We attended a gathering of church friends the other evening, and one of the couples in attendance was an older lady who has been going through various stages of cancer treatments for the past four or five years. She’s not doing well right now – is very weak and unsteady, using a walker (although I think a wheelchair is not far off). Her voice is weak and thready, nothing like the booming tenor she used to corral her junior high school music students for over 30 years. Her husband, a slender, quiet man, is her faithful caregiver, always at her side ready to catch her if she (literally) falls.
Watching them together the other evening, and thinking about numerous other people I know right now who are chronically and/or seriously ill, I was thinking about ease with which we take that marriage vow – “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” We make that promise of course hoping against hope that we won’t be too sorely tested, that the sickness will never be much more than a garden variety ailment, and not something severe or long lasting.
I came home from that gathering and took up my book, Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names For Love, which is a memoir of the time she spent caring for her husband, writer and poet Paul West, who suffered a major stroke which destroyed the language centers in his brain. Can you imagine a worse fate for a writer/poet? To lose all sense of what words mean and how to use them? It must have been a living hell.
Ackerman writes with honesty about the struggles they shared, about her own frustration and confusion which at times rivaled that of her husband. I’m only about half way through the book, but I know it has a happy ending, and that he does recover his linguistic abilities, largely because of some very innovative therapy activities she creates for him.
You see, she knows him so well, and they have such a close and intense relationship as writers, not just as husband and wife, that she is able to divine the kind of therapy he needs to help him regain his use of language once again.
You can see for yourself right here: