Heart shape on medical monitor
Photo: Thinkstock
"How?" I cried as my husband lifted and carried me into the hospital bathroom, stopping to hoist my dead weight with his knee, my inert body rolling, unpredictable and clumsy as melons in a sack. Arms dangled helplessly from my sides, someone else's arms. For a moment, midhoist, someone else's fingertips grazed the linoleum floor. "How can you bear to see me this way?" I asked as Will cradled and wiped and washed my paralyzed being and hauled me back to the bed. "How can you stand it?"

He laid a cool hand on my forehead, hot from the rage of corticosteroids that were rushing through my bloodstream in an attempt to bring my engorged spinal cord down to functioning dimension. "Ellen," he answered. I closed my eyes in the dark and leaned against the sound of my own name.

"I was paralyzed when I met you," he said, placing each word faceup, like a card, "and you made me whole. You showed me that it was all right to be happy. So if I have to do this every day for the rest of my life, I'll do it gladly, because you made me see that I could."

I was paralyzed when I met you.

When I met you.

But I get ahead of myself. Begin at the middle.

By all accounts, it was a fine marriage. Not, perhaps, a googoo-gaga, chase-me sort of marriage, but a fine one. Over 12 years, the number of long, moist embraces in corners and ravaged, yearning looks at breakfast certainly waned, replaced instead with trips to Whole Foods and updates on work and sharp kicks under the table when Will forgot he wasn't supposed to mention the time the hostess, a fashion editor, had suffered a nervous breakdown and shown up to an important editorial meeting in her pajamas and slippers.

It was fine, though. We were fine. It is possible that we each sensed, in ways both acute and distant, that there might be something more out there, something thrilling and transforming. But the journey between out there and in here is formidable, and it can be difficult to navigate one's way between those two points. So we persevered, maybe without as much yearning and embracing and moistness, but we persevered with perseverance, stolid and forward facing.

How?

How can you stand it?

Begin closer to the beginning.

We were an unlikely couple and the likeliest couple on earth. William Betts Dana was a Connecticut-born Yankee with all the rules that this implies; Ellen Jean Tien was an overachieving daughter of Chinese immigrants, with all the breaking of rules that this entails. Will Dana struggled to communicate; Ellen Tien struggled not to. Will analyzed; Ellen intuited. He let things go; I clasped them close.

When he stumbled over words trying to convey how he felt, I laughed heartlessly at him and told him to stop communicating and intuiting—to get off my turf—and to just let go.