Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Book of the month

A Three Dog Life a memoir by Abigail Thomas/2006

The author quotes Wikipedia for the phrase, Three Dog Night.
Australian Aborigines slept with their dogs for warmth on cold nights, the coldest being a "three dog night."

Sometimes when a book is over, I sigh; sometimes I smile. When I finished this book, I said, "wow" right out loud. That doesn't happen very often, if indeed it has ever happened.

This is a book of essays written by a woman whose husband has been hit by a car, and suffered extensive brain damage. He can still talk. He still knows her. But he lives right now. There is no past, there is no future.

We envisioned an old age on a front porch somewhere, each other's comfort, companions for life. But life takes twists and turns. There is good luck and bad.

"Good things happen slowly," said a doctor in the ICU months ago, "and bad things happen fast."

Her husband, Rich, says truly amazing things. It makes one marvel at the brain, and all we don't understand. He misses out on the "normal" world, but has a knowledge that is unavailable to us. He has a way of phrasing his thoughts that is remarkable.

One day he doesn't smile when she comes to see him. She asks what is wrong:

"We're divorced," he said, as if I were an imbecile. "We're married, Rich," I told him. "We've been married fourteen years. You're my husband," I said, touching his arm, "I'm your wife." He looked at me coldly. "Transparent windowlike words." He doesn't believe in his brain injury, so he has come up with an explanation for my absence: I have left him. "I'm alone," he says, waving his arm down the hall. "Hundreds of single beds," he says, "hundreds of single beds with old men lying in them with their boots on."

"You squeezed all those colors from fruit," Rich observed the other day. I was knitting a scarf out of red and purple wool.

She writes of her dogs:

But my dogs make me laugh, and they comfort me, and I'm never bored with them. When Rosie's head lies on my shoulder, Harry crams himself into my left side, and Carolina curls up like something folded by a Chinese laundry, impossibly small and neat, I am perfectly happy. We are the peaceable kingdom on a double bed. This is what it must have been like before the apple, when everything had a name but there wasn't so much discussion. I once asked my eldest daughter, Sarah, the mother of five, what it was about dogs that made loving them so easy. "They don't talk," she said.

The author devotes an essay to a kind of psychic quality to her husband's life now. There's the story about her friend who gets a Doberman puppy and brings it over to her place where all the dogs run around together.

I remember thinking how Rich would have hated the chaos. The phone rang. It was a nurse from the facility where Rich was living telling me my husband wouldn't come out of his room. He was certain Dobermans were outside his door, waiting to attack him.

Her husband knew nothing of the puppy in their apartment.

Another time, she and a friend were in Mexico. She called her husband, hollering into the receiver, intent on making him hear me, willing him not to let the phone slide away from his ear. I was staring at a tile on the counter as I shouted, "Rich? Rich? Can you hear me?"
"Hello," he said, somewhat cautiously.
"How are you?" I shouted, my eyes still drilling into the terra-cotta square.
"Fine," he answered.
"What have you been doing?" I shouted. There was a pause.
"We made some tiles today," he said.
When I got back I checked. I even talked to the person in charge of art and recreation. Nobody had made tiles, not that week, not ever

Another example of the wonder of his words:

Rich and I don't make conversation; we exchange tidbits, how well we've slept, what was for breakfast. We are stripped down to our most basic selves, no static, no irony, no nuance. Once in a while Rich says something that takes my breath away: "I feel like a tent that wants to be a kite, tugging at my stakes."

Abigail Thomas shares a truth that is so hard for all of us to grasp.

The future was also the place where the bad stuff waited in ambush. My children were embarking on their futures in fragile vessels, and I trembled. I wanted to remove obstacles, smooth their way, I wanted to change their childhoods. I needed to be right all the time, I wanted them to listen to me, learn from my mistakes, and save themselves a lot of grief. Well, now I know I can control my tongue, my temper, and my appetites, but that's it. I have no effect on weather, traffic, or luck. I can't make good things happen. I can't keep everybody safe. I can't influence the future and I can't fix up the past.

What a relief.

And I say, "what a book!"


  1. Nan, I love Abigail Thomas. I thought A THREE DOG LIFE was wonderful. After reading it I reread her earlier book SAFEKEEPING... it is also very very good..


  2. What a review! I have a gift certificate to Amazon that I plan to use to purchase this book. It sounds wonderful. I'll also look at the details for Safekeeping. Thanks for the excellent write-up, Nan.

  3. `This sounds like a beautiful book! I lauighed out loud at `I asked Sarah, the mother of five, what it was about dogs that made loving them so easy. "They don't talk," she said.


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