Gratitude and grief: Life after a brutal assault

Last updated 12:13 29/07/2013

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Thomas "TC" Maslin easily reads to himself the local newspaper or latest issue of the Economist.

Reading aloud a simple children's book is another story.

"Five little ducks went out one day. Over the hills and far away. The woman duck said quack, quack, quack," the Halifax, Nova Scotia man says.

Read it again, his instructor prompts. "The mother duck said quack, quack, quack," he reads this time.

TC's wife, Abby, beams. "Your quacking sound is awesome!"

He reads another sentence with no mistakes. "Oh my goodness," he exclaims, laughing.

TC's aphasia - his struggle to speak - resulted from a brutal assault in Washington's Capitol Hill neighbourhood last August. His intellect is largely intact. But his brain labours to command his mouth to say what he wants to say.

As the first anniversary of the attack approaches, TC, now 30, and his family are still putting their lives back together. Intensive speech therapy through a program in Canada is one way; he wants to read again to his 2-year-old son, Jack. He also wants to teach him soccer some day. He wants to return to work and provide for Jack and Abby.

TC and his family are also still absorbing how their lives will never be the same. He is no longer the man Abby married four years ago -  the handsome husband, the energetic runner and soccer player, the brilliant young policy analyst specialising in energy resources.

Eighty-eight people died of homicide in Washington last year, and TC Maslin was not one of them. But there is cruelty in survival, too. That is one brutal consequence of a random act of violence on August 12, 2012.

***
It was three days after their third wedding anniversary, and TC was walking home alone from an evening with friends. They had attended a Washington Nationals game and gathered afterward for drinks at Tune Inn, a Capitol Hill bar.

As he crossed a park near the Eastern Market building just after midnight, three men approached him and demanded money. He handed over his iPhone and bank card, but as he did so, one of the men came up from behind with an aluminum bat.

Tommy Branch, 23, of Fort Washington, Maryland, called the bat his "Barry Bonds," according to detectives. With a two-fisted grip, Branch wound up and swung so hard that TC's skull shattered, an optic nerve was severed and he was left with a dent across the left side of his head.

He was found eight hours later on a front porch a few blocks from home, unconscious and bleeding internally where pieces of his skull had sliced into his brain.

TC remained in a coma for several days. He underwent six surgeries. He was left blind in his left eye and lost some use of his right arm and leg; both are noticeably thinner than the left. He faces at least two more surgeries, including one to rebuild part of his collapsed skull.

Branch was found guilty of aggravated assault and robbery, and earlier this month, he was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison. Michael Moore, 19, of Landover, Maryland, pleaded guilty earlier this year. Sunny Kuti, 18, of Southeast Washington was acquitted of the assault but still faces a conspiracy charge.

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TC doesn't talk about the attack. He hasn't attended any of the court proceedings. He spends most of his time trying to recover.

"Red Sox," the instructor in the Canadian clinic says.

"Boston," TC replies.

"Yankees."

"New York."

"Dodgers."

"Los Angeles."

The exercise is the same each day, meant to work on both speech and memory. In this session, TC gets 10 cities right, up from five the week before. Abby Maslin is sitting at a desk in an adjacent room, watching through a mirrored window.

***
Abby is living through an entirely different recovery, a redefining of her identity. She is at turns nurse, cheerleader, driver, breadwinner, single parent - all new roles for her. She is no longer a fourth-grade teacher in the District of Columbia public schools. Some days, she mourns like a widow. Then there is the uncertainty of whether her life would have been harder - financially, physically, emotionally - had her husband died. She calls it her ambiguous grief.

"I can't truly grieve my husband because he is still alive," she wrote in an online essay. "But I'll never stop missing the man I married, the one who isn't coming back. It is an ambiguous, torturous grief that I struggle to articulate. How can I reconcile my mixed feelings of gratitude and grief as I rebuild my life in the presence of a living ghost?"

Abby launched a blog after the attack to keep friends and family informed about TC's progress, and as an outlet for the frustrations of her new life. She is also writing a book, Love You Hard. The title comes from something TC said to her in his hospital bed, a poignant sample of his search for words that she found beautiful anyway.

Abby's writings are fierce, at turns protective and despairing - a wide-open window into her mental state. The attack, she wrote on July 2, "catapulted us to the grayest of places: that space between life and death. If life is freedom and death is finality, we find ourselves stuck in that torturous place somewhere in the middle."

