book 6 of 24 books in 28 days: a three dog life
After struggling with Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation, rereading (yes, I broke my skim-only resolution again) A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas has been pure pleasure.
Richard Rogin, Thomas’s husband, was not dead, but seriously, permanently injured. Thomas writes about the five years following his traumatic brain injury from being hit by a car. One evening, Rich left their Manhattan apartment to walk their dog, Henry, but Henry escaped the leash, and Rich ran into the street after him. Henry found his way home but Rich did not.
Thomas explains her unique circumstance: “[M]ost widows remember more vividly the last weeks of their husband’s lives than the span of their lives together. I am not a widow, but my husband as he was is gone. I concentrate on who Rich is at any given moment and I lose sight of who he was, who we were.”
The book begins with the story of the accident, but Thomas returns to it from time to time, offering additional fragments and details, as one might include them in the course of telling a friend or oneself a story over time. At the end of the book, five years after the accident, Rich, whose memory is sporadic, tells her that he remembers the accident, and he wants to talk about it to the extent he can.
In the pages between the accident and the last scene of remembering, Thomas writes of the rebuilding of her life, first in Manhattan and later in Woodstock, near the long-term care facility where Rich lives. Her three-dog life includes first only Henry, then also Rosie and Carolina.
Thomas “does” memoir without pulling any punches. She admits to a certain rush in the crisis of the first few months following the accident: “There is an exhilaration to it, a high born only partly of exhaustion, and I find myself almost frighteningly alive. There is nothing like calamity for refreshing the moment. Ironically, the last several years my life had begun to feel shapeless, like underwear with the elastic gone, the days down around my ankles.”
She marks the passage of time with some surprise: “Twenty-four months since the accident. If it were a child, it would be talking, walking, climbing into everything.” Later, “It has been almost three years since Rich’s accident. I bought this house, which is only twenty minutes from where he lives.” And near the end of the book, she writes of a chance conversation with someone she hasn’t seen since the accident: “How is your husband? she asks. ‘It’s been almost five years,’ I say, and I start to cry and can’t stop. Five years sounds so permanent.”
While the narrative moves in a more or less straight line in time, Thomas occasionally throws in what might seem like random bits of information such as “List of knitting 2002 to present.” And, in second person, “How to Break Up a Dogfight” and “How to Banish Melancholy.” These sections show us her life in ways that more standard narrative wouldn’t.
Right away she tells the reader, “There is no irony here, no room for guilt or second guessing. That would be a diversion, and indulgence. These are hard facts to be faced head-on.”
The other “Loss” writers have focused on grief, and Thomas touches on grief and also on anger. But in spite of her statement that there’s no room for guilt, and maybe because Rich is injured but alive, she gets to it, and I find the “guilt” sections some of the most interesting. She feels guilt for the event of the accident and for going on with life afterward.
She tells of befriending a woman named Crystal, whom she meets when Crystal and her children are standing in the rain asking for money outside a grocery store. As her relationship with Crystal progresses, and until Crystal has safely left town, she wonders what will become of her if Crystal asks for more than she can give.
I wonder for just long enough about the significance of Crystal’s story but then I understand that Thomas asks the same questions about what she can give to caring for Rich. She moves on to guilt:
“I am obsessed by guilt because I think mine’s gone, at least the all-purpose kind that makes you feel you are to blame for a bad dinner party at which you are only a guest, that toxic mist that can be activated by small offenses . . . . I burned out my receptors for that nonsense. I know what real guilt is.”
She continues, “And then one day I asked myself a terrible question. If I could make Rich’s accident never have happened, would I do it? Of course I would. Wouldn’t I? and instead of yes, I hesitated. But by posing the question I had assumed the power, and by hesitating I put myself behind the wheel of the car that struck my husband. You want to talk about guilt?”
She also feels guilty because she has reconstructed her life, even experiences happiness. “But, look at you, I still say to myself. How dare you. You built on this tragedy.”
But she looks up the word “acceptance” and finds the root “to grasp,” “from the old English for ‘a thread used in weaving,’ and bingo, that’s it. You can’t keep pulling out the thread. You have to weave it in and then you have to go on weaving.”
She “does” her marriage in a new way, giving and taking love and comfort as she and Rich can: “During the days when it is impossible to communicate in words, I get into his bed and we hold hands. Nap therapy. This is a familiar posture, something we can do without speech, without thinking.”
She repeats this scene: “Rich and I sit together, we hold hands; we are warm-blooded creatures in a quiet space, and that’s all the communication we need.”
She shares similar comfort with her dogs, all together in a double bed: “We are steeping ourselves, reassuring ourselves, renewing ourselves, three creatures of two species, finding comfort in the simple exchange of body warmth.”
Thomas “does” memoir honestly and in her own way, weaving her threads seemingly as they come to her. She nods to Montaigne, seeing his “Essays” on a shelf in Barnes and Noble while she sits on the floor changing her socks. She writes that she didn’t start writing until she was forty-seven (encouraging to me!), and that she struggled with all the questions of whether she was good enough.
She breaks through her own writing resistance one day, though, when she finally writes a story: “For the first time a story was more important than my ego, and the know-it-all voice that told me not to bother held no sway. That’s the voice I need to banish every morning.” I love the idea of a story being more important than my ego. It helps me banish the voices that tell me not to bother.