One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir, p.1Diane Ackerman
ALSO BY DIANE ACKERMAN
The Zookeeper’s Wife
An Alchemy of Mind
I Praise My Destroyer
A Slender Thread
The Rarest of the Rare
The Moon by Whale Light
A Natural History of the Senses
A Natural History of Love
Jaguar of Sweet Laughter
On Extended Wings
Twilight of the Tenderfoot
Wife of Light
The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral
Monk Seal Hideaway
Bats: Shadows in the Night
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
NEW YORK LONDON
The One Hundred Names
About the Author
Reading Group Guide
TRAILING PLASTIC TUBES, PAUL MADE HIS WAY ACROSS THE room, steeped in twilight, and I was struck by how the body sometimes looks like the sea creature it is, a jellyfish with long tentacles, not really a fish at all but a gelatinous animal full of hidden symmetries, as well as lagoons and sewers, and lots of spongy and stringy bits. But mainly salt water. Lugging tubes and cables, he had joined the hospital’s bloom of deep-sea creatures. But all that would soon change because he’d been cleared to leave the following morning, though he’d still be taking potent antibiotics.
“We escape at dawn!” he stage-whispered over his shoulder in a British sergeant-major voice. The prospect made us both a little giddy.
For three weeks, he’d languished in this high-tech cove, with a kidney infection that had waxed systemic, one of those staph bugs older than sharks or ginkgo trees, and I’d camped out with him lest he trip over the leashes dripping fluids into or out of him.
I’d been on book tour for An Alchemy of Mind when I learned Paul had to be hospitalized, and curtailed my travels to fly straight home. But the magic and glory of the brain was still very much on my mind, so, lounging in a visitor’s chair, propped up on pillows, I passed the time browsing back issues of Cerebrum and Brain in the News. From my thermos, I poured us cups of the hot grain drink Roma, which smelled of chicory and graham crackers.
After all, we’d been down this wharf before, too many times. Twenty years earlier, when he was only fifty-five years old, Paul had battled a devastating heart arrhythmia that nearly killed him. After months of my sensing that something wasn’t quite right—the jazz I heard in his chest when we curled up in bed; how pale and clammy he sometimes grew, especially after meals—I’d finally convinced him to see a doctor by insisting it was the only thing I wanted for Christmas, the gift of being able to set my mind at ease. A friend had recommended a superb and kind cardiologist in a nearby city, whose verdict was that Paul needed a pacemaker to chime in whenever his heart paused too long between beats. Otherwise he might suddenly pass out, maybe for good, just as his father had from the same malady in his seventies. For Paul, that meant a weeklong hospital stay in Syracuse, the first of many such trysts, and Paul lamenting, broken-spirited: “I used to be such a lion.”
When he woke up, after a four-hour surgery during which his heart had twice spat out a pacemaker wire, cleverly insinuated down veins and lodged in the heart muscle, I’d greeted him with my best hundred-watt smile, and holding a stuffed lion.
Ever since that day, we’d driven the hour-and-a-half over wintry, dimly lit roads for checkups, pacemaker tests, and echocardiograms, always anxious, then relieved, and sometimes edgy again, living a predictably uncertain life, much like the “regular irregularity” of his arrhythmic heart.
Other medical escapades followed, like the time when routine lab work revealed a blood sugar level of 800 (normal is around 100), signaling diabetes, and a new regimen began of blood-sugar tests, a special diet, and three more pills. Or when Paul’s blood pressure kept soaring, and we had to drive that glassy road to Syracuse again and again, to monitor and reblend his cocktail of medicines. Or the days he fretted in the hospital in Ithaca, receiving IV antibiotics for cellulitis, an infection of his body tissue that began innocently, at a small scratch on his toe, but quickly launched a dangerous campaign up his foot and leg.
This time, a systemic infection was scary enough, but not as harrowing as what we’d been through before. Since the hospital was likely to be our home for a few weeks, we had settled in as best we could. I provided a pantry of canned goods and snacks on a corner table, scented soap and favorite comb in the bathroom, cozy slippers, my knitting, and a library of books along the windowsill. Paul adapted in his own inimitable way: he grew so bored that he wrote a complete sonnet cycle about the Egyptian god Osiris.
The past three weeks had been alternately calamitous and withering, as Paul battled the staph infection and also kidney stones that had to be shattered with laser strikes, and I’d felt picked over by the gulls of worry. The inescapable din of shifts changing, trolleys rattling, visitors streaming, and machines pinging had played havoc with my peace of mind. At least I’d been able to come and go, while Paul felt bedfast and caged almost to the point of frenzy. Every evening we watched the setting sun’s hallelujahs beyond the sealed window and ached to go home. I looked forward to our being alone together again and at ease, among native routines, with hour upon hour of unfailing quiet.
