Photo by Blaine Rucker
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.