Adjustment to her new life is thwarted by vivid memories of the old one. They met in 2005 at a bar in St. Mary's County, Maryland, after which Abby told her parents, "I found the man I'm going to marry." She wanted a husband like her father - charismatic, well-read and intelligent. She wanted someone who could "hold his own" in conversations with "important" people.

TC, Abby says, was all those things. An economics and government science major who later earned his master's degree from Duke University, TC was an associate director for IHS, a global consulting firm. He was an avid reader and runner, a soccer player, a guitarist with a hip-hop band.

And he took care of her. Hours before the attack, he was helping decorate her classroom for the first day of school.

"Life was perfect," she says - and then, no more. "It was like we were running a race and halfway through the race, we were told to go back to the starting line."

***
Every day, every moment, Abby must ride the waves of her new life - and fight the grief, the anger, the hopelessness that wash over her. TC sometimes calls her his sister or aunt. Recently during a dinner conversation, he bragged about making homemade bread "from trash." He meant "from scratch." During their road trip to Halifax, as they listened to The Great Gatsby, Abby had to field TC's elementary questions about the plot.

"And I lost it. I mean, I really lost it," Abby wrote on her blog. "This man, my husband, he's literally the smartest man I've ever met. He learns things quicker than anyone could hope to. I married him, in part, because I wanted to be with someone quicker, sharper, and more worldly than myself. I never, in a hundred million years, imagined myself explaining to him the plot of a book I know he's read before. It is the cruelest of mean jokes. It is a knife in the heart that keeps cutting at us both."

Altogether, they have amassed more than US$1 million in medical bills. Plans are on hold to have a second child after Jack turned 2.

Abby started smoking after the attack, and she dropped 10 pounds from her 5-foot-3-inch frame. She has constant neck, back and shoulder pain. Long hours sitting in hospital rooms transformed her into a ferocious coffee drinker. Just 30 herself, Abby feels twice her age.

TC grows frustrated sometimes, too. "You, you always seem mad," he once said to Abby, according to her blog. Another time, he observed: "It's so har-hard to know that I'll never be exactly the same. Even if I work as hard as I can for 30 years, I will never be like I was before. But I'm hoping I can go back to work and take care of my son. Even if it's only 80 percent. That's enough."

At a recent dinner, Abby talked about how she often observes waiters or grocery store clerks and ponders whether TC might take a job like that someday.

The revelation made TC angry. "Don, don't do that. Don't do that," he said. "What they do is fine for them, but if it takes me 20 to 30 years, I will return to what I do."

Abby shrinks slightly. "I'm sorry, babe," she says.

Mostly, though, TC is upbeat - and driven to improve.

***
TC's instructors in Canada attributed much of his success there to that attitude. Abby found the US$18,000 program after scouring the Internet for services that could help him and deciding this one was the best. Together, they spent five weeks there this spring, leaving Jack with TC's mum and stepfather. TC is finishing up another five-week session now.

For six hours a day, five days a week, he endures intense speech classes. When he wants to say a word, he stops, writes it down and reads it out loud. Or he recites the alphabet to find the first letter of the word he is searching for.

He is more jovial and playful than he used to be. At first, Abby worried that it would make it hard for him to re-enter the workforce. Now, she loves his new playfulness. She's also not so focused on whether he will work; in the fall, after a year taking care of TC, she will return to teaching. TC, still on medical disability from his job, will stay home and take care of Jack and their spaniel, Spencer.

TC was Jack's primary caregiver while Abby was in graduate school, but through all the months in the hospital, Jack became more attached to his mom. Both parents expect TC's bond with his son to strengthen again now that he'll be home all the time.

Jack is a driving part of TC's motivation. "My parents got, what's the word, di-di-divorced, when I was 10," he said. "For me, it's about being there for Jack. I want to be the father to Jack that my father wasn't, or couldn't be."

For Abby, acceptance is the goal.

"At the end of the day, don't you just want somebody who can come home and be the best dad ever?" she says, her eyes filling with tears. "It's that internal drive. Which I've always been attracted to and which I always trusted in. I'm realising some of the other things were very superficial."

Or, as TC says: "I'm alive. For God's sake. That's good."

- Washington Post

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