A sudden brain injury turned Cynthia Lim’s husband into a different person, but the power of her love endured
By Stephanie Case
“When you marry somebody, how much do they have to change for you to stop loving them?”
Cynthia Lim sits on a couch in her Mar Vista home, voicing a question that crossed her mind years ago, when a tragedy dramatically altered her marriage as she knew it.
On a summer night in 2003, Lim was winding down in a hotel bed, reading a book next to her sleeping spouse, Perry, when his heart stopped beating.
There was a 911 call. Paramedics rushed in, performed CPR. They shocked his chest with defibrillators and rushed him out on a gurney.
For 10 days, Perry lingered in a coma. The man that eventually awoke looked like the one Cynthia married, with his thick moustache and wide smile. But his brain was permanently injured, his speech garbled, and his short-term memory all but gone.
“It was so frightening,” Lim remembered of her early days in the hospital. “This person that you know and love emerges, and you’re like, ‘Who is this man?’”
In her new memoir “Wherever You Are,” to be released at an event at Diesel Books this Sunday, Lim tells the story of how she learned to love the man that emerged — and how she garnered the strength to brave the new, more complicated future that awaited them both.
“When this happened to me, I was looking for a book like this,” she said. “I wanted to know, what happens to families? What happens to spouses?”
Lim searched for memoirs written by other husbands and wives. All she found were books of miraculous recoveries and happily ever afters, or tales of celebrity brain injury survivors with seemingly unlimited financial and medical resources.
It all seemed so removed from her experience — one of health insurance headaches, cleaning up from her husband’s incontinence accidents in airport bathrooms, wheelchair-inaccessible city streets, careless comments from neurologists that her husband was a lost cause — small things that made her feel like she wasn’t “part of the regular world.”
A few years after the heart attack, Lim decided to write the book she’d been looking for.
“People keep saying, ‘It must have been cathartic to write this book,’ but it wasn’t,” says the first-time author, who spent years workshopping her story with a tight-knit group of writers. “It was really painful, because I had to go back and read those journal entries at that moment of shock and relive them in order to write them on the page.”
In spite of the pain, Lim doesn’t hold back, unflinchingly putting her darkest moments — the sheer panic of her first days in the hospital, her deepest kernels of guilt and sadness — on paper.
“I felt like a widow, but he wasn’t dead,” she writes of a particularly low day, when Perry’s mind felt miles away. “I was mourning the loss of someone who was still alive, albeit in a different form. This was an entirely different type of grief.”
In his three months at a rehabilitation hospital, Perry was lucid one day, hazy and confused the next — at random times pulling off his pants with a “crazy, wild stare in his eyes.”
Over time, Lim and other caregivers helped him gain better control of his mind.
“His speech therapist used to say, everything is still there, they’re just stored in different file cabinets,” Lim said. “It’s just trying to find the right key to that cabinet to open it.”
In her search for those keys, Lim would stumble upon surprises (Perry shouting out “Sarah Palin” as the answer to a crossword puzzle clue) and hit dead ends (Perry annually drawing a blank when asked the meaning of Aug. 15 — their wedding anniversary), but she remained by his side nevertheless.
“I think that caregiving is the ultimate expression of love, right?” Lim said. “You see people and they go, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ or ‘I don’t know if I would do it.’ But I think, ‘You know what, you would.’ If you truly love that person and that thing happens, it’s very natural that you would take care of them. That’s what I’ve learned through this whole thing. It was a chore at times, but it’s the person you love.”
It was only through the writing of the book that she realized how much she’d grown while caregiving, operating from a place of fear to a place of courage.
“I went from this moment of shock — ‘What do I do now?’ — to really coming to this acceptance of, ‘This is what my life is now. How am I going to make the most of it?”
Through “Wherever You Are,” Lim details the rollercoaster ride of her love story across 228 pages. But there’s one final piece of the tale that didn’t make the book, save for a brief postscript at the end: Perry’s death.
Lim tells me that his passing, this April was “sudden and unexpected” — something she won’t be able to put pen to paper about for some time.
“I’m journaling about what that experience has been like, being without him, but I haven’t been able to turn that into any kind of story,” she said. “It’s too raw and too soon.”
In the years to come, Lim might circle back to tell the story of Perry’s passing and of the next chapter of her life. But her most immediate challenge is her book party at Diesel, where she’ll unveil a story so close to her heart for the public to consume, and all without her husband by her side.
It’s another test of Lim’s resilience — a moment where, like the other challenges she’s faced, she could choose fear or courage, grief or love.
“It’s just the opening up and being so honest [that’s scary],” she admits. “But I don’t know how to write any other way. I couldn’t tell this story any other way.”
The publication party for “Wherever You Are: A Memoir of Love, Marriage and Brain Injury” is at 3 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 16) at DIESEL, A Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Cynthia Lim is discussing the memoir and will sign copies for purchase.