THEN THE LIGHTNING strike. Paul shuffled out of the bathroom and stood at the foot of the bed, eyes glazed, his face like fallen mud. His mouth drooped to the right, and he looked asleep with open eyes that gaped at me in alarm.
He moved his lips a little, making a sound between a buzz and a murmur. For a moment I had the odd thought he might have a mouthful of bees. Then my spine filled with ice, and I felt as if the floor dropped twenty feet. A decade before Paul had had a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), a brief stoppage of blood flow to the brain, igniting strokelike symptoms that pass, but o
“Are you having a stroke?” I finally found the words to ask. But he didn’t need to answer. I could feel my head shrinking tighter, as I leapt to my feet and frantically guided him into my chair. Then I grew suddenly numb and thought: This can’t be happening! Stay calm! Figure out what to do! Maybe it’s just another TIA, like last time—a nightmare, but not the end!
I ran for help, sighted a nurse, and blurted out: “I think my husband’s having a stroke!” And together we rushed back to the room, down quaking corridors, and found Paul sitting like a stone pharaoh—hands in his lap, expressionless, staring straight ahead.
“Please get a doctor, get a doctor!” I pleaded. “If it’s a stroke and he needs to be given tPA, there isn’t much time!” I knew of tPA, the miracle clot-busting drug that can sometimes reverse a stroke if it’s given during the first three hours. TPA—the letters sounded like a dead ringer for abracadabra.
She paged a doctor, and began asking Paul questions I didn’t hear, taking his blood pressure, temperature, and pulse matter-of-factly, as if nothing mind-bending were happening, nothing like the detonation of a virtuoso brain, nothing like the collapse of our whole world. His blood pressure was high, and he couldn’t grip with his right hand. Too slow, too slow! I thought.
Still time, still time, I kept telling myself, with an eye on the clock. I hugged Paul tight, as if I could staunch some wound, and tried to reassure him. But it sounded false as I said it. How could I comfort him when he was colliding at speed with himself? All I could do was hold him, even if he didn’t respond. Sitting limp and hollow-eyed, he seemed to be in another solar system. Suddenly he looked at me, full of wordless horror, and I knew he knew what was happening.
A doctor on duty rushed in, methodically brisk, checked the vitals on the clipboard, and seemed shockingly calmer than I was, a member of another species.
“Can you smile?” he asked Paul.
“Can you speak to me, tell me where you are?”
“Can you raise your arms?”
“Look at this pen,” the doctor said, moving it slowly from left to right across his line of sight. “Can you follow it with your eyes?”
Sirens started wailing inside me. I knew those four quick diagnostic tests for stroke, and Paul had flunked.
Don’t leave me, I silently pleaded. Instead time and space did, rotating around both of us, and I felt tippy, as if I were on shipboard in a bow-cracking storm. The bed’s stainless steel began frying sparks, the walls curved into a bowl, and the nurse’s voice scratched like an old-fashioned Victrola needle.
As for Paul, he later told me that he’d felt assaulted by things bright and metallic, a twitch in every fiber of his being, bouncing pulses, weird ringing in his ears. There were odder phenomena too, from a shaking sound in his head to a noise like crumbled tea leaves from somewhere in his lumbar region. Also a belfry of quiet tinkling that roamed around his head. As his world tried to right itself between earth and heaven, he felt the presence of a wispy halo, making him wonder if he’d become one of the elect. Whenever the belfry sounds decreased for a slim moment it drove him mad with delight. The dark night of the merry-go-round flashed through his mind. In his mouth, a taste balsamic and crude, which he fixed upon with all the rapture of a man touching a toothache in the night.
His fingers, partially deprived of sensation, felt waxlike, dull, opaque, brutalized, and wouldn’t respond. His whole body defied touch, as his flesh converted to something stiffer. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation, just different. He felt somewhere, without thinking the words: What’s happening? I’m alive. Sort of. A British policeman’s stern baritone demanded: What’s all this here?
Then the unfamiliar doctor asked me a streak of questions, and suddenly coming back from a great distance, in a shaky voice I described the events and tried to fill him in on Paul’s medical history as quickly as possible. He wrote cryptic notes on a chart in a slow loopy scrawl, the pen scraping like a quill across my jangled nerves. But there was no way he could assimilate all that was happening to this one particular soul—a heart patient he’d never met before, a brilliantly strange mind, let alone my sweetheart and life’s companion.
What were Paul’s eyes fixed upon with that blank stare? I had the distinct sense that he wasn’t seeing at all, at least nothing in the outside world, but down the wrong end of a telescope, peering at the red and yellow shambles behind his eyes.
