Rachel Michelberg is the author of “Crash: How I Became a Reluctant Caregiver.”
Rachel Michelberg is the author of “Crash: How I Became a Reluctant Caregiver.”

Memoir: Faced with a lifetime of caregiving after husband’s accident, she said no

Sixteen years ago, as she was sitting with her daughter watching TV, Rachel Michelberg received a phone call that would forever change her life. Her husband had been in an airplane crash.

Miraculously, both David and the pilot survived, but the impact of the small aircraft hitting the ground left David critically injured with shattered vertebrae, a badly damaged pancreas and severe brain damage.

He would never be the same. Nor would Rachel.

Her recently published memoir, “Crash: How I Became a Reluctant Caregiver,” details her struggles to try to be the “good wife” and face the idea of caring for her husband for the rest of their lives.

At the time of the crash, which happened almost 10 years into their marriage, the couple appeared to lead a nice suburban Jewish life. He worked at a small Silicon Valley startup and was popular with friends and co-workers. She worked as a cantorial soloist at area synagogues, tutored bar and bat mitzvah students and performed in local musicals. They were hooked into the South Bay Jewish community, and their children Joshie and Hannah, ages 6 and 7, attended Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos.

Among their jobs, synagogue friends, neighbors and family, the couple enjoyed an active social life in San Jose’s cozy Willow Glen neighborhood. In addition, Rachel had family nearby, and the couple kept close ties with David’s sister in Tel Aviv and brother in Munich, where David grew up.

But beneath the surface, there was discontent. Rachel was having an affair, which only compounded her guilt as she wrestled with the looming question: Could she be her husband’s caretaker?

The answer was no.

“I just knew it was something I couldn’t do, for myself or for my children,” she told J. recently.

Now 60 years old, remarried and living in Los Altos Hills, Rachel admits that “even today, I would have preferred to have been that person” — the caretaker. “But I just knew that I wasn’t that person.”

Ultimately, David’s sister, Dora, became “that person” in 2009, bringing him to live under her watchful eye in Tel Aviv.

Until that point, as David went in and out of hospitals, rehab and other care, Rachel endured one blow after another, including a severe bout of diverticulitis, an intestinal illness requiring her hospitalization; a persistent eating disorder; her daughter’s need for therapy; her son’s diagnosis of autism; a drawn-out lawsuit surrounding the plane crash; harassment by her ex-lover’s wife; and strong pressure from David’s family and friends to bring him back to their San Jose home to live with Rachel and their two children, despite her resistance.

It’s OK to consider other options when you are suddenly faced with a situation that you in your heart of hearts know you couldn’t handle.

It took 13 years from the time she started thinking about it until she brought her book to fruition.

“I never intended to be a writer,” said Rachel, who currently enjoys gardening, hiking, and teaching voice and piano students. But as a lifelong reader, she realized, “When this tragedy happened and this series of unfortunate events kept happening, I knew I had a story.” She took writing classes to hone her skills, and reached out to people who would populate her book. “I would pick their brains,” she said. “That really helped.”

She includes poignant entries from her children’s school journals and lifts snippets from the transcript of the trial against the manufacturer of David’s plane and its service provider. They, along with the pilot to a minor extent, were found at fault and damages were awarded.

At one point in the writing process, “I stopped cold,” she said. “But the book wouldn’t leave me alone.”

Another reason for the book’s long incubation: “Obviously, I’m writing about some very personal and uncomfortable issues, like the affair that I had,” she continued. “I did not want [my children] to find out about that til they were older.”

Writing “Crash” was both cathartic and difficult. “I wanted to be as honest and as accurate as I could be,” Rachel said.

She said her son, now 22, “loved” the book, but her daughter, almost 24, “is not able to read it yet.”

As for David, who is 61 and still lives in Tel Aviv, “he is very severely cognitively impaired. He doesn’t have any ability to filter or comprehend anything like this.”

Her target reader: “Women between 40 and 80 years old. Those are really the people who become caretakers.”

The essence  of her message? ”It’s OK to consider other options when you are suddenly faced with a situation that you in your heart of hearts know you couldn’t handle.”

“Crash” won the 2021 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the memoirs category for personal struggles and/or health issues.

Rachel felt it was crucial to bare herself, faults and all, including her affair. “It was where my mind was, where the relationship was at the time of the accident. I felt like I couldn’t write it without being that honest.

“I decided to take the risk. People will either think I’m brave and courageous, or they will be horrified.”

“Crash: How I Became a Reluctant Caregiver” by Rachel Michelberg (216 pages, She Writes Press)

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.