“Out of the blue, Paul reported feeling bouts of calm euphoria, a mystical sense of all’s-right-with-his-life-and-the-universe, a bright future in sight. ... I knew well the state of vigorous calm he meant, a frequent visitor throughout my own life. [p. 290]”
• Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing
As a psychologist and author known for helping tortured couples deepen their love, I am easily saturated by books about coupling. But some years ago an erudite book list pointed me to Paul West, a masterful author married to poet and nonfiction author Diane Ackerman. Paul had written a slightly fictionalized tribute to his wife long before Diane recently took her turn to tell her version of their love story. In this most literary of couples, each extols the other’s virtues in rhapsodic and lyrical language. The books are literary baklava: sweet and rich word pastries about their “decades-long duet." Paul’s book recounts, “We would sit. . . .sometimes marveling that we had met and actually gone ahead, advancing from circumspect reconnoiter to a wordless clinch that said it all.“ They took active measures to keep love burning, decreeing Sundays “house days,“ never to be used for any purpose but each other. And Diane recounts receiving daily morning odes of love, “a little hand-scrawled love note awaiting me, a gung-ho welcome to the world again after a nighttime away. . . . A new note appeared almost every day for decades.” Like dual piano virtuosos pulling every tone from passive ivory keys, Paul and Diane bid entry into the internal world of successfully married love. Taken as a set, the books are courageous, self disclosing guides to what marriage actually is.
Their luck changed when, in 2003, West suffered a stroke that blighted his understanding and production of the spoken and written word. A jail sentence, this illness devastated his identity, his ability, and his self respect. “Taking words from Paul was like emptying his toy chest, rendering him a deadbeat, switching his identity, severing his umbilical to loved ones and stealing his manna,” Diane says. West was left with only one nonword, “Mem.” Diane, many years younger, became Paul’s caretaker. Aggressively designing treatment to return his speech and writing ability, she force-fed him a knowledgeable, powerful potion of speech and neurological calisthenics which actually did revive bombed neural pathways. Diane describes in a 2009 book, One Hundred Names for Love, so named because “Once upon a time, in the Land of Before, Paul had so many pet names for me I was a one-woman zoo.” Names blighted from memory, excruciatingly slowly, Diane rehabilitated Paul’s capacity to snuggle in bed with her and reinvent new names. As part of his healing, Paul invented 100 fanciful names including “Avatar of Bright April, Mistress of Wonderment, My Little Bucket of Hair.” Over a five year span, her 20 hour per week therapy worked. Triumphantly, but wistfully, she summarizes their marriage after Paul’s rehabilitation, “This is what we have made of a diminished thing. A bell with a crack in it may not ring as clearly, but it can ring as sweetly.”
As I read Paul’s, then Diane’s book, I understood that declining functioning towards the end of life can actually create a model of love more powerful than the Disney version. Life teaches us to hold tight to one another. Love offers all that is human and good when all else fails.
But what terrifies us about losing partnered loving? As hard as it is to endure the eccentricities of another person, why bother? The answer is unflinchingly clear: To love is the greatest human need. By finding someone we deeply love, we learn what it means to be human. As Paul summarizes, ”We got accustomed to each other’s oddities and became almost intoxicated with them: Love me, love my club foot, my tic, my shimmy. It was as naked as that”
Do yourself a favor. Please consider your good fortune if the crabby, often self-serving partner of your life is in good health. And do consider what you would do if you could no longer take this constant for granted. Having lost my first life’s love to cancer at age 49 in 1991, I stumbled on my very own John Wayne, as I am fond of calling him. John Anderson sauntered into my life to stay 'til death do us part. Is it worth all the work required of me to forge life and love with this sometimes cantankerous, bigger than life genius? Indeed.
To consider: Please do read first Paul’s book, then Diane’s. Ask yourself, “Who brings me the love that lets me know I am human?” And, if you are alone now, how can I change myself to find a soul buddy?