Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book review: Writer’s memoir of husband’s stroke meticulous,‭ ‬moving

One Hundred Names for Love:‭ ‬A Stroke,‭ ‬a Marriage,‭ ‬and the Language of Healing,‭ ‬by Diane Ackerman‭; ‬Norton‭; ‬322‭ ‬pp.‭; ‬$26.95

By Bill Williams

When a blood clot lodges in the brain,‭ ‬patients may lose their ability to speak or write,‭ ‬a devastating setback for anyone,‭ ‬but particularly so for an author.

Husband-and-wife authors Diane Ackerman and Paul West‭ ‬had devoted their lives to words until that awful day in‭ ‬2003‭ ‬when West suffered a stroke that left him devoid of language,‭ ‬an outcome known as aphasia.

One Hundred Names for Love is Ackerman’s affecting account of the long,‭ ‬ongoing recovery process and its crushing impact on their lives.

The book can be read on three levels‭ ‬--‭ ‬a tender love story,‭ ‬a meticulous examination of aphasia,‭ ‬and the latest example of Ackerman’s gorgeous writing.

Ackerman and West met in the early‭ ‬1970s at Penn State University,‭ ‬where he was a professor and she was a student,‭ ‬18‭ ‬years younger than him.‭ ‬They enjoyed parallel literary careers,‭ ‬he as a fiction writer and she as the non-fiction author of widely admired books such as‭ ‬A Natural History of the Senses.

After his stroke West,‭ ‬in effect,‭ ‬became a child again,‭ ‬having lost the ability to speak or perform everyday tasks,‭ ‬such as shaving,‭ ‬combing his hair or brushing his teeth.‭ ‬He couldn’t read,‭ ‬tell time or drink water without choking.‭ ‬His case was particularly severe because he could neither speak nor understand what people said to him.‭ ‬All he could mutter was‭ “‬mem,‭” ‬and he would shout‭ “‬mem,‭ ‬mem,‭ ‬mem‭” ‬as a curse when no one could figure out his meaning.‭ ‬Ackerman dutifully records the glacial,‭ ‬frustrating process of helping her husband rebuild his vocabulary one word at a time.

She candidly admits to becoming‭ “‬impatient and resentful‭” ‬over assuming the roles of teacher,‭ ‬nurse,‭ ‬attendant and caregiver,‭ ‬which cut into her own writing time.

Taking away West’s speech was,‭ ‬in Ackerman’s words,‭ “‬like emptying his toy chest,‭ ‬rendering him a deadbeat,‭ ‬switching his identity,‭ ‬severing his umbilical cord to loved ones.‭ …”

She describes tender scenes of the couple cuddling in bed and spending evenings making‭ “‬soulful monkey baby sounds of pure emotion‭ … ‬and laughing at how silly we could still be together,‭ ‬words or no.‭”

Ackerman summarizes what science knows about how the brain handles speech and memory,‭ ‬as she sets out to learn everything she can about aphasia.‭ ‬She learns that Ralph Waldo Emerson,‭ ‬William Carlos Williams and Samuel Johnson also suffered from aphasia.‭

Doctors had predicted that West would never write again,‭ ‬and were astonished when,‭ ‬with help,‭ ‬he gradually relearned the alphabet and began writing short stories and even books of fiction,‭ ‬although it became clear he would not regain his full pre-stroke language ability.‭ ‬He still cannot use a computer or typewriter and has trouble reading his own handwriting.

Years after his stroke,‭ “‬wrong words still veered through his speech like errant comets.‭” ‬When Ackerman says she does not understand,‭ ‬he repeats a stream of nonsense,‭ ‬knowing what he wants to say,‭ ‬but unable to‭ “‬harpoon the right words.

The book’s title comes from West’s endearing habit of showering Ackerman with scores of names such as‭ ‬Celestial Elf,‭ ‬My Little Spice Owl,‭ ‬Romantic Little Dew-Sipper.

Several years into her husband’s rehabilitation,‭ ‬Ackerman has learned to live in the moment without worrying about the future.‭ “‬We unwrap one day a time,‭ ‬treating it as a star-spangled gift,‭” ‬she writes.

I have two minor reservations about this otherwise memorable book.‭ ‬The descriptions of West’s determined struggle to talk become repetitious,‭ ‬and the book is filled with more science than general readers might want or need.

Yet‭ ‬One Hundred Names for Love should prove inspirational for anyone who has a family member suffering from aphasia,‭ ‬as it demonstrates that even when the prognosis is bleak,‭ ‬remarkable progress is possible by swamping the patient‭ “‬with language all day long.‭”

Ackerman ends with a heartfelt reflection on impermanence.‭ “‬When Paul is gone,‭” ‬she writes,‭ “‬the trees and sky will still be beautiful,‭ ‬I will still be poignantly aware of life’s transience,‭ ‬and how lucky I am to be alive on this planet in space.‭ ‬It’s all part of the adventure.‭ ‬I will still cherish being alive,‭ ‬even though I will miss him fiercely.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬oddly enough,‭ ‬I will probably look back on these days as some of the happiest of my life,‭ ‬despite all the worries,‭ ‬frights and impediments,‭ ‬because I loved heartily and felt equally loved in return.‭”

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for‭ ‬The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at‭ ‬

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