certainly had no intention of pitching in with the bill paying, the kid’s car pool, or Grandma’s insistence that a housekeeper had stolen all of her jewelry. If you weren’t talking about my paralysis, I wasn’t listening.
To Ann-Marie, I wasn’t just a bore and a helpless helpmate. The paralysis struck something much deeper in her. You don’t have to be a fan of the comic-violence of the classic Danny DeVito movie, The War of the Roses, to know that divorce can unleash a deep gusher of homicidal rage. Well, so can other seismic shifts in life, like this catastrophe. Much to my own surprise, it didn’t set off that rage in me, the paralyzee. My emotional struggle was with sadness and despair. If anything, the paralysis took all the rage out of me. The ballgame was over, I thought at the time, and I was the loser, the guy with the bloody face lying on the field of play while the victors were headed for a champagne bath.
In contrast, the paralysis set off a torrent of anger with Ann-Marie, the designated caregiver, the person once voted in grade school as “Best Pal Around.” It was something I had only seen fleetingly in our decades together: Once, after a fight one night, she had taken a favorite cowboy shirt of mine, a shirt she had in part embroidered, and cut it to shreds. It was more painful than if she had stuck the scissors right into my thigh. But that kind of outburst was rare. She had hidden her frustration well.
Now, in this brand-new paralytic pressure cooker, her façade cracked wide open. She didn’t take it out on her mother or the kids, thank goodness. She took it out on me, privately, in the evening, frequently. I had made too many promises and she had made too many compromises and she felt duped. I was the one who had talked her into putting her own career as an artist on hold repeatedly as I pursued mine; I’d also talked her into a second child, a big, too-expensive house, and in general, a belief in a financial wet dream that was now certain not to happen: “Aging TV Writer Hits it Big, Buys Second Home in Italy After Paralysis at 51!” — even I wasn’t buying that.
I was as wounded by her hostility as she was by my emotional abandonment. All I wanted, and expected, was boundless sympathy from all involved. All she wanted was a husband to share the load of shit thrown at her daily. She thought of my posture as giving up and giving in to self-pity and self-loathing. I thought of her litany of betrayal as at best ill-timed and at worst insensitive. It was a perfect setup for disaster. Either of us could have taken these fertile seeds of discord and blown them up to a major jack story of “irreconcilable differences.”
There was nothing either of us could do at the moment — we were stuck with our dependents, stuck with our financial pickle, stuck with each other. So our unspoken strategy was to separate in the same house. Ann retreated to the big bedroom upstairs, difficult for me to get to, and I retreated to my little prison cell downstairs. We could meet to discuss practical family matters in some neutral territory like the kitchen and then give each other a mutual vacation. It was awkward at times, lonely at all times, but it kept our personal schism from escalating out of control. Between occasional meltdowns, we just left the room.
There is a classic George Jones-Tammy Wynette country duet — “Two-Story House” — that sums the situation up nicely.
Now we live in a two-story house
Whoa, what splendor
But there’s no love about
(George sings) I’ve got my story
(Tammy sings) And I’ve got mine, too
How sad it is, we now live,
in a two-story house.
Unlike George and Tammy, we didn’t end up divorced. Why? There may be no formulaic answer. The pressures that kill other marriages — financial stress, health issues (I finally took charge of my own health), emotional paralysis — began to abate. Ann’s mother passed away, we bought a small, one-story house where we were together again, and started over. What we did do during this confusing time that no doubt helped save the day was keep our emotional situation ambiguous. We left things vague, open to the most positive (or neutral) interpretation possible. Neither of us drew a line in the sand for the other to step over. Neither issued final ultimatums or devised strategies to drive the other away. “When in doubt, remain in doubt.” We didn’t do this consciously, mind you, but we did do it instinctively. After all, we had been married for 30 years. We knew all about the capricious nature of marital reality, emotional and otherwise.
What reconnected us in the end, Ann-Marie would contend, is the same thing that connected us in the beginning — humor, or more to the point, black humor, the kind of spot-on joking that can leave you breathless with laughter. Ann remembers a seminal moment when she was pushing my wheelchair up a hill and a guy in a Mercedes sports car, no doubt wearing tennis togs, drives merrily by. Without skipping a beat, I yelled out, “Sure, you can laugh and smile in your fancy convertible … you’re not wearing Depends!” We cracked up together. The darkest jokes broke through and changed everything.
It took three years for a new equilibrium to emerge. Three years for me to slowly accept this fate and see the paralysis as the errant biological smackdown that it was. Three years for Ann-Marie to gain a new sense of her own resiliency, see beyond the mistakes of the past, and move on. And a good while longer for both of us to get back to the rudiments of lovemaking. But when we first did reconnect, really remarry in our hearts, it was even more glorious, speaking for myself, than the first time.
The first time we had stood at the altar and repeated the vows of love and loyalty, “for better or worse,” “’til death do us part,” hoping to God that we weren’t being fooled by 21-year-old hormones and all those nice gifts. Now we knew.
Now we really knew. Paralysis, if you are as lucky as we were, can do that to a marriage.
Allen Rucker is the author or co-author of 11 books, including his latest, a memoir, The Best Seat in the House. He has been a wheelchair user since 1996. You can reach him at www.allenrucker.com.