Tearfully brittle, my world still spinning, I left Paul with the doctor and rushed into the hallway, where, talking into the tiny perforations of my cell phone, I delivered the news to Dr. Ann, our beloved M.D. and friend. Dr. Ann is one of the last old-time family doctors, who visits her patients in the hospital every day, and often becomes part of their extended family. Her voice sharply focused yet intimately sad, she explained that since Paul was on Coumadin, an anticoagulant for his heart, he couldn’t take tPA. I’d also heard of clinical trials using vampire-bat saliva after a stroke, and Paul would have loved the idea of medical rescue by vampire bats. But Coumadin would put the vampire-bat saliva off-limits, too. For him, there was no silver bullet. She assured me that it was still too early to know if the symptoms would be permanent. Meanwhile, she promised to muster a team of specialists and order a battery of tests.
An hour later, out of Paul’s earshot, a neurologist holding a CAT scan told me a tale of a tragedy whose likely outcome I heard but tried not to imagine, as if by not picturing it I could magically prevent it. The films in his hand showed a ravaged brain: Paul had a small wasteland in the left middle frontal gyrus (a gyrus is a bump or a ridge); dead zones in the right and left parietal lobes; swaths of weakened brain cells elsewhere. While my eyes trusted the images, my mind fled to the edges of the hall and tried to slide under the paint, shell-shocked, desperately fending off the news. Silently, I screamed, No, no, no, no, no, no no!, hoping somehow to parry reason. It was no use. The images weren’t a diagnosis, but I grasped their implications well enough to half extinguish hope. What worried me the most was the damage in Paul’s left hemisphere to the key language areas and the fibers connecting them: a withering nightmare.
For Paul, the wordsmith I loved, the most likely culprit was a large clot infused with bacteria from his kidney infection. Shaken loose by his irregular heartbeat, it had traveled to his brain and lodged in his middle cerebral artery, stopping the river of blood that supplies nourishment to a vast terrain of hills and ridges. I found myself imagining the havoc nonetheless, though I had to limn it in my mind’s eye, and pretend it was a rural landscape at a distance, not human, not intimate. At exactly the same time, with wincing clarity, I knew the truth. In nonretractable moments, whole networks of neurons had died, a lifetime’s verbal skills, knacks, memories.
What had vanished? RAF days on the Isle of Man, when he and his pals had flown to London for lunch, and kept mum about Prince Philip’s night flights to visit a bevy of girlfriends? Our Floridian sojourns? The model airplanes of his boyhood, with which he single-handedly won the war? Would he remember his own books? His sister? Our history?
WE HAD FALLEN IN LOVE AT PENN STATE, IN THE EARLY 1970s, when I was a flower-child undergraduate and he a professor with yards of education, wavy brown hair, and a classy English accent. Somehow, though just a sophomore, I’d signed up for his graduate Contemporary British Literature course. There I perched in a back corner, surrounded by the familiar last-row smells of sweaty overcoats, chalky erasers, smoky-caramel leather-bounds, musty old paperbacks and cloth-bounds redolent with mildew and book lice, tart newly inked fare, more acidic editions printed on European papers. A few students had deckl
Some said we had absolutely nothing in common. Paul and I came from distinctly different cultures, generations, and ethnic backgrounds. We flew to different nations when we dreamt—mine were anxiously American, his were a fabulist’s rural England. American culture was the backdrop I grew up with, but because Paul discovered it as an adult, he never took its oddities (such as eating corn on the cob) for granted. Eighteen years older than I, he grew up in an English village during WWII, listened to swing music, and had memories of being bombed. I was a baby boomer, steeped in Beatles-era rock ’n’ roll. My father owned a McDonald’s. When it came to literary style, we both preferred the opulent to the sparse. We prized books brimming with poetic descriptions, offbeat characters, and picturesque ideas. But our taste in other things varied. He relished bold and flamboyant designs; I preferred the intricate, ambiguous, delicate.
Paul patrolled the darker recesses of the night—writing in a semi-trance, or watching tapes of cricket matches—until retreating to slumber at last at 5 or 6 a.m. Songbirds migrate at night, and in my imagination I twinned his restlessness with their lunar flights. I, on the other hand, was bewitched by daylight. I woke at dawn and greeted him with a gentle tag, you’re it hand slap before he climbed into bed. He always waited for me to wake before he went to sleep, so that he could kiss me good morning and good night. He called our relay “the Changing of the Guard,” and did a fair (if nakedly dangling) imitation of the Queen’s stiff-legged soldiers in tall black hats and red jackets marching in front of Buckingham Palace.
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