Design: Antonio Manaligod for Dose

The Month I Died: Hope Is A Woman

I woke up from a coma and fell in love with Hope.

Two years ago, comedian Dave Maher woke from a monthlong coma. This is his story, told in ten installments.

I’m a self-absorbed person. As a comedian and writer, I tell myself this comes with the territory. But even my own stories aren’t all about me. Some of them are about my mother, and one of the best is about a woman named Hope.

Hope is the female lead in the love story that grew out of my coma. That’s right: In addition to physical resurrection and the opportunity to read eulogies about myself, I also gained a love story with a woman named Hope. That is her real name. She was given that name at birth. I woke up from a coma and rediscovered Hope. Sometimes I think, Hey, Universe, you can chill with the symbolism. It just feels a little on the nose.

I met Hope in July 2014 at a fundraising party I hosted for a small theater company. The party started in the early afternoon, and in between introducing comedy and musical acts, I got very drunk. I developed a rapport with the bartender, a natural beauty with untamed, ash-brown hair, wide-open blue eyes and a warm, mischievous smile that revealed a slight gap in her front teeth. She was an actor in one of the company’s recent productions. I was feeling confident that summer, and I flirted with Hope as she poured me seven and seven after Jameson and ginger ale after whatever was left by night’s end.

I performed a set during a break in our conversation. Afterward, I asked her what she thought of it. I was talking loudly, and she said she didn’t want to talk over the current performer. When I asked again later, she said, “I think you’re a weird, funny man,” in an inscrutable way. She seemed unimpressed. I liked the challenge and started to swoon.

I spent my evening glued to the bar, patiently waiting to talk to her between drink orders. In my attempts to steer conversation toward judging people at the party (a favorite pastime of mine), I learned she was an acute observer with strong opinions, even if she didn’t lead with them, like I did.

At the end of the night, I thought it was charming of me to offer Hope help in carrying a full ice chest down a flight of stairs and emptying it on the lawn. I felt even smoother asking if she wanted to come to my place and get high afterward. She saw right through me, but she said yes.

We biked back to my place in the rain. From there, cue the “summer love” montage: In it, you’d see footage of us riding bikes and walking all over Chicago while talking about art, life and our futures. You’d see us drinking wine on the beach near Lake Michigan at night while huddled in each other’s arms. You’d see me smoking weed at every available moment, through which I’d ask you to fast-forward kindly. You’d see her at my comedy shows and me at a play she did in which every actor performed naked, with colors and shapes projected onto their bodies (you bet I got high for that). You’d see us spending the night together and, when our wakeup times didn’t sync, making each other’s beds and leaving joke-filled notes on the pillows.

She was engaging, intelligent and poetic. What struck me most, right away, was how comfortable I felt around her. I didn’t have to shave down my sharper edges to present myself to her. Even rarer and more confounding: I’d never met anyone with Hope’s depth who didn’t also have an edge to them, though I’d met plenty of people with too much edge and not enough depth. Hope was deep but not hard, bitter or angry. She felt things intensely without becoming callous.

Those two months were the longest I’ve dated someone without a “What is this?” talk.

In late September, we had not one but two “What is this?” talks. In the first, we agreed we liked our relationship casual. It was fun, and there was no need to change something that was working.

To my surprise, it stopped working for me after that. I realized I wanted to be exclusive. I brought this up in our second “What is this?” conversation, and Hope was confused. She didn’t understand how my feelings could change so drastically in a week.

My previous breakup was excruciating, in part because my ex and I had kept in contact after the relationship splintered. I knew I couldn’t just be friends with Hope after realizing I wanted a full-blown relationship with her. That threw her. She thought, if nothing else, our bond could be the foundation of a great friendship. She didn’t want to commit to a relationship, so we ended it.

She came to my apartment, and we cried about the future we were sacrificing. At one point, when her tears started fresh, she turned to me and said, “I just thought about what great parties we would host together.” My heart broke all over again.

After that, there was radio silence for a month, with only a few wistful texts sprinkled throughout. The next month, I was comatose.

