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Using language of love to start healing journey

For 35 years, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman and novelist Paul West shared a life dedicated to words - their marriage has been an ornate cosmos teeming with verses, puns, rhymes, limericks, and entire epic poems about their love.

The cover of Diane Ackerman's memoir on the aftermath of a stroke her husband, Paul West, suffered.
The cover of Diane Ackerman's memoir on the aftermath of a stroke her husband, Paul West, suffered.Read more

For 35 years, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman and novelist Paul West shared a life dedicated to words - their marriage has been an ornate cosmos teeming with verses, puns, rhymes, limericks, and entire epic poems about their love.

Theirs was a cacophonous, if oddly harmonious, creative life - between them they have published more than 70 books.

But their world came apart in 2003, when West, then 75, had a massive stroke.

Ackerman recalls that horrific event, its aftermath, and West's remarkable recovery in her new memoir, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (W. W. Norton, $26.95), which she will discuss Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library.

"We've been sentimental sweethearts who pledge our love in words as lifelong authors and word mavens," says Ackerman, 62, of Detroit, one of the stops on her book tour.

"We both had been obsessed with words since we were little and we each earned a living by tinkering with words for hours at a time. So our household was drenched in words."

The words disappeared from West's lips in the aftermath of his stroke, which left him with global aphasia, a double-whammy of a condition that rendered him unable either to understand words - or any other written or verbal symbol - or to express himself.

The British-born West, whose books include The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, Lord Byron's Doctor, and The Secret Lives of Words, was left able to speak only one syllable: mem.

"He was luckier than [Charles] Baudelaire," says Ackerman of the 19th-century French poet who suffered from aphasia. "The only thing he could say was 'God damn,' and he was being looked after by nuns!"

Ackerman says one of the things she missed the most was West's habit of showering her with pet names. He had hundreds - a virtual zoo of pet names, says Ackerman, including "Swan," "Paprika Cheeks," and "Bush-kitten."

She adds, "and of course one of the cutest things was that Paul would make up songs about me every day."

They were "kind of operettas" about domestic life in their Upstate New York home.

In one, he sang, "She has a lovely little smile, / dark brown eyes like chocolate drops, / into which I plunnnge/, and Cliffs of Dover whiteness to her teeth, / above and beneeeath."

In a very palpable way, aphasia seemed to erase West's identity, his very selfhood, says Ackerman.

"The first time that I walked into his hospital room after the stroke, I saw somebody who looks like Paul . . . but he was an unfamiliar person," she says. "I thought it was the end of our world." Ackerman worried if West would even remember his own books - or the shared love story.

The couple's history goes back to the early 1970s, when Ackerman, who is 18 years younger than West, took one of his literature courses at Pennsylvania State University.

West cut a dashing figure: He was a man of action, having flown planes for the Royal Air Force, and a scholar, having distinguished himself at Oxford University with a rare "first" degree.

"On our first real date, we had drinks at his house, talking non-stop until dawn," Ackerman writes in One Hundred Names, "and I stayed for 40 years."

Ackerman, whose love of poetry has always been matched by a passionate interest in science, went on to tailor an eclectic, interdisciplinary course of study, which included poetry and physics at Cornell University, earning two master's degrees and a doctorate. (The famed scientist Carl Sagan was on her dissertation committee.)

Ackerman, whose books include A Natural History of the Senses and A Natural History of Love, is deeply committed to the belief that science and art are not irreconcilable.

"I've never felt that the universe was noble from just one perspective," Ackerman says. "Life isn't as divided as that. . . . I take the universe literally as one verse and I don't make the distinction between amino acid on the one side and roses on the other."

Her science background made Ackerman uniquely qualified to understand her husband's condition, especially since, in what she calls a "chilling" coincidence, she had written a book about the science of the brain (An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain) shortly before West had his stroke.

"So I knew in chilling detail what had happened," she says. "I was really the luckiest and the most unfortunate person to have a spouse who had a stroke because I knew that in those moments, neurons have been damaged irretrievably."

Most disturbing was Ackerman's realization that her husband was fully aware of his condition. Aphasia, she says, does not hamper people's ability to think or reason, only to communicate with others. The condition traps them in a prison of silence, she says.

"Aphasia is not a loss of language, it's a retrieval problem, it's a sorting problem," she says. "The words crowd one another and very often the wrong words are the only words that the mouth can utter."

Ackerman says that after doctors and speech therapists told her West would never fully recover, she decided to create her own therapeutic regimen.

It had one guiding idea or philosophy - the power of play.

Crisis or no crisis, stroke or no stroke, Ackerman says, "people who are playful can stay playful no matter what. They just find different ways to play."

So she decided to surround her husband with words and games about words. She tailored word games, jumbles, and other exercises around his particular interests.

One exercise played off West's penchant for giving his wife pet names.

"He was starting to regain a handful of words. But he felt so sad that he couldn't remember any of his pet names for me," says Ackerman.

So she asked him to compose one new pet name a day for 100 days - and without feeling constrained by grammatical rules.

The pet names, which include, "Blithe Sickness of Araby," "Golden Little Dreamer," "Dark-eyed Junco, My little Bunko," are listed at the back of Ackerman's book.

"I love them," she says. "I still do, and he continues to make them up."

In what sounds like an absurdly difficult assignment, Ackerman also asked her husband to write a memoir of his illness. He began by haltingly dictating certain memories. Two years later, he was writing the book, Shadow Factory, in longhand.

West has since published it - as well as three new novels and dozens of essays.

Ackerman coped with the stress of being her husband's caregiver by writing one of her most successful books, The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, which tells the true-life story of how a Polish couple helped shelter Jews during World War II in the Warsaw Zoo.

"It was a great story of salvation for me," Ackerman says, "because it was something that I could lose myself in . . . this very uplifting story of a caregiver responsible for so many more lives than I was."

Ackerman says she hopes her book will help other caregivers. Most of all, she thinks of it "as a crazy love story of two very playful, romantic - OK, really eccentric - people."

Paul West will never be the same man. "Aphasia still plagues him with its merry dances," says Ackerman.

But the couple have been able to resume their love affair with each other and with words.