Trailing plastic tubes, Paul made his way across the room. I was struck by how the body looks like a sea creature, a jellyfish with long tentacles, a gelatinous animal full of hidden symmetries, lagoons, sewers, and spongy stringy bits; but mainly salt water.
He had been cleared to leave the following morning. ‘We escape at dawn!’ he stage-whispered.
The prospect made us both giddy. For three weeks he’d had a kidney infection that had waxed systemic, one of those staph bugs older than sharks or gingko trees.
I’d been on book tour when Paul was hospitalised, and so I curtailed my travels to fly straight home. The magic glory of the brain was still on my mind.
Every evening we watched the setting sun’s hallelujahs beyond the sealed window and ached to go home.
Then came the lightning strike.
Paul shuffled out of the bathroom and stood at the foot of the bed, eyes glazed, his face like fallen mud. His mouth drooped to the right and he looked asleep with eyes that gaped in alarm.
He moved his lips a little, making a sound between a buzz and a murmur. For a moment I thought he might have a mouthful of bees. Then my spine filled with ice.
Time and space rotating around us
A decade before, Paul had had a Transient Ischemic Attack, a brief stoppage of blood flow to the brain, igniting symptoms that often predict a stroke. I recognised the blurred speech and rigid face. Anything but that! I thought.
A doctor on duty rushed in, methodically brisk, shockingly calmer than I was.
‘Can you smile?’ he asked Paul.
He couldn’t. ‘Can you speak, tell me where you are?’ He couldn’t.
‘Can you raise your arms?’ He couldn’t.
Sirens started wailing inside me. I knew those quick questions for a stroke. Don’t leave me! I silently pleaded. Instead, time and space did, rotating around both of us.
Our life revolved around words
Tests revealed that he’d had a massive stroke. In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, who had one of the largest working vocabularies on earth, he had suffered immense damage to the key areas of his brain and he could no longer process language in any form. Global aphasia.
Where was the tutelary angel who’d descend at such times and restore the everydayness of things?
In an instant Paul had moved to a land of foreigners whose language he didn’t speak and who couldn’t understand him.
‘Hi,’ I said, trying to rally a smile.
He stared at me, his eyes declaring: What on earth are you driving at?
‘How are you?’ He struggled to respond, then spat out a little sound – whgggggggg – as if he were blowing out a candle.
He clenched his fists and shouted
‘MEM-MEM-MEM-MEM!’ I flinched.
‘I wish I could understand you,’ I said.
Paul looked at me with controlled exasperation. He eyes said, if only the right word would come, I could be saved.
Longing for a Prophecy
Was I getting used to his not speaking? I longed for a prophecy from the stroke specialist, a little certainty at a time of agitated doubt, fear and bewilderment.
I noticed how my own voice had changed, losing some of its sharp peaks and gaining firm new ridges. My phrases were smaller, slower, clumsy, not light and dancing. But I savoured the delicious warm touch-ribbons of silent affection uniting and comforting us, even when words failed.
Could I continue to woo life, despite abysmal sadness? How tempting to live in limbo and wait for my real life to return. But this was my real life now.
Life is a thing that mutates without warning.
‘All part of the adventure,’ I repeated like a mantra. At times it felt like a hoax, other times it became a balm of understanding to spread across a mind in misery. Like hope, or faith.
When I returned to the hospital I found Paul listless. ‘Die,’ he said. My spirits sank lower.
I warned the speech therapist in a whisper that he was feeling low and didn’t want to live. ‘Ready for speech therapy today?’ she asked anyway. He nodded a resigned yes.
She didn’t expect to see her patients recover; that wasn’t the nature of her work. She smiled the smile of someone wedded to the incomplete. Paul responded to her ease and expertise.
We had been warned that a window of opportunity would close three months after Paul’s stroke. What would life be without hoping that he may one day recover some lost skills.
One sunny morning in June I found Paul waiting for me, looking eager and excited, perched like a professional, despite his hospital gown. ‘I have a s-s-surprise,’ he spluttered with effort. Smiling proudly he straightened his shoulders, lifted his chin, then proclaimed, ‘I speak good coffee!’ I must say I was a bit bewildered. ‘Coffee?’
He nodded. ‘No,’ he said laughing. ‘I speak wonderful English. There’s a big difference,’ he said gingerly. Since the stroke I’d never seen him so hopeful so fluent. ‘You’re talking!’ We grabbed hands and squeezed hard.
A lightness beyond words
Before the stroke, swimming in the pool had offered him a lightness beyond or before words, a different kind of trance from the one in which he wrote in his star-crazed hours. He used to quip that the pool was more lucid than he was.
Climbing down the ladder, balancing in the water, treading water was welcome physiotherapy for his body. As the waves oscillated happily around him, he rested his tired eyes and mouth. Floating on pale blue surges, Paul found access to a mystical realm, an out-of-body weightlessness he blended with. I took heart in watching him smile, with inexpressible pleasure.
In the five years since Paul’s stroke he has re-loomed vibrant carpets of vocabulary. The pool is no longer the only place where he is happy. His creativity has returned. When a French journalist emailed him questions about his novel The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, he could answer them.
Living with Paul is like living with a koan, taught by Buddhist sages. One has to shed logic, bend reason, to interpret.
From One Hundred Names for Love, © 2012 by Diane Ackerman, published by WW Norton.