Hope and I didn’t have many mutual friends before we met, so her connection to the circle of people monitoring my progress in the hospital was nearly nonexistent. The night my friends came to say goodbye before I was supposed to be taken off life support, she didn’t hear about it until the window of visitation had closed.

She was a wreck during that time. She barely ate, losing weight off her already slender frame. She slept on an air mattress at her friends’ house for several nights without returning home. She cried on the train out of nowhere. She started smoking cigarettes. Her feelings were deep, and because she isn’t callous, she could not scab them over. She didn’t feel entitled to the depth of her grief when she could only imagine what my family and the friends who’d known me for years were going through.

She wrote me daily emails near the end of my coma, and when I woke up, I read all of them. I found messages about her friends’ new cat and a terrible comedy roast she attended. She shared poems and quotes about art from theater books she was reading. She talked about how much she missed me and praised me for deep character attributes I’d be too self-loathing to claim for myself. In one, she wrote:

I posted on Facebook about my return from the dead on November 27, 2014, which was Thanksgiving. Hope sent me a text the next day.

She didn’t want to intrude. She wanted me to tell her what I wanted. I wanted to see her, so within the space of a few texts and without hearing my voice, with no idea of my condition and despite her distaste for driving, she booked a rental car to Cincinnati.

When she walked into my hospital room, I would have blushed if my body had allowed it. I was weak and exposed — literally, as my balls were hanging out of my hospital gown. She didn’t want to touch me right away, lest she’d hurt me, but I wasted no time hugging her, kissing her and making space in my bed for her to curl up beside me.

She visited for three days. Neither of us remembers much of what we talked about. We just spent time together. We laughed at the gifts she purchased for me at gas stations along her route. I went off to rehab appointments. She met my parents for the first time. I kept trying to get her to watch Bad Santa with me. She was up for it, but we still haven’t finished it.

We avoided another “What is this?” conversation until her last day. I had nothing to lose, and I knew I was certain when I told her, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I followed that with even more romantic words: “I want to be in an exclusive relationship. Do you want that, too?”

She paused a little too long for my comfort, then looked at me with big, wet eyes and said, “I do want that, but I’m scared. I don’t feel like I’ll be good at being in a relationship like that.”

“It doesn’t have to look any certain way,” I said. “It can look like whatever we want it to look like.”

That relieved her fear.

“But I don’t want you to sleep with other people,” I reiterated with a smile.

She laughed. “No, I just want you.”

When I returned to Chicago, we talked a lot about our experiences during and after the coma. I kept asking Hope why she hadn’t visited me in the hospital in Chicago before my transfer to Cincinnati. My family and friends were hesitant about me jumping into a relationship so shortly after a traumatic event, and the thought occurred to me, “If she wasn’t there for me during that, how do I know she’ll be there for me in the future?” I couldn’t see the situation from her perspective.

In fact, Hope had asked my friends if she could come to the hospital. She was told my family requested no visitors outside of relatives. She asked people to let her know if and when that changed, but she never heard differently. She even thought about just showing up, until she admitted to herself that doing so would allow her to be close to the thing she wanted. Respecting my family’s request was more important. It was precisely because she loved me so much that she refused to insert herself into my family’s pain at their most vulnerable time. She suffered her grief in solitude because she saw it as her least selfish option.

She is more than just a part of my story. She exists as a person outside of the narratives my fearful brain creates.

Hope and I live together now. A few months before we moved in together, we had a phone conversation that demonstrated the commitment I wanted from her. She explained her concern over a persistent rash she had, and I wanted to allay her fears. I drew on my extensive medical knowledge as a hospital patient and told her I was sure she was fine. She didn’t want sympathy, though. She wanted to investigate the cause and possible outcomes of the rash. She felt like I wasn’t listening to her, and we both got frustrated.

As a self-absorbed person, when I’m frustrated, my first instinct is to blow up my entire world. I began to act irrationally in a subconscious effort to get her to hang up on me. That would have been perfect fuel for my self-righteous anger. Without even realizing that’s what I was doing, she called me on it. “I’m not going to hang up on you,” she said. And she didn’t. She brought me back to the world outside myself and refused to hang up on me.