When I crossed the threshold into my husband's hospital room, I entered a world that was unfamiliar, with an unfamiliar man lying in it. He suffered a massive stroke only days before, one tailor-made to his own private hell. In the cruelest of twists for a novelist-professor obsessed with words, the stroke ravaged the language areas of his brain.
Although the man looked like Paul, my partner of 35 years, he wore a distorted scowl and seemed to unhinge his whole body in a vain attempt to speak, reeling upright, flexing his shoulders at odd angles and flailing his arms against the bed. Then he switched to just a facial tantrum — cheeks, eyelashes, jowls and nose writhing as he desperately fought to get something across. His mouth slouched to the right, his lip curled and for a moment all I could see was a glint of drool at the corner of his mouth.
"Hi, honey," I said, trying to rally a small smile from somewhere in the coal pits of my belly.
Paul stared at me, his eyes declaring: What on earth are you driving at?
Then he fidgeted about as if trying to muster all the aggregate parts of his being, but finding only a blurred view of what once moved in unison, he spluttered: "Mem." When I didn't respond, he brought down his fist on the bed railing, repeating it in loud italics: "Mem, mem, mem!"
"Easy now, easy, quiet down, it's O.K.," I said in what I hoped was a calming tone. But his flare-up shook me so much that I had trouble steadying my voice.
Paul would tell me later that he felt different from before, newly embedded in himself, as if trapped in statuary. His room seemed to be full of Hopi dancers and dazzling as Mardi Gras. He felt his teeth blink. Something pagan was going on, with a mad ring to it, like a disturbed vibraphone. People were speaking a foreign language. And they didn't seem aware of the pandemonium and cacophony he was enduring. Alice-in-Wonderland sensory warping is common after a stroke, as the damaged brain struggles to make sense of its surroundings.
When I tried to wrap an arm around him, he threw it off. "How are you?" I persisted.
He struggled to respond, then he spat a little sound — whgggggggg — as if he were blowing at a candle, followed by a parade of s's. On he wrestled, and the more words eluded him, the more frustrated he became, until his temper boiled and his jaw opened and closed in silent damnation. At last, he glared at me. Suddenly he clenched his fists and thrashed his arms as he shouted, "MEM-MEM-MEM-MEM-MEM!"
I flinched, and seeing that he'd scared me, he quieted down.
"I wish I could understand you," I said, more to myself than to Paul. And then I repeated, "How are you?" not meaning anything by the question except I'm here, I'm sharing your suffering, I wish I could help you.
Paul looked at me with controlled exasperation. All that came back from him was a croak, a silent cough and "MEM" barked seven times and finally murmured, like the last word from a dying man, as if this syllable alone formed the basis of some life to come.
Paul fell quiet. But the rest of our new habitat was noisy. Remote voices grew louder as they approached our room, striking a distinct sentence or two as they passed — "Wouldn't you think?" "I dunno" — before dwindling to sound scraps again. Low-heeled shoes shuffled past. Unseen trays and trolleys clanked through the hallway. Inside the room, purring machines and syncopated pings broke through that barely audible background stir we perceive as silence.
In time Paul left the hospital for what has been a six-year odyssey of relearning language on his part and caregiving on mine. Thanks to will and hard work, the brain's gift for plasticity and our homemade speech therapy, he's talking and writing again. Not perfectly; his days are still riddled with aphasia. Life is different, but sweet, often devolving into hilarious charades as he tries to pin a word down, like a lepidopterist with a handful of oysters. So there are many frustrations, but once again a shared revelry with words. And Paul seems altogether happier than before, living more in the moment, grateful to be alive.
We often remember with a shiver those early days in the hospital, when life felt small as a noose, and I thought it was the end of our long love story. I discovered instead that it was only the beginning of a new chapter.