Why I Was Finally Able to Write About My Husband
On the Complicated Choices of Memoir Writing
I’ve written about my parents, my sister and brother, aunts and uncles and cousins, my son and daughter. But I never felt I had the right to write about my husband. Shouldn’t that most personal and private relationship remain personal and private? Of course, I tell funny little stories about us to friends. Recently, I described how, early in our marriage, he loved flying a plane but I did not love flying, especially in a small plane, especially in a small plane he was piloting, it felt so unofficial, you mean I have to close my own door, no flight attendant to do it for me?—how he stopped flying because he didn’t like flying alone. I always end by saying I’m talking about the give and take in a marriage. Then I say, “Maybe in our marriage it’s mostly him giving and me taking.” Then I wait for laughs.
In 2006, my husband had an epidural to relieve his back pain. A procedure so routine it’s given to women in childbirth. But something went terribly wrong, and the minute that needle pushed into his spine, he became paralyzed from the waist down.
For years, people asked me, “Are you going to write about that?”
My standard answer: “For sure, not.”
Shouldn’t what happened—the shock of it, the complicated recuperation, medical emergencies, how my husband and I each became a giant cluster of needs and neediness is never very attractive, how our marriage changed, identities shifted, roles switched—shouldn’t all that stay between the two of us?
Over the years, I’d read books that reflected my own psychological experience of marriage. I’d underlined sentences, scribbled notes in the margins, felt as though the authors of those books had looked inside my head. But as much as I wanted to follow them, I held myself back. It took a long time to move from Point A (Hey, you can do this.) to Point B (Get going.)
As far back as 1988, in a used bookshop in Blue Hill, Maine, I found myself leafing through Monkeys, Susan Minot’s 1986 autobiographical novel about a New England family—an uninvolved, alcoholic father, an affectionate and beloved mother, their seven children. My husband and I were travelling through Maine, staying at bed and breakfasts, eating lobster. In Castine, he was pointing out how the bay and sky blurred into a stripe, but I was busy underlining sentences in the book I’d bought. Sentences like these: “When Mum announced to her friends she was marrying Gus Vincent, they warned her that life would be one long party. Mum loved parties. And for a while they did go to parties, despite all the babies. Mum would always drive home.” That passage made my head snap back. Even though it was a daughter revealing something unattractive about her father, it made me think of my marriage. Alcoholism is not our problem, but there are unattractive things I could reveal about us in a book. However, I wasn’t ready for that degree of introspection. At that point, what I got from Monkeys is that you can write the tiny, intimate details of a marriage—how a husband and wife started their life together. My husband was pointing to a lone boat on the horizon, the flurry of its sails, and I was jotting this note in the margin of Minot’s book: tell how we met.We embark on the promising journey that is marriage. And then we find ourselves in a fix. All these unforeseen consequences. And then we start writing.
Thirty years later, in Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap, I write about meeting my husband on a blind date, getting engaged on our third. We literally saw each other three times and decided to get married. We weren’t even living in the same town. I was in New York City; he had just moved to Charlotte. It was 1967 and long distance calls were expensive, so we wrote letters. What makes our quick engagement, and then our quick marriage (three months later), truly bizarre is that neither of us is impulsive. Our friends would probably say we’re the most deliberate people they know. We don’t change brands of toothpaste without weighing the pros and cons.
In Kay Redfield’s 2009 memoir, Nothing Was the Same, she wrote about the death of her scientist husband, Richard. With honesty and sensitivity, she compared grief to clinical depression. Her book began with letters she and her husband wrote to each other and ended with a brief scene of her, alone, at Big Sur: “Richard was with me in Big Sur, and he would be with me when I left Big Sur. It would not be the journey we had reckoned on, but it was what we had.”
I was on my way to catching on.
Nine years later, the grief my husband and I each experienced over his paralysis was the starting point for my memoir, a story about the life we dream of and the life we make.
From my memoir: “On our wedding day, my husband and I thought we could see around the next hill. We believed everything would stay the same as the minute the two of us stepped under that orchid- and ivy-covered chuppah. Defying all reason, we looked each other right in the eye and said, Okay, I do. But our vows were a warning we should’ve taken note of: Beware! Changes coming!”
Even though I’d written two novels and a memoir before beginning my memoir about my husband, I was (read: am) terrified of plot, have never understood what a plot is. That’s because I began my writing career as a poet. I knew stanzas. And line breaks. Not plots. And then I read The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander, an American poet who’d read her original poem at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her 2015 memoir is a moving account of the sudden death of her husband, Ficre, an Eritrean artist, restaurant owner and chef. She wrote about what led to their first meeting: “A friend took me to see Reggie-the-Psychic-of-Brooklyn-New-York. You better get yourself together, girl, Reggie said, because your man is on his way and you can’t stop this love from coming.”
I had already written the first draft of my memoir at this point, had already described how our meeting had seemed fated: “Days before my trip home, my New York roommate and I had been guests of her aunt and uncle at the Copacabana, where Diana Ross and The Supremes were appearing. Before the show, a fortune-teller made her way around the room, tickled the creases of my palm with her gold-ringed forefinger, got stone still and, with a wink, said, ‘You’ll soon meet a tall, handsome redhead.’”
But Alexander’s memoir didn’t just affirm that it was okay to write about counting on something as flimsy as a fortune-teller’s forecast. Those spare chapters, like stunning lyrical poems, told me, Forget the kind of plot where so-and-so happens and then so-and-so happens and then—shock!—so-and-so happens.Just concentrate on language, finding one good word, then another good word, then another.
All at Sea, Decca Aitkenhead’s 2016 memoir, told the story of her partner Tony’s sudden death while the family was on vacation in Jamaica. He drowned while saving their four-year-old son in a riptide. It’s also the story of a mixed-race relationship. And the story of the aftermath of a tragedy—how Aitkenhead learned to inhabit the role of grieving woman, lonely mother of two sons. She wrote: “How should a newly widowed woman go about this? I decide it will be easiest if I simply don’t tell anyone I meet about Tony.”
So it’s all right to show how we do these tricky little things just to conceal our nervousness?
From Together: “I act as though I have a starring role in a play. The calm wife and mother. Who, even though an unfortunate accident has occurred and no one seems to know the way forward, remains gracious and polite to the hospital staff. Isn’t it amazing she’s so calm, our nurse will whisper to another nurse. And so nice, the other nurse will say.”
We embark on the promising journey that is marriage. And then we find ourselves in a fix. All these unforeseen consequences. And then we start writing—the small moments and the large moments (they all fit). Even though we’re inspired and encouraged by the stories we’ve read, we must tell the story only we can tell, a story we’ve never quite seen before. This story will demand that we spend years crafting its shape and significance. It demands that we come to grips with the complicated and messy nature of marriage—husband and wife both human, each experiencing the thing itself. That’s when we latch onto the transformative power that will make our story true for others.