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After brutal attack that took a chunk of his skull, D.C. couple rebuilds their marriage

After brutal attack that took a chunk of his skull, D.C. couple rebuilds their marriage

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WASHINGTON — On the day everything changed, Abigail Maslin sat on the front stoop of a Capitol Hill apartment building, watching her 21-month-old son play in the small yard while she dialed 911.

Her husband Thomas, who goes by "TC," had gone to the Nationals game the night before and hadn't come home.

As she waited for the police, Abby's mind raced. Was he on a friend's couch? In another woman's arms? No. She knew her husband. TC was so devoted to Abby and their son, Jack, that he had considered skipping the ballgame because he didn't want to leave them for the evening.

On a stranger's porch, several blocks away, TC had spent the night clinging to life. He had been walking home when three young men accosted him. They took his wallet and phone, and one of them cracked him in the head with a baseball bat. TC had stumbled to the porch, collapsed, and lay there for eight hours. If he hadn't been spotted by a pedestrian, he might have been lying there for hours more.

The next time Abby saw her husband, he was in a hospital bed, in a coma, with a chunk of his skull missing.

At the time, the 30-year-old could not conceive of all she had already lost. She and TC were young parents, three years married, with a clear vision of themselves, each other, the life they wanted to build together.

Now, the man Abby fell in love with was gone, though his heart was still beating. When her husband finally woke up, he couldn't speak or walk. Even after relearning those skills, he wouldn't be the same.

And neither would she.

During the past six and a half years, the Maslins have not recovered so much as transformed. TC's health journey is one part of the story, but when the attacker swung at his head that night in August 2012, he struck Abby, too. The blow shattered her sense of safety, her belief in life's benevolence, her carefree and spontaneous way of walking through the world. She assumed the roles of full-time caregiver to her husband and single mom to their son, and prayed her overachieving husband would someday utter complete sentences that once again made sense to her.

She composed sentences of her own — first in a blog, then a book — trying to make sense of it all. Gradually, she came to accept, in waves of realization that first alarmed and then amazed her, that she was very different from the woman who sat on the stoop that morning.

* * *

Horrible things happen every day in Washington. Murders, muggings, sexual assaults. And yet TC Maslin's case managed to capture the attention of the city.

Maybe it's because his attackers remained at large for weeks. Or because TC, Abby and Jack were such a picture-perfect family. He, the athletic, ambitious husband. She, the pretty, schoolteacher wife. Their adorable child.

Or perhaps, Abby offers, "it's because he didn't die."

If TC had been murdered, he would have been a statistic, and she would have been a grieving widow faced with a loss that was hard to bear but easy to understand. But he had survived, and that made things more complicated.

"There's this place between life and death that is in some ways a bigger battle than death," she says. "And that's where we were."

In the weeks after the attack, Abby, who taught at a Capitol Hill elementary school, started writing a blog to update friends and neighbors about TC's condition. She continued posting in the years that followed, as their situation and lives and relationship evolved. This month she published "Love You Hard: A Memoir of Marriage, Brain Injury and Reinventing Love." The book is a wrenching account of the agony of those first days — and then those first years, when Abby feared she might never fall in love with her "new husband."

The man she had married was always on top of things. TC grew up poor and fatherless in West Virginia. But he had grit and ambition, and he was smart. By the time Jack was born, TC was an energy analyst with a graduate degree, a master plan and an overwhelming urge to give his son everything his childhood lacked. "If there's a dirty dish or an unmade bed or an electric bill somewhere waiting to be paid," Abby wrote of their early years together, "TC is on the job before I can blink."

His competence, she admits, allowed her to become "quite lazy," secure in the knowledge that TC would take care of everything for both of them.

Until he couldn't. When TC was released from the hospital, three months after the attack, he had roughly the same level of self-sufficiency as their 2-year-old.

It was up to Abby to navigate the twin mazes of health-care bills and therapy schedules, to keep their family fed and solvent, to figure out where to live and how to help her husband regain his capacities and the buried memories of his former life.

It also fell to her to process the meaning of the attack itself. It was Abby who testified in court against the three men who were eventually charged. They were 21, 18 and 17 at the time. As a teacher, she wondered about their lives — what had put them on a collision course with her family — and whether someone, somewhere along the line, could have diverted them.

Again and again, the person she most wanted to turn to for advice was TC. But he couldn't tell her what to do. In those early months, he couldn't even tell her who he was.

