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Shambhala Sun | July 2011
You'll find this article on page 60 of the magazine.

A Bell With a Crack in It

It may not ring as clearly, but it can ring as sweetly. DIANE ACKERMAN on her husband's stroke and the language of healing.

It’s been more than five years since my husband Paul’s stroke, which left him “globally aphasic” (unable to process language in any form). But thanks to hard work, love, and the brain’s gift for rewiring itself, he has re-loomed vibrant carpets of vocabulary and his speaking continues to improve. Last week, he started regularly making puns again, for the first time since his stroke.

“Those dollar bills look battered,” he said, watching me assemble change for a foray to the farmers’ market, then added with a smirk: “Battered and fried!”

Paul and I no longer worry about his “getting better,” no longer regard aphasia as a process of recovery with stages. We unwrap one day at a time, treating it as a star-spangled gift. He often wakes up too early, finds me and says: “Come and cuddle.” Then I’ll crawl back into bed, enjoying the special radiant warmth of the already-occupied nest, slipping deep between the womb-like folds of the comforter, and we’ll curl tight, linking our breaths. He’ll call me his little scaramouche (a rascal or scamp), and we’ll recall past times together, easy and hard spells, and some of the fun things we’ve done.

Nonetheless, there are times when his mind seems so different that I barely recognize him. As when he finishes breakfast and wipes his plate with balled-up Kleenex, round and round, and then places it on the draining board, insisting it is now “clean.” I explain yet again that dishes need to be washed after a meal, but he just doesn’t believe it. To his eye they look clean, even when clotted with egg, and I regularly find dirty plates on the draining board, ready to be reused.

And sometimes the illogic really worries me, like when he asked if he could catch the flu by talking on the phone with a sick friend, because “the breath goes in one end and comes out the other.”

And yet, and yet, the old spouse I know still inhabits his being. I often see him clearly through the storefront window of his face, his thoughts rapping to come out, and I hear him speaking in old familiar ways, crafting a new piropo with Whitmanesque flare, such as “O Parakeet of the Lissome Star.”

Fortunately, despite his left-hemisphere stroke (which too often results in severe depression, anger, or both), and a near-death pneumonia of ten months ago, he seems altogether happier than before, living more in the moment, grateful to be alive. Our life is different, but sweet, often devolving into hilarious charades as Paul—like a lepidopterist with a handful of oysters—tries to pin a word down. Such funny word combinations can spill from an aphasic’s mouth! So our days together still include many frustrations, but once again revolve around much laughter and revelry with words.

“The thing you put in the kitchen is void,” he told me yesterday, and it was only when we went there and looked out the window that I understood he was trying to say: “The bird feeder in the kitchen courtyard is empty.” The finches were looking for their breakfast.

One recent afternoon, I mumbled with a yawn: “Why am I feeling so sleepy today?”

He replied with utmost sincerity: “Perhaps your mental encyclopedia has been requisitioned by a higher force.”

Those were the words his brain had found to say: Maybe you’re worn out from having to concentrate so hard on looking after me. I pictured the encyclopedia in my head and a big hand reaching in to grab a bunch of volumes.

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