holding hands

Paula planned a wedding when Eric got out of the hospital. With a show of solidarity and a crystal clear picture in her mind of who he still was, she knew she could move his life forward in a way no one else could. She could give him the one thing he needed most. Hope. She married Eric because she loved him, and because it had been part of the plan before the accident. She wanted to give him a fighting chance at the life he thought he’d lost. It was easier than retreating, and easier than picturing her life without him.

Like Drew, she wasn’t a person who could walk away easily. She was young enough to believe the worst was over. She believed the tender, strong, and fun-loving version of Eric would sustain her, and the beauty of her choice to stay with him would energize her. Paula did what we all did as brides—she looked up. She saw possibility, and she imagined a lifetime of loving and being loved. She envisioned time as a fresh sheet, snapped over a bed, falling smooth and wrinkle-free in front of her.

But she neglected to picture her daily life with him. She didn’t know the image of the old Eric would have to compete with a new one. A version hardened by the new indignities of daily life, transformed from a fiercely independent partner and playmate into a permanent patient with a voracious appetite for her care and attention. She didn’t know that over time, the weight of him would prove overwhelming, and gaps would form between them. The babies helped at first. They were another way she could keep Eric focused and moving forward, another gift within her power to give, one that would provide him with a permanent reason to live. For him, they were a coup d’etat, an in-your-face finger to the fates, and a source of endless fascination and pride. For her, they were a perfect embodiment of the best of both of them, blended together. They were also the ultimate distraction from a growing unease.

What she didn’t anticipate was the way the kids would accelerate time. How their unfurling days, months, and years would accentuate a ticking clock of her own. Not only were the girls her responsibility day and night—their safety when they were tiny, their education and social activities as they grew, and their discipline when they were older. As they grew, they became a reminder that there was only so much time left to explore the person she’d once wanted to be. She began to imagine the path not taken. And she came to that junction in life where doing the right thing for someone else and doing the right thing for yourself have equal merit.

Being the bread winner was also her duty, and she worked full-time. As she looked around, she saw many women doing this, but there was a marked difference. She had no one at home to help with dinner, take out the trash, or get up in the middle of the night with the child who just couldn’t sleep. Not only did she not have help, but she had the added task of caring for Eric in the evenings. There was no coming in the door, kicking off her shoes, and leaning against the counter with a glass of wine as her husband cooked or rubbed her shoulders. There was no slipping into a bath to relax after a particularly challenging day in the office. Instead, there was a urine bag to flush and a body to bathe and dress and turn. There were sheets to change and doctors to call and missing coats, homework, and lunch boxes to chase down. When everyone was accounted for, tucked in and quiet at last, she sank into bed and tried to still her own busy mind, wanting to be thankful. Trying not to despair.

That Drew was there with her, as integral to the big picture as Eric himself, made perfect sense. He was Eric’s brother, his family was her family, and she accepted his help gratefully, without reservation. She loved him like Eric loved him. And as she grew to depend on him, a new bond was forged, one far more personal and gratifying. An alliance of two, where there had always been three. Eric missed this cue, and that would be his downfall. He didn’t see that she had arrived at a place we all get to, at one time or another, over the course of a marriage. A place where we forget what it feels like to be beautiful, and valued as more than a wife and mother. We forget what it feels like to want, instead of always being wanted. And for Paula, that was a dangerous place.

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