"Ah, la wha? Me?" he replied when she asked him his name. "I sometime gadda, I learned, how do, ooh ya, or sometimes I sing. Ya."

* * *

It's February, six and a half years later. TC Maslin is sitting in a coffee shop in Dupont Circle. The words come more easily now, though the questions are harder. They're not about his name, but about who he is, and was.

Sometimes he pauses in the middle of a sentence, searching for the word he wants to use. His memory of life before the attack is still sketchy.

"It's like you have your house and you know where all the items are there," he says. "And then you have an earthquake and everything's sort of scattered. So all the memories are there, I know. But it's very hard for me to, first of all, find them. And then it's hard to verbalize them."

He remembers nothing of the attack — "I wonder if my mind is, on purpose, trying to not remember any of that" — but can recall the low points after, in the hospital, trapped in a body he couldn't control. The worst part, he says, was not being able to see his son, who wasn't allowed to visit the intensive care unit.

"I was like, 'Where is he? Where am I?' " TC recalls. "My primary driver to get better was that my own father was absent for most of my life."

TC is, by all measures, dramatically better. The coffee shop is near his office. He's back at his old job, working as an energy analyst, just as he was before the attack.

He is by no means fully recovered, and probably never will be. The challenges of day-to-day living have redirected his ambition.He says he's less "career focused," less occupied with "long-term planning." He's regained some of his athleticism: He ran a half marathon last fall, and he's thinking of attempting a full marathon this year. At the same time, he has very little feeling on the right side of his body and does almost everything with his left hand. He walks with a slight limpand will remind Abby every once in a while that he lives in chronic pain.

Abby has learned to acknowledge her own pain. The second half of "Love You Hard" charts not just TC's recovery, but Abby's, as she battled depression and struggled to adjust to the jarring reality of her new life and marriage. At her lowest point, six months after the attack, she stood in her parents' kitchen while her family slept and wrote a note to 2-year-old Jack that read, "I'm sorry I couldn't be stronger for you."

Then she opened a bottle of OxyContin and poured a potentially lethal dose out in front of her.

In that moment, she wrote, "I long for the old TC with more desperation than I've ever felt. I want him to rip me from this moment; I want him to be rattled with my pain. I want to shake him until the brain-injured person inside disappears and the man who once loved me reveals himself again."

And then, things changed again. Not in an instant, like the knockout blow that had left their lives in pieces, but over time, as they figured out how to put those pieces back together in a different order.

In the new version of their marriage, their roles are swapped. "He sees it better than I do, which is so interesting," Abby says. "He's like, 'You are so much more ambitious and so much more clearheaded and driven and intentional than you were before."

She almost gave up on the book. "I don't know if I can give you a happy ending," Abby remembers telling her book agent. But on the other side of despair, she found words that reflected something heavier, and sturdier, than adoration.

"What binds us now is different," Abby wrote. "This love is not sexy, or romantic, or lighthearted. This love is steel: made of loyalty, respect, solidarity, friendship."

It was an ending she could live with. In fact, it felt like a beginning.

* * *

It's a Wednesday night in the Maslin home and the family turtle, Forest, has inched perilously close to the edge of the dining table.

"Jack," Abby calls, "you need to come get your turtle."

"Remember, Jack, you're his dad," TC adds. "I wouldn't just leave you on the table, would I?"

Their new life is superimposed on their old one. After two years in Southern Maryland, staying near family, the Maslins moved back to Capitol Hill, less than a mile from their former place. Abby teaches at the same school, Brent Elementary, where Jack is now in the second grade.

The biggest difference in their lives is asking for a second helping of pasta and trying to wriggle out of her booster seat.

Two and a half years ago, Abby gave birth to a fiery little girl named Rosalie.

Rosie, as she's called, is a primary source of chaos in the Maslin home these days. She's also a sign of renewal in Abby and TC's marriage — a choice they made, together.

"Nobody can say for certain that they're going to be around to take great care of their kids," Abby says. "It is all a gamble. What I do know is that we're really good parents and that our family's not done."

Their life today resembles that of any other busy young family on the Hill, a reality that feels both mundane and miraculous.

"It's just the normal challenge of getting through the day and getting everybody to where they need to be," Abby says. "Making sure everybody gets their lunch - those kind of normal problems that I used to just pray for."

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