“One minute, you’re complaining that the zinc-based sunscreen you’re supposed to wear in the Caribbean goes on like Elmer’s Glue. The next, you’re Googling paralysis.”
That's what Judy Goldman writes about the moment when she’s called back to the exam room where her husband Henry has gone for a quick shot for his back ache. It’s an epidural, just like the medication routinely given to pregnant women in labor. The Goldmans are hopeful that after this brief doctor visit, Henry will soon be jogging and playing tennis again without pain.
Behind the exam room door, Judy discovers those few seconds with the syringe have left her husband paralyzed from the waist down. The doctor is panicking. And her marriage will never be the same.
Judy Goldman published Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap about 13 years after that fateful appointment, but the story she tells is so searing that she could be describing events from yesterday. This is a 250-page book that is suitable to snack on, with chapters that meditate on the couple’s love story, punctuated by the tale of how they ground their way through a major medical disaster. It’s also a page-turner, and I sailed urgently through my first reading because I had to know: what’s the prognosis—for both Henry and the marriage?
A long and realistic road
One gets the sense that Henry and his bride also wished they could skip the pages of the unknown and hostile territory they were traversing to find out how it ends. No such luck. It takes them years.
Along the way, they cope with multiple caregivers who promise to help and then ghost on them, lecherous nursing staff, and an indifferent healthcare bureaucracy. Judy, who had previously adopted a demure, wifely self-image to complement her provider husband, discovers new sides to her spirit: her “hospital personality,” as Henry puts it. Within the intimacy of marriage, Henry has gotten to know an uglier Judy than anyone else in the world, but also the most lovely version of his wife. Their medical team experiences both her sweet and demanding sides, too. “Marriage. And trauma. They both have a way of introducing us to our most extreme selves,” she writes.
As I read Judy and Henry’s story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 2016 movie Me Before You, which was based on the best-selling novel of the same title. In the film, a woman, Lou, is hired as a companion for Will, a formerly vibrant young man who has recently become quadriplegic. Lou discovers her patient is planning to commit suicide at a Swiss euthanasia clinic and sets out to show him life is still worth living. The two fall in love and experience genuine joy, not to mention luxurious vacations, together.
Spoiler alert: Will decides he still wants to die, lest Lou have a “half life” with him instead of the “full life” she might have with an able-bodied partner. Initially she refuses to cooperate, but eventually goes to Switzerland to be with Will in his last moments. In the final scene, Lou smilingly reads a letter in which she learns her late love has given her a well-stuffed bank account as a parting gift.
Me Before You was widely panned, not least for its distorted message about the value of disabled lives. But the most striking characteristic of the plot is its firm commitment to the “happily ever after” model of storytelling. It’s a fairy tale with no use for a wounded prince, so it discards him. The Cinderella of the story still gets a romantic ending—the camera pans as Lou, surrounded by couples, strolls by the Eiffel Tower—but she’s alone.
That scene sharply contrasts with the partnership the reader witnesses in Together. Judy and Henry suffer alongside each other, and their suffering makes them indispensable to each other. That becomes clearest of all at the hardest moments, like when two years after the accident, the couple has to explain to a malpractice attorney that they still can’t have sex.
Most of all, Together is not a syrupy hymn to marriage. Judy does not gift-wrap the ending and stick a bow on it. In fact, she admits that the hardest time in her marriage, the only time when she and Henry have struggled to be happy with each other, is the present, as they are growing older. Why? The role reversal has knocked their settled identities off-kilter. Judy sheepishly confesses to a temptation toward resentment: “Maybe I’m just really angry with Henry for threatening to fail physically ... As though his medical condition is a betrayal. He was supposed to be the strong one. I counted on that. Was it all just a bait and switch? … Good. She’s mine. Now I can just crumble.” She’s also honest enough to ask, “Did Henry ever feel the same frustration—when he was the one we both depended on?”
Still, it doesn’t spoil the plot to share that the fate of their relationship is never really in doubt. Near the end, Judy paints a scene any woman who has slept beside a beloved spouse will recognize. Henry pulls the comforter up and wraps one arm around Judy. She folds up, curls into him, and feels his breath on her face. He’s asleep. Not so, his wife. “I’m not sleeping. Which is fine. Happiness is keeping me awake,” Judy writes.
No, in this true story, there is nothing half-lived life about the life these two have together.