When Abigail Thomas’s husband, Rich, was hit by a car, his brain shattered. Subject to rages, terrors, and hallucinations, he must live the rest of his life in an institution. He has no memory of what he did the hour, the day, the year before. This tragedy is the ground on which Abigail had to build a new life. How she built that life is a story of great courage and great change, of moving to a small country town, of a new family composed of three dogs, knitting, and friendship, of facing down guilt and discovering gratitude. It is also about her relationship with Rich, a man who lives in the eternal present, and the eerie poetry of his often uncanny perceptions. This wise, plainspoken, beautiful book enacts the truth Abigail discovered in the five years since the accident: You might not find meaning in disaster, but you might, with effort, make something useful of it.
What Stays the Same
This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes. A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t. My children are close then one drifts away. I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again. The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent. He grounds me. Rich is where I shine. I can count on myself with him.
I live in a cozy house with pretty furniture. Time passes here. There is a fireplace and two acres and the dogs run around and dig big holes and I don’t care. I have a twenty-seven-inch TV and lots of movies. The telephone rings often. Rich is lodged in a single moment and it never tips into the next. Last week I lay on his bed in the nursing home and watched him. I was out of his field of vision and I think he forgot I was there. He stood still, then he picked up a newspaper from a neat pile of newspapers, held it a moment, and carefully put it back. His arms dropped to his sides. He looked as if he was waiting for the next thing but there is no next thing.
I got stuck with the past and future. That’s my half of this bad hand. I know what happened and I never get used to it. Just when I think I’ve metabolized everything I am drawn up short. "Rich lost part of his vision" is what I say, but recently Sally told the nurse, "He is blind in his right eye," and I was catapulted out of the safety of the past tense into the now.
Today I drive to the wool store. I arrive with my notebook open and a pen.
"What are you doing?" Paul asks.
"I’m taking a poll," I say. "What is the one thing that stays stable in your life?"
"James," says Paul instantly.
"And I suppose James will say Paul," I say, writing down James.
"No, he’ll say the dogs," says Paul, laughing.
"Creativity," says Heidi, the genius.
"I have to think," says a woman I don’t know.
"The dogs," says James.
Rich and I had a house together once. He was the real gardener. He raked and dug, planted and weeded, stood over his garden proudly. Decorative grasses were his specialty. He cut down my delphiniums when he planted his fountain grass. "Didn’t you see them?" I asked. "They were so tall and beautiful." But he was too busy digging to listen. I lost interest in flowers. We planted a hydrangea tree outside the kitchen window. We cut down (after much deliberation) two big prickly bushes that were growing together like eyebrows at either side of our small path. We waited until the birds were done with their young, then Rich planted two more hydrangea trees where the bushes had stood. I don’t want to see how big they are by now, how beautiful their heavy white blossoms look when it rains. "I love what you’ve done with the garden," my friend Claudette says, looking at the bed of overgrown nettles in my backyard. I weeded there exactly once. I want to plant fountain grass out there, but first I need a backhoe.
Rich and I don’t have the normal ups and downs of a marriage. I don’t get impatient. He doesn’t have to figure out what to do with his retirement. I don’t watch him go through holidays with the sorrow of missing his absent children. Last week we were walking down the hall to his room, it was November, we had spent the afternoon together. "If I wasn’t with you and we weren’t getting food, the dark would envelop my soul," he said cheerfully.
He never knows I’m leaving until I go.
Copyright © 2006 by Abigail Thomas
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ADVANCE PRAISE FOR A THREE DOG LIFE
"A Three Dog Life is, I think, the best memoir I have ever read. It’s sad, terrifying, and scorchingly honest. It’s also a testament to the power of love, suggesting that even when love isn’t enough…somehow, it is. This book is a punch to the heart. Read it."--Stephen King
"Abigail Thomas's many gifts as a writer and deeply generous person show us what is possible when two brave people examine a reconfigured life—one that conjures the uncanny, spotlights the power of art, and amplifies the meaning and reach of love."--Amy Hempel, author of Reasons to Live, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage
"Thomas has elevated what could be, at best, an overemotional sermon or, at worst, a grim romp in self-pity to a high plain of true inspiration." -- Booklist
"A tragedy with much comic relief." -- Boston Globe
"A memorable account of how tragic loss can lead to ineffable moments of surpassing love and miraculous change." -- Elle Magazine
"Thomas tells an extraordinary, but horrific, love story." -- Entertainment Weekly
"Heartbreaking...Thomas writ[es]...with lots of grace and little self-pity." -- Glamour
"Resounding...the clarity is stunning." -- LA Times
"Illuminates a new life built on tragedy but not tragic." -- Newsday
"This memoir could be a fall sleeper...the perfectly honed observations of a clear-eyed and witty-writer." -- Newsweek
"The startling power and beauty of Abigail Thomas's memoir comes...from her refusal to surrender the shards of a loving relationship." -- O Magazine
"...an unpretentious story about coming to terms with tragedy and lost dreams." -- Orlando Sentinel
"This haunting memoir is slim but wields enormous impact...this book tackles the largest of human subjects--love and loss." -- People
"Here, love can't exactly conquer all, but it assumes radically new, stunning shapes." -- Time Out NY
"Thomas writes honestly and straight from the heart...[and] offers hope that life can retain its richness after tragedy." -- USA Today
"Thomas...fac[es] reality with courage, bursts of anger, patience, and dark humor. What resonates most, though, is her generosity..." -- Vanity Fair
"From the depths of catastrophe, she has crafted a painfully honest and loving portrait of the irrevocably altered life she finds herself leading. The stories are few, the moments are spare, but what Thomas tells us is shot through with light." -- Washington Post
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