One morning more than five years ago, Diane Ackerman arrived in the high-tech cove of the local hospital to find her husband, the novelist Paul West, trailing so many tubes that he looked like a jellyfish. Fighting a systemic kidney infection, West had languished in the hospital bed for more than three weeks, but he brightened at Ackerman’s entrance. The couple playfully plotted his escape from the world of the sick and infirm and his return to their cozy world full of words and wonder at the marvels of nature in their rural New York home. Those bright hopes shattered when, after a long and arduous surgery, he suffered a stroke, losing all command of language, memory and muscular coordination—and needing her to nurse him back to wholeness.
Through her poignant memoir, One Hundred Names for Love, Ackerman guides us through the territory of anxiety and despair as she navigates the cartography of loss. As a poet and writer deeply in love with language, she feels viscerally the loss that her beloved must feel in the moments, days, months and even years after his stroke. After a couple of years, Ackerman feels as if she is becoming West’s coach, cheerleader, teammate, teacher, translator, best friend and wife all rolled into one. No one can play so many roles without burning out.
Yet in spite of her physical and mental fatigue, she lovingly continues to talk to, cajole and banter with West in the slow, demanding work of helping him to regain his use of language. A triumphant moment occurs when she asks him to make up some new pet names for her to replace the ones he has forgotten; almost immediately West calls her his “celandine hunter” and “swallow haven.” From those hours he begins to focus on his writing once again, recovering more steadily as he regains the ability to use language creatively rather than simply to name objects. Since his stroke, West has written his own memoir of the event (The Shadow Factory) along with essays and book reviews for publications like Harper’s.
Although Ackerman’s faith in West’s ability to regain language changed from moment to moment, her moving memoir captures her loving faith in the unerring power of words to heal her loved one’s broken